Lab and NMED share a rocky road

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By Roger Snodgrass

While there are indications of an improved relationship between Los Alamos National Laboratory and the New Mexico Environment Department, there are continuing strains as well.

Some of them are beyond the abilities of the parties themselves to control.

In the laboratory’s performance evaluation report for this year, the Los Alamos Site Office credits itself and lab environmental management staff for having spent “much time with improving the regulatory relationships.”

One of the items that assesses the institutional management goes on to say that LANS, the management company that operates the laboratory, “was instrumental in developing a level of ‘trust' with the key regulator manager that allowed for weekly calls and open discussions on critical issues. LANS took on a subordinate role and did not argue or debate every issue, but instead improved documentation and treated the regulator with care and respect.”

The evaluation also complements lab management for taking a more aggressive approach about passing the “spot” checks that NMED conducts each year under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, when a team of state inspectors shows up unannounced.

Before inspections this year, LANL conducted its own internal assessments using protocols like those NMED used, which led to finding some issues that could be corrected before they were ticketed and ultimately resulted in a clean inspection. The report viewed these steps favorably.

Meanwhile, NMED and LANL have watched with some apprehension, as the budget process in Washington has threatened to raise the level of tension between them by reducing funds for the cleanup program jeopardizing a tight work schedule that was agreed upon in a court-ordered consent agreement in 2005.

Environment Secretary Ron Curry has spoken out at any sign that cleanup funding might interrupt cleanup milestones spelled out in the agreement and has held a series of “listening sessions” in Los Alamos, Santa Fe and other communities in the region.

“The department is finding other partners to help understand community concerns,” said Hazardous Waste Chief James Bearzi, who manages the consent order program on behalf of the department.

“We’re interested in anything about Los Alamos - good, bad, and indifferent.”

Similarly, when an Inspector General Report came out in the spring, warning that milestones in the agreement might not be met because of funding shortfalls, NMED quickly held a public forum in Los Alamos to make the state's position clear.

“We don’t buy that they don't have the money,” Bearzi said at the time.

“Lack of funding is not excuse,” Curry agreed, emphasizing the department's refusal to renegotiate the order.  He appreciated the fact that the laboratory had requested the funding, but he insisted that there would be no compromise and that penalties would be the consequence of default.

Rep. Jeannette Wallace, Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe, has complained at every public opportunity that NMED is wasting money by punishing LANL with fines for work that it can’t do because of federal budget shortfalls.

NMED’s position has been that forgiving fines or changing deadlines that the federal government has agreed to along with LANL, would simply encourage more of the same.

Meanwhile, community leaders attending the most recent listening session in Los Alamos pushed back at NMED for not speaking up for the lab in other communities when charges are made that they know are not accurate.