Lab, county assure safety of drinking water

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Public concern raised after report of chromium plume spread

By Tris DeRoma

Los Alamos County officials and the Department of Energy’s Environmental Management office issued a statement Monday assuring residents of the safety of the county’s drinking water.

Public concern was raised over early November press reports stating that Los Alamos National Laboratory officials weren’t sure of the extent of a decades-old toxic chemical spill in Mortandad Canyon.

The revelation was reportedly made at a hearing held between state lawmakers and LANL officials about the status of a toxic chemical cleanup operation in Mortandad Canyon. The spill is decades old and involves hexavalent chromium, an anti-corrosive agent that was flushed regularly into the canyon from the cooling towers of a LANL power plant from the early 1950s into the mid 1970s.

The chemical is known to cause cancer in humans.

LANL has been working to contain the spill, which is thousands of feet underground and threatens a regional aquifer, from reaching drinking water wells in Los Alamos County and the San Ildefonso Pueblo.

At the meeting, it was reported by officials that the new dimensions of the spill, which the lab is trying to contain through a network of clean water injection and treatment wells ringed around the spill’s perimeter, is about a quarter of a mile away from a Los Alamos County drinking water well.

“These wells are highly monitored by the Los Alamos County and the Department of Energy.  The County works closely with the Department of Energy on their actions to address the plume,” the joint statement said. “There is no contamination of chromium in any drinking water production wells.”

According to Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities Spokesperson Julie Williams-Hill and DPU Deputy Manager James Alarid the spill’s migration toward the wells is closely monitored by the state and the Los Alamos Laboratory.

There are 12 drinking water wells in Los Alamos County. The state tests all 12 wells once year for  hexavalent chromium levels, and the laboratory also tests the wells once a year. However, in addition to that, the lab also tests four wells that are closest to the chromium spill quarterly, or four times a year for a elevations of chromium in the water.

They also said that there is naturally occurring chromium in the water, that has nothing to do with the spill. The average test reveals a level of four to six parts of chromium per billion drops of water.

The state threshold is 50 parts per billion drops of water, and the federal standard is 100 parts per billion.

If any rise is detected by the state or the lab, Williams-Hill said the well would be taken offline immediately. The wells are labeled PM-1, PM-3, PM-4 and PM-5. Well PM-3 is the well that’s a quarter of mile from the plume.

“Should one of wells become contaminated, if it looks like it’s going to violate the state standard, we would immediately stop pumping,” Williams said.