Citizens get a crash course in history

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Meetings to discuss the history of environmental releases by the lab will be held Thursday

By Roger Snodgrass

The environmental uncertainties and risks related to the historic operations of Los Alamos National Laboratory is a subject that does not go away.

Citizens of Northern New Mexico who would like a crash course in the history of environmental releases from the lab might want to clear their calendars for Thursday.

What is known and what remains to be known will be the subject of a community-oriented event, continuing and wrapping up a conversation that has gone on for many years.

The Centers for Disease Control, which has sponsored the decade-long Los Alamos Historic Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA) project, will join the LAHDRA team to host a public meeting with a series of café-style discussions.

The event takes place from

9 a.m.-4 p.m. in the Ohkay Casino Hotel Conference Center, just north of Española.

Tom Widner, the principal investigator for the project said this week that a number of people had asked for another opportunity to understand the final report, which is now circulating in draft form.

“A lot of people thought the report was too technical,” he said. “So what we’re going to do is present a relatively brief summary of the key findings and some of the key elements we have received since our last meeting.”

Like the storage rooms of a large museum, the LAHDRA project has collected so much material, it is likely to be a primary source for many follow-up projects and exhibits. Since it began in 1999, the project has conducted interviews, followed tantalizing leads and scoured the available records at the laboratory, including more than 40,000 boxes of documents, reports and microfiche. This has not been an easy task at a top secret nuclear weapons laboratory.

The upcoming public session will feature an aspect that has not been incorporated in the earlier meetings. Several Native American groups who have lived near the laboratory will talk about the experience from a neighbor’s perspective, including how they feel they have been treated.

“The meetings will be moderated by two facilitators, one picked by the local community groups and one by the CDC,” Widner said.

In the afternoon there will be seven smaller discussion groups focusing on seven areas of particular interest to the public: plutonium, beryllium, the Trinity Test, tritium, uranium, chemicals and explosives testing.

“People will decide which ones to go to,” Widner said. “There will be two windows of time, for two subjects per person, each with a ten-minute summary in plain language to help people understand the subject better, and then a half-hour period to ask questions and learn better what we found.”

The last meeting was in June, but Widner said as people began looking at the report they began to feel that they were not well enough informed to offer comments.

“This is mainly an educational opportunity so more people can feel qualified to offer comments on the report and what they think should happen,” he said.

The question of what happens next is coming to a head.

Widner said he had a final discussion with CDC Thursday, to set the final date for the report, which is to be finished by the end of summer.

“I will propose August 1 as the date,” Widner said.

Since the last meeting, a peer review group has met and submitted individual comments on the study. A big remaining question is whether the project will continue and if so, on what level.

One possibility is what is known as a dose reconstruction, which is a very elaborate process for determining the risk of disease in a given area by estimating the exposure to a disease-producing agent like radiation.”

“There was a variety of opinion,” Widner said. “Nobody wants to jump in with a huge dose reconstruction study, but there was a restrained call for further work.”