NMCF report digs deep on settlement

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Lab: Negotiations ongoing between NMED and LANL

By John Severance

The Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Association, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the New Mexico Environment Department are in the midst of negotiating the termination of the 2007 Settlement Agreement and Stipulated Final Order (Chromium Settlement).

Officials, however, have refused comment on the progress of the negotiations.

Here is a little background:

In 2007, NMED reached a settlement with LANL over the lab’s failure to report chromium contamination in a monitoring well. The department said the lab paid a $251,870 penalty as part of the settlement.

“This enforcement action should remind the operators of LANL that they have a duty to report significant environmental contamination to the state and residents promptly,” Environment Secretary Ron Curry said at the time. “Chromium contamination is a serious issue.”

The department had accused the lab’s operators, Los Alamos National Security LLC and the U.S. Department of Energy, of violating LANL’s hazardous waste permit and a 2005 consent order that governs environmental cleanup activities by failing to report increases of chromium in a groundwater monitoring well in 2004.

The state said four groundwater samples taken from well R-28 in Mortandad Canyon between 2004 and 2005 detected toxic hexavalent chromium at up to four times the drinking water standard and up to eight times the state groundwater quality standard.

Curry’s office said the lab didn’t report the finding to the state until late 2005.

This week, the Los Alamos Monitor obtained a final report put together by the New Mexico Community Foundation concerning the RACER project and Intellus, which is the repository for environmental data.

After eight years of providing public education and outreach related to environmental monitoring information from the LANL site, the NMCF has been asked by DOE to step aside and relinquish its responsibility as outreach coordinator and database manager of the Intellus NM Project. Intellus will now be operated by NNSA and LANL DOE notified NMCF on Sept. 18 that, due to financial constraints and uncertainties in budget, NMCF no longer would be funded to provide training, education and outreach to the public on behalf of Intellus NM.

One of the elements of the chromium settlement required LANL to turn their environmental data over to an independent manager. The closure of this agreement allows LANL to manage their data without oversight or involvement from a third-party.

Intellus NM, a new, Web-based relational database, was designed to manage environmental data collected in and around the LANL vicinity. It was launched in April 2012 to replace the original environmental database, RACER. LANL began pursuing the transition to a new environmental database in the fall of 2010 and chose Locus Technologies as their database developers.

In its final report, NMCF outlined its concerns:

• LANL now manages a direct contract with Locus and controls all decisions made on behalf of Intellus NM. LANL’s internal database needs, data access requirements, and improvements now override the needs of the public.

• Despite pushing for a direct and separate contract with Locus, LANL assured NMCF that such a contract would never receive approval by DOE. In the absence of a direct contract with Locus, NMCF lost all leverage to prioritize the correction of malfunctions and request improvements in the public database in a timely manner.

• Another unforeseen impact of the direct contract between Locus and LANL is the difficulty in conducting quality assurances. The migration scripts used to ensure that all environmental data in EIM are available to the public through Intellus NM are proprietary information. If these scripts are not made available to a third-party wishing to conduct audits and quality assurances, the accuracy and completeness of the new system cannot be ensured.  

• Without the leverage of a direct contract with Locus, NMCF witnessed the Scope of Work created for Intellus NM modified by LANL without consultation or notice. LANL altogether removed the Scope of Work requirement for heat maps and custom query tool without input from the Steering Committee or NMCF. An intermediate query tool that offered a more user-friendly interface was offered as a substitute for the custom query tool but never delivered.

• Despite still being named the database manager pursuant to the terms of the Chromium Settlement, NMCF’s ability to make changes to text, links and documents in Intellus NM was eliminated since the launch of the new system. Changes to the tool’s text must now be requested by NMCF and are subject to LANL and NMED OB approval.

The NMCF’s final report to LANL chronicled an April 2012 meeting to determine how Intellus NM was being administered by an independent manager. In Section IV, the Chromium Settlement requires that LANL’s “database be turned over to an independent manager, New Mexico Community Foundation, by Sept. 30, 2008.”

During the meeting, NMCF urged support for the creation of an independent contract between Locus and NMCF, which would allow NMCF to manage the Intellus NM tool. All parties, including LANL, consented that an independent contract was important for the management of the public interface. During this meeting, LANL also conceded that the Intellus NM database did not comply with the requirement that it be maintained by an independent manager.

Despite concurrence from LANL and NMED HWB that the requirements of the Chromium Settlement were not being fulfilled, the representatives from NMED HWB were directed to take no further action and LANL, rather than comply with the Settlement, set out to negotiate its closure.

The report went on … on June 19, NMCF received a call from NMED (Hazardous Waste Bureau) that stated, “The Chromium Settlement is still in place. We did indicate to the lab, though, that we would most likely not enforce on it, in that we are going to be discussing with them about how to terminate it and so forth …We aren’t going to enforce on this third-party separate function.” As of October 2012, and as far as NMCF knows, the Chromium Settlement has not been formally closed.

The report then discussed what would happen when the closure of the Chromium Settlement becomes finalized.

The continuation of LANL providing environmental data to Intellus NM is no longer protected or guaranteed under any agreement, order, or permit, with the exception of data collected under LANL’s Hazardous Waste Permit.

“This reality raises serious concerns about the project’s longevity, LANL’s commitment to providing the public with all environmental data and NMED’s ability, without a formalized agreement or order in place, to hold LANL to what amounts to their word,” the report said.