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Hearing set for ground water permit

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By Tris DeRoma

The state has set a Nov. 7 date for a hearing in Los Alamos when residents can learn and give an opinion on a water discharge permit that will allow the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s legacy waste contractor, N3B, to process 350,000 gallons of groundwater a day that’s located 45 to 900 feet below the surface of Mortandad Canyon.

The groundwater permit was issued by the New Mexico Environment Department in July 2015.

The upcoming hearing is the outcome of a court case brought by Communities for Clean Water demanding from the NMED and the new Mexico Water Quality Control Commission that a hearing be heard on the permit. The CCW won through a court appeal Dec. 27, 2017, to have the hearing. The hearing will start at 9 a.m. at the Los Alamos County Courthouse, located at 2300 Trinity Drive.

“We hold that while the NMED has limited discretion to grant or deny a public hearing, the WQCC lacked substantial evidence to support its decision to sustain NMED’s denial of a public hearing,” New Mexico Court of Appeals Judge Julie J. Vargus said in her 2017 ruling.

Since 2006, the Mortandad Canyon has been the site of an ongoing containment and remediation operation of a chromium plume that was discovered in 2005. The chromium was left over from coolant flushing operations that took place at a power plant near the site between the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s. About 160,000 pounds of the chromium was deposited in the ground during that time period, according to the LANL Environmental Management Office.

The permit covers periodic testing and other activities associated with the remediation operation. The permit covers treatment of the water pulled up from the grounds by the network of wells.

“Groundwater pumped during the covered activities will be discharged into a lined modular tank, a synthetically-lined lagoon, or other containment system prior to land application,” read a statement in a public hearing notice sent out by the New Mexico Environment Department.

Treated water that still does not meet federal and state environmental standards to go back into the aquifer will be released into the ground.

According to Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety New Mexico, one of CCW’s main concerns is the permit provides for no background measurements of toxins already in the soil.

“We thought that the New Mexico Environment Department needed to order the permitees, DOE (Department of Energy) and LANL, (Los Alamos National Laboratory) to establish background concentrations in the soil. Then, we could see if there was an increase as a result of adding water that already had pollutants in it,” Arends said.  Spraying the water onto the ground could also affect animals living in wetlands at the foot of the Mortand Canyon, she said.

CCW’s other concern is that the permit allows for the water to distributed anywhere on LANL property. LANL encompasses about 40 square miles of land on the Pajarito Plateau.

That could result in the permitees from selling the water to the county or the U.S. Forest Service or another federal agency, according to Arends. The water could be just sprayed into the air or applied on roads for dust control, Arends said.

The permit was issued by NMED in July 2015 to allow LANL contractors treating the chromium plume to test the network of injection, monitoring and extraction wells that ring the plume. According to officials from LANL’s Environmental Management Office, the plume is a half-mile wide, a mile long and 30 to 5O feet deep. The plume is about 1,000-feet below the ground and sits just 250 feet above the regional water aquifer Los Alamos County uses for its drinking water.

The plume is made up of chromium 6. The wells were installed starting in 2006 to keep the plume from spreading into the aquifer and onto the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo. The hearing will be at 9 a.m. Nov. 7 at the Los Alamos Magistrate Court, located at 2300 Trinity Drive.

The notice also said the public will be allowed to submit non-technical testimony and examine witnesses testifying at the hearing.

According to the NMED, those wishing to present technical testimony at the hearing must present a statement of intent by Oct. 26 to the hearing clerk, John Baca, at NMED, P.O. Box 5469, 1190 St. Francis Drive, Santa Fe. The phone number is 505-827-2430.

NMED plans to take in consideration all testimony and rule on granting the permit at a later date.