MDA-T cleanup costs could top $1 billion

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Officials concerned about sheer volume of waste at the site

By Carol A. Clark

The complexity of cleaning up a 2.2-acre parcel of land located inside Technical Area-21 (TA-21), known as Material Disposal Area (MDA) T at Los Alamos National Laboratory could push costs as high as $1 billion, according to the Department of Energy; although no final estimate can be determined until a survey of the remediation efforts required is completed.

MDA-T is near the eastern end of DP Road. Environmental remediation activities at TA-21, including MDA-B, located across from businesses along DP Road on the southern side, have been underway since 2009.

Nearly 18 million gallons of treated and untreated plutonium wastewater and solvents, or untreated tritium wastewater and solvents, were discharged into the beds on that site until 1967.

Waste disposal began on the site in 1945 and continued through the backfilling and grading of the site in 1986. Plutonium retains its lethal potency for 24,000 years.

Acting County Administrator Randy Autio said Friday afternoon that although LANL’s mission today includes responsible environmental stewardship of lands around Los Alamos County, it was still “disheartening” to hear of the volume of historical waste and manner of storage at MDA-T.

“We are concerned that storing large volumes of transuranic waste in absorption beds and shafts with no controls in place was such common practice in the past,” he said. “We hope that LANL and DOE’s cleanup efforts are as thorough and successful as their current clean up of MDA-B appears to be. In addition to ensuring the health and safety of the community, the county hopes to be able to develop the TA-21 area for commercial uses in the future, and the location of MDA-T in the middle of the Mesa means that the handling of the clean up of that area is extremely important to the county.”

Once the laboratory has cleared and remediated the area, and with concurrence from NMED, Los Alamos County is expected to receive the entire TA-21 parcel – which totals 260 acres, Autio said.

The county had anticipated that the site could be successfully remediated in a similar fashion to efforts underway at MDA-B, which involves trenching and removal of materials, so it could have use of the land for commercial/industrial purposes.

But DOE and LANL staff have indicated that future plans for repurposing the MDA-T site for ‘commercial/industrial’ use may be limited, based on the most recent results of field investigations that will be continuing into 2012.

LANL officials are now anticipating that they will recommend to NMED that the best course of remediation is to cap and cover the 2.2-acre site because of the type and depth of hazardous contaminants found in the area.

Autio said that LANL had stressed in a recent meeting that the results of sampling activities at MDA-T and nearby DP Canyon don’t indicate that the public is facing any immediate danger or health risk from the buried materials at MDA-T. However, he said that the county would remain actively engaged and vigilant as the final report is prepared and recommendations for clean up move forward.

Clean up activities have not been undertaken yet at MDA-T, as LANL staff has been conducting studies to their issued 2006 Investigative Report and follow up activities required by the New Mexico Environment Department, Autio said.

“The site includes four absorption beds that received treated radioactive liquid waste and 64 buried shafts used for the disposal of radioactive mixtures in cement,” Autio said.

According to DOE, the shafts are two to eight feet in diameter and 15-69 feet deep. The site also includes two industrial wastewater treatment plants and associated subsurface piping and structures.

Autio said the county would continue to work closely with LANL and DOE on public outreach within the community over the next few months, as more data becomes available.

In 2009, the lab received $212 million in stimulus funds to aid in cleanup efforts. A large portion of the funds were allocated to remediation of the TA-21 site.