NMED renews LANL permit, blocks burning of explosive waste

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By Susan M. Bryan

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry on Tuesday renewed a permit that allows Los Alamos National Laboratory to manage and store hazardous waste from research, contamination cleanup and other activities at the lab, but open burning of certain waste will be off limits.

Renewal of the permit has been a long time coming. The northern New Mexico nuclear weapons lab has been operating under its current permit — with some modifications — since 1989.

The state, lab officials and others have been working for several years to finalize the document.

"I am satisfied that the permit will protect New Mexicans, LANL workers and the environment and provide the transparency and accountability that residents deserve," Curry said in a statement.

The new permit will be in effect for 10 years, starting Dec. 30.

As part of Curry's decision, the lab's application to treat high explosive hazardous waste by open burning at one of its technical areas was denied. The state contends that continued open burning of high explosives could result in ecological risks.

Los Alamos officials said they agree with the majority of the permit but are disappointed about the open burning ruling.

"The Department of Energy is fully committed to meeting its environmental responsibilities at Los Alamos," the lab said in a statement. "We will carefully review Secretary Curry's order, study our options and come to a decision on how best to proceed within the next 30 days."

The lab previously voiced concerns about the prospect of not being able to burn residue from non-nuclear counterterrorism and national security research. Without open burning, the lab said research on detecting explosives, defeating improvised bombs and creating stronger armor would be jeopardized.

Another concern was that the lab could lose funding or jobs if the counterterrorism and security research were to be hampered by the burning restriction.

The lab said none of the waste treated with open burning is radioactive, nor does it comes from the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

State officials are concerned because the open burning can result in toxic chemicals, such as dioxins and furans.

The permit places various conditions on the storage and treatment of hazardous waste at 24 lab areas. The waste includes spent solvents, corrosive liquids, metals, used batteries and battery fluids and other chemical mixtures.

The waste is required to be characterized to know what hazards they pose, and the lab must keep detailed records on treatment and storage before the waste is shipped off for disposal.

The Environment Department said the lab generated about 255,000 pounds of hazardous and mixed wastes in 2008.

"The permit should not be viewed as an allowance for LANL to pollute," Curry said. "It is written to prevent the laboratory from releasing further pollutants into the environment as it manages its hazardous waste."

The new permit also contains language that prevents the lab or the U.S. Department of Energy from delegating responsibilities under the permit to other agencies without the state's approval.

The provision stems from concerns Curry has had about the National Nuclear Security Administration's participation in contamination cleanup at the lab.