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Environmental groups to weigh in on LANL groundwater permit

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By Tris DeRoma

A group concerned about industrial contaminants found in the regional aquifer getting into the region’s food supply wants to add more controls to a groundwater permit granted to the Los Alamos National Laboratory five years ago.

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The permit description was also “vague,” according to General Counsel for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center Charlie de Saillan.

De Sallian said the permit also allows LANL to spray water used in two of the laboratory’s remediation projects anywhere on the lab’s 38-square mile property.

The law center will present testimony today during a hearing held by the New Mexico Environment Department in an effort to prompt the department to tighten the controls on LANL’s groundwater discharge permit.

Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens of Nuclear Safety, said without the recommended controls, the contaminants could pose a threat to humans.

“The most dangerous pathway to chromium is through the inhalation pathway,” Arends said. “So our concern is the fact that they’re putting this water onto the roads or on the pathways, and the wind picks up that chromium. The plants can then pick it up, the animals, and then the humans.”

Arends also said scientific studies have shown that the form of chromium found in the aquifer has been known to stunt the growth of plants.

The hearing is not about permit approval, but giving an opportunity for environmental groups and others to try and get the NMED to add further controls to the permit.

LANL has held the discharge permit for about five years.

“Our primary focus is on the lack of adequate assessment that the laboratory, the DOE (Department of Energy) and its contractor have undertaken for this discharge permit and land application for contaminants,” de Saillan said.  “...Were going to have one witness, Erin English. She will be talking about the failure to conduct an assessment of the application of the chromium and the soil conditions where the chromium and other land contaminants are going to be applied.”
The permit allows the Los Alamos National Laboratory to spray water on the ground that is created through its ongoing remediation of two decades-old chemical spills on the property.

Chemicals from the spills, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency are known carcinogens harmful to humans, have seeped into the regional aquifer, part of which runs underneath the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The chemicals in question are RDX and chromium. RDX is a chemical that was used in the manufacture of high explosives at the laboratory at Tech Area 16.

De Saillan said the assessment should include calculations that include how much of the containments the lab is going to spray on the ground per day and per square foot.

“You want to look at how much water is going to be at that location you want to make sure those screening levels won’t be exceeded,” de Saillan said.  The only way to do that is through this mass balance calculation.”

The RDX contamination was found in the early 2000s, and monitoring wells have been drilled in the southwestern corner of the laboratory to get an extent of the contamination. Monitoring found RDX in the aquifer. A screen sample taken from a well two years ago showed a level of RDX in the aquifer two times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency standard of 7.02 parts per billion.

The chromium plume was found in 2006 in Mortandad Canyon. Since then, contractors for the lab have installed a series of wells around the plume, to both monitor and remediate the chromium which is 1.7 miles long, .7 miles wide and is slowly migrating toward Ildefonso Pueblo.

A drinking water well field owned by the county three miles away from the RDX contamination have indicated that no RDX is in the supply, according to the county utilities department and lab officials.

Those wells are tested four times a year by the county, and the lab also tests them frequently, according to laboratory and county officials. There is also chromium in the county’s drinking supply, at levels of 4-6 parts per billion. The federal exceedance standard is 100 parts per billion, and the state standard is 50 parts per billion.

The hearing was a result of the efforts by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

NMED’s Katy Dougherty-Diffendorfer said the group will fully participate in the hearing.

“NMED will fully participate in the public hearing on Wednesday (and continuing on into Thursday if needed). NMED will present evidence that the discharge permit, DP-1793, as drafted fully complies with all applicable laws, and is protective of human health and the environment. If there any recommendations made at the hearing that would strengthen the permit, the hearing officer will consider those in her report to the Secretary, and the Secretary will ultimately decide whether to approve the permit as currently drafted, to approve it with additional conditions, or to deny it,” Dougherty-Diffendorfer said.

“On behalf of CCW (Communities for Clean Water) our office appealed the environment department’s decision to the Water Quality Control Commission, The Water Quality Control Commission ultimately upheld the environment department’s determination not to have a public hearing,” NM Environmental Law Center Executive Director Douglas Meiklejohn said. “At the end of December of last year, a three-judge panel from the state court of appeals overruled the environment department secretary and the water quality control commission and said you have to hold a public hearing.”

The hearing will be at the Los Alamos County Justice Center’s magistrate court starting at 9 a.m.