LANL, community groups reach water settlement

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By The Staff

Los Alamos National Laboratory announced it has reached a settlement with nine community groups and individuals that will result in the dismissal of a 2008 environmental lawsuit on Thursday.

The suit, filed by the Western Environmental Law Center in Taos, alleged that LANL violated its EPA Clean Water Act permit, and allowed stormwater bearing contaminants from more than 100 legacy (Cold War era) environmental sites to run off at levels above standards —charges LANL denies.

Under the terms of the settlement, WELC agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for access to inspect certain sites, funding for technical consulting and a portion of legal fees.

Many of the issues in the suit were resolved through a new permit issued by the EPA under the Clean Water Act.

Under this permit, LANL agreed to manage its stormwater sites to meet requirements governing stormwater run-on and run-off at about 400 legacy sites. The permit contains requirements for stabilizing and monitoring the sites.  Field improvements will help prevent contamination from running off during large storms.

According to the permit, LANL must install control measures at all sites by May 1 and eliminate toxic discharges from 63 “high-priority sites” within three years – by November 2013. Stormwater discharges from the remaining sites must be captured or eliminated by November, 2015.

 “These permits and agreements are a major step forward in the lab’s commitment to protecting people and the environment,” said Chris Cantwell, LANL’s associate director for environment, safety, health, and quality.

“We are pleased that the parties were able to amicably settle the lawsuit, and are confident that LANL’s new CWA permit, one of the most stringent in the nation, will help protect people and the environment.”

The community groups also were happy with the outcome.

“This historic victory and the recent stormwater permit will give the public strong tools for participating in the cleanup process at LANL,” said Joni Arends, Executive Director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), which has been monitoring LANL for over 20 years. “We’re looking forward to ensuring that the lab and the regulatory agencies implement the permit so that the Río Grande and downstream communities will be protected from contamination running downhill from LANL.”

“This is a huge victory for clean water and the protection of people’s health,” said Brian Shields, Executive Director of Amigos Bravos, one of the community organizations that filed the citizen complaint against LANL. “The settlement agreement is an example of what can be achieved through perseverance, independent analysis, and tremendous support from the community.”

The EPA permit establishes a three-to-five year implementation schedule and incorporates “target action levels” based on New Mexico’s water quality standards.  It also requires public meetings and Internet posting of permit-related documents.

“The agreement is a win-win achievement,” said Cantwell.  “It helps us protect the public and the environment while saving the taxpayers costly legal expenses, and allows us to safely continue our important science and security work for the nation.”

Community groups have complained about a lack of runoff monitoring, but the lab said it has been collecting and analyzing samples for 20 years. They are tested for radionuclides, metals, organic and inorganic compounds and sediment.

The lab monitors surface waters around the property to evaluate the effects of its operations on the environment. Natural surface runoff usually results from spring snowmelt that occurs over several days to weeks and summer thunderstorms that can dump large amounts of rain in just an hour or two.

Matthew Bishop, an attorney with WELC, which represented the groups, said there were no site-specific monitoring and few very pollution control measures in place when the groups first started looking at dump sites at the lab and storm water issues in 2003.

Bishop said he expects to see significant improvements to the Rio Grande's water quality with the new permit and settlement.

 Organizations and individuals that filed the citizen complaint were Amigos Bravos, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group, New Mexico Acequia Association, Don Gabino Andrade Community Acequia Association, Partnership for Earth Spirituality, Río Grande Restoration, SouthWest Organizing Project, Tewa Women United, and Gilbert and Kathy Sanchez.