Head wants federal agency removed

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Environmental secretary says the NNSA has had a “troubled history”

By Sue M. Holmes

ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico’s environmental secretary wants the National Nuclear Security Administration removed from environmental cleanup and surveillance programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, saying the agency has had a “troubled history” in implementing a 2005 consent decree over cleanup.

NNSA’s involvement “has compromised the pace and direction” of work that is crucial to protecting New Mexico’s water resources and its residents’ health, Ron Curry wrote Energy Secretary Steven Chu earlier this month.

Curry, who also is the state’s natural resources trustee, said in an interview he wants cleanup issues left to the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, both for the consent decree with the state and a natural resources damage assessment sought this month by the Los Alamos National Laboratory Resource Trustee Council.

“It’s a waste of time to go back and forth with a two-headed monster,” Curry said in an

interview Thursday.

The NNSA, an arm of the DOE that oversees the nuclear labs, is “an ineffective middleman,” he said.

A statement released by NNSA headquarters reported the agency signed the consent order and is committed to meeting its deadlines.

The statement said NNSA’s Los Alamos Site Office has a dedicated Environmental Project Office, and that it “shares the same level of support and priority as the other NNSA mission work.”

Curry said he expects a response from the DOE in a couple of weeks, but said “we’re going to keep moving forward” regardless of the federal decision.

Los Alamos lab has been the site of nuclear weapons research and production, chemistry and physics studies and work with hazardous and radioactive materials since its beginnings in the 1943 Manhattan Project to develop the world’s first atomic bomb.

Curry has expressed concern whether the lab can meet a 2015 cleanup deadline set in the consent order. He said the NNSA has been trying to derail or rewrite the order since it came out.

“Even though they signed the document, they weren’t showing us they were committed to the document,” he said.

The order represents DOE’s promise that it will meet cleanup deadlines, but “NNSA has a long and troubled history in executing the requirements of the order, resulting in assessments in millions of dollars of penalties for noncompliance,” he wrote Chu.

Curry said in the interview that NNSA has been obstructive in dealing with cleanup issues, and cited the penalties as one example.

The state assessed $2.5 million in penalties in the last half of 2009 — but NNSA refused to pay until the DOE ordered it to, he said.

On the other hand, he told Chu, the state’s experience with the Office of Environmental Management “indicates they are invested in successful completion of the order.”

His letter also said missed deadlines under the order were largely due to “the overlapping and sometimes inconsistent oversight” from having two agencies implementing it.

He said NNSA’s actions affect the state Office of the Natural Resources Trustees and other entities as well.

The Natural Resource Trustee Council called for an official damage assessment for the lab after screening environmental information, the first step in assessing what’s happened to natural resources.

The council includes representatives of the state, the U.S. departments of Energy, Interior and Agriculture, and the pueblos of San Ildefonso, Santa Clara and Jemez.

Rebecca de Neri Zagal, executive director of the Office of Natural Resources Trustee, said the next step is to gather information on resources and possible releases of hazardous substances.

The process will include public meetings, which won’t be held until there’s a draft assessment plan laying out how the assessment will be done, she said.

The trustee is mandated to try to recover money for damages to natural resources in the state to pay for restoration.

The office has collected millions of dollars for numerous sites statewide since it was established in the 1990s.

Curry believes the resource assessment at Los Alamos will take at least five years.

“It’s a work in progress, for sure,” he said. “The other thing is, I don’t believe you can ever get the full monetary amount of damage that has been done to a natural resource. It’s almost immeasurable.”