Up for gab: NMED holds first listening session on LANL

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – The “listening session” on Los Alamos National Laboratory Tuesday night at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center brought out much the same group of commentators as other public forums on this subject.

Recent opportunities for input have included a series of meetings on transformation of the nuclear complex. Those were preceded by formal hearings on the draft environmental impact statement for the laboratory site.

Officials of the New Mexico Environment Department, partnering with the New Mexico Community Foundation, seemed to be searching for a deeper understanding of how the surrounding communities feel about the nuclear weapons laboratory.

“The discussion is not limited to environmental issues,” said the state’s Hazardous Waste Bureau Chief James Bearzi, who facilitated the discussions. He opened the door to social economic, cultural and political issues as well, “and everything else in between.”

While the listening session was not specifically tied to the department’s regulatory function, Environment Secretary Ron Curry welcomed the group by reiterating his strong opposition to any hint of renegotiating the Consent Order, which underlies the department’s role in a comprehensive environmental clean-up program at the laboratory.

Attempting to cast a wider net for this series of meetings, NMED partnered with the New Mexico Community Foundation, deepening a mutual interests that had formed around the RACER project at LANL. The Risk Assessment, Communication, Evaluation and Reduction project, which was caught up in the management changes at the laboratory in the last two years, is a process for evaluating and making recommendations on cleanup operations at the lab.

A large database of environmental information developed by the project has been turned over to the Community Foundation for long-term stewardship.

RACER and NMED’s partnership with the laboratory were among the first targets of criticism as the public began to speak during the meeting.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group thought the relationship was inappropriate because the New Mexico Community Foundation is an important source of funding for public interest groups like those attending Tuesday’s meeting.

“New Mexico is selected for dirty activities because we have a lax regulatory environment,” he said, blaming conflicts of interests and funding patterns for weakening the system. “Ron (Curry) and James (Bearzi) are doing their best, but we have to help them,” he said.

A little later, Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico disagreed that the state was weak as a regulator.

“This has clearly been the most aggressive administration we have had,” he said, calling special attention to its work in enforcing the consent order.

He went on to question how long it is taking for the department to develop a new hazardous waste permit for the laboratory. His concern was whether it would be possible to wrap it up before the next administration.

Bearzi updated the progress that has been made but acknowledged that a final permit was still a couple of years away.

Marian Naranjo on behalf of Santa Clara Pueblo renewed a cultural concern that she has expressed previously, about increasingly inaccessible sacred places on lab property.

Other comments had to do with a variety of environmental concerns, including downstream water contamination and calls for selecting the most protective closure plans possible in remediating the laboratories nuclear waste areas.

After the meeting, Denise Gonzales of the Community Foundation said her organization frequently worked in concert with state government and could help bring out voices and perspectives that were not otherwise being heard.

She announced that the RACER project would begin a separate set of “training meetings” in the northern New Mexico region to acquaint interested people on how to use the environmental database. The session in Los Alamos is scheduled for Aug. 20, with a time and place to be arranged.

The meeting drew a standing room crowd of perhaps 60 people to the classroom that was available for the meeting, and the meeting moved to a larger room when one became available.

Future “listening sessions” includes a Sept. 23 meeting in Los Alamos.