Environmental bill coming due

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State, federal and tribal council assess damages

By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory faces a new and potentially costly environmental appraisal, this one to determine real damages and whether there are lost resources that must be recovered.

A Natural Resources Trustee Council this week delivered a first decision clearing the way for a formal Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) at the lab.

 “Releases of a wide variety of hazardous substances have occurred over a broad geographic area and over many decades of site operations,” the trustees concluded in the executive summary an initial survey. “Hazardous substances are known to have dispersed from or migrated off the LANL sites. Thus a range of technical and legal issues will need to be addressed in subsequent stages of the NRDA.”

 “The first stage was a preliminary screening analysis to determine if we should continue through this process,” said George Rael, environmental projects manager for the Los Alamos Site Office of the National Nuclear Security Administration in an interview Wednesday.

“There was enough information,” he said. “Do we need to move to the next phase? The answer is yes, we do.”

The council’s preliminary evaluation came to the conclusion that three minimal prerequisites had been met.

There was a reasonable probability for developing a successful claim for injuries and damages to natural resources caused by hazardous and other releases by the laboratory into the environment; there was evidence that a full assessment could be done at a reasonable; and, finally, the study would cost less than the damages that could be recovered.

Rebecca Neri Zagal, executive director of the New Mexico Office of Natural Resources Trustee, said Wednesday that the next steps have to do with conducting the assessment.

“The Department of Labor is both the responsible party and a trustee,” she said. “It has a dual role. Under a cooperative assessment process, they fund the assessment. They hire the contractor, but the trustee council directs the process as we go forward.”

Assessing natural resources damages is not the same as the clean-up process. The laboratory is currently undergoing a comprehensive cleanup program under a consent order with the New Mexico Environment Department.

“We don’t duplicate what they do,” Zegal said. “We try to coordinate with clean-up activities and benefit from the data they collect.”

The difference is in the effort to restore the resource.

“If you have a river and a hazardous substance is released into the river and kills all the biota in the river, it’s the responsibility of the environment department and sometimes the Environmental Protection Agency comes in and gets the hazardous material out,” she said. “It’s the responsibility of the National Resource Council to get the resources reestablished in the river.”

“In the long term, it’s as big a deal as the consent order,” said State Natural Resources Trustee Ron Curry, “As far as resource damage in our state, it’s at the top level.”

Curry said what made LANL so complicated is that it is not only an operational site and such a large site but it has the potential for collateral and indirect effects that extend to the Rio Grande and the drinking water of Santa Fe by way of the Buckman Diversion Project.

Curry is also the New Mexico Environment Secretary. He was appointed to replace Jim Baca as Natural Resource Trustee in December 2009.

Gov. Bill Richardson, a former Energy Secretary initiated the NRDA process in 2005 with a letter to Samuel Bodman who was energy secretary at that time. Curry has written to current Energy Secretary Steven Chu trying to dislodge the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), as an intermediary with other priorities in the environmental cleanup process.

The Natural Resource Council is made up of trustees representing the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, as well as the state of New Mexico and three neighboring pueblos. Under federal laws, including the Superfund Act, these entities can be designated trustees on behalf of the public to assess and recover damages for natural resource injuries.

The pre-assessment document was produced under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), which was designed to rehabilitate and repair injured natural resources. Unlike much of the focus on hazardous emissions at LANL, this process is not about human health issues.

Contaminated groundwater and surface water contamination from hazardous releases including emissions from radioactive contaminants from current and historic operations are among the damages documented in the study.

“We acknowledge that past lab activities have affected the environment,” said Don Winchell, in the press release announcing the preliminary findings. Winchell is NNSA’s site office manager for Los Alamos. “Today, we have hundreds of scientists engineers and professionals cleaning up our legacy waste and minimizing our waste going forward. This document is an important part of the process of mitigating any impacts,” he said.