NMED listening session prompts earful

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By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos County officials and county residents got a few things off their chest Tuesday night at a meeting that was billed as a listening session.

The New Mexico Environment Department held another in what they expect to be multiple sessions in communities in and around Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Hazardous Waste Bureau Chief James Bearzi, whose relationship with Los Alamos has mostly to do with enforcing a court order on environmental cleanup, heard a few things that don’t always get said in public meetings.

One was, stop confusing Los Alamos National Laboratory and Los Alamos County.

“It’s important that the state recognize that the lab is the lab and the county is the county,” said County Councilor Mike Wheeler.

His complaint had to do with why the New Mexico Environment Department didn’t stick up for Los Alamos County this week, when the Santa Fe City Council took up the question of whether to accept solid waste from Los Alamos in the Caja del Rio regional landfill.

“It was important for Los Alamos because it would save a lot of money,” Wheeler said, “but nobody was there from NMED who could vouch for the county’s waste.”

Santa Fe’s governing body postponed the decision for later in the month.

Regina Wheeler, the county’s environmental manager, who is not related to the councilor, chimed in that the transfer was permitted and that it had already been approved by the county and the solid waste board.

Would Bearzi be willing to testify at the next meeting that there was nothing wrong with the county’s solid waste, Mike Wheeler pressed.

“I will make sure that somebody shows up at the next meeting,” Bearzi said.

He also suggested the county and his department explore a more formal set of understandings about consultation and issues that place the county in the middle between the state and the laboratory.

Another set of concerns was raised by County Council chair Jim Hall, who said he hadn’t thought much about why citizens of Los Alamos tend not to attend meetings like these until he was elected to office. But he knows local residents care about environmental issues as much if not more than anybody in the state.

One reason, he said, was that many who work at the laboratory just aren’t that tolerant of “bureaucratic interactions,” which may be necessary, but are also extraneous to the actual science that they are doing.

The other was that the community is intensely analytic, while the meetings tend to be “fact free and emotion-laden.”

“These two things color an awful lot of Los Alamos citizens’ view of the back and forth between NMED and Los Alamos,” he said.

Bearzi responded with an unusually positive list of environmental developments at LANL.

“The laboratory is as concerned corporately as any other corporate entity in the state,” he said, adding that he was not entirely sure if it was “from the heart or from the hammer” of the regulatory effort.

However, he could say the lab had reduced its liquid-waste outfalls from 100 to under 20; and he could also say that the lab for the first time had zero violations in their hazardous waste inspections.

Those are annual surprise visits where a team of 10 investigators from the state drops in and looks under every rock for violations.

He said the main problem is not about going forward from here, but rather about looking backward at how to deal with the pollution that was caused before it was regulated by national law.

“How do you clean that up?” Bearzi asked. “There are smart people up here trying to figure that out and we appreciate that.”

Michael Wheeler said, “If you could make these statements at some of the other meetings, it would really be nice.”

Charlie Bowman, a retired physicist, challenged the department’s fundamental thought process.

What were they trying to do up here? What did they want to put in place of a cleaned up laboratory? Home sites? Indian hunting grounds? Or did they expect there to be a place somewhere like Los Alamos that performed programs important to the nation’s vital interest that couldn’t be done anywhere else, he asked.

Bearzi noted the first meeting of the series that was held in Santa Fe had mostly to do with the process and the mechanics of the meeting itself. He said the meeting in Española last week was dominated by a discussion of RACER, the recently completed comprehensive database of laboratory information, now available to the public.

“It’s a different crowd tonight,” said Regina Wheeler.

“You’re saying things you don’t normally say,” said Lori Bonds-Lopez, an information officer with the lab’s environmental program.

“That’s because I’m being asked questions I’m not normally asked,” Bearzi said, summing up the evening.