Scientists summarize lab’s environment

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – A six-man team of environmental scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory went through a series of 10-minute reports on major areas of study in the lab’s most recent environmental survey.

Lorrie Bonds Lopez, spokesperson for the program, introduced the speakers with the warning that it was a lot of information to squeeze into an hour.

“They said it couldn’t be done,” she said, suggesting that each of the overviews might also be given in three-hour versions.

Terry Morgan led off with a quick snapshot of the scope of the 2007 Environmental Surveillance Report, based on nearly 900,000 data points from the year.

The comprehensive study has been conducted each year since 1971. Writing begins in January and includes data through the middle of the year to meet an Oct. 1 publication deadline.

Andrew Green, who reported on dust and water vapor samples in and around the laboratory said, “Over many years, we have never seen any laboratory impact at any of the regional (air monitoring stations),” that track air quality in the surrounding communities.

David Rogers reported on the groundwater monitoring, the main area with ongoing issues, despite progressive efforts at the laboratory to reduce the number of outfalls and eliminate effluents.

Nothing, he said, has impaired the water that people drink at the lab or in the county, but there are some contaminants, including Strontium-90 in Mortandad Canyon, for example, from effluent that has now been closed off from the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment facility in that area since 1999.

He touched on elevated readings for nitrates, chromium, the chemical perchlorate and high explosives.

“Over the last 10 years, the overall trends are decreasing,” he concluded, although there is still some flushing going on during large rain events.

Steve Reneau, reporting on storm water runoff said 2007 registered the “lowest offsite discharge” since the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000,

a sign that the natural systems are healing.

Phil Fresquez, who gave the report on “Soil, Foodstuffs and Biota Monitoring,” said people at the laboratory often ask him if one can eat fruit from the trees at the laboratory.

“The answer is, ‘Yes,’" he said. “Fruit on LANL is safe to eat.”

Mike McNaughton reported radiation dose assessment, which he called the “primary measure of human health detriment.” Dose assessment is measured in millirems of radiation. The average person off-site person in Los Alamos is exposed to about 500 millirems of radiation from naturally occurring sources and fallout from nuclear testing.

Exposure from laboratory sources adds less that 1 millirem per year, he said, even to the imaginary person (the “maximally exposed individual” or MEI) who might stand in the location where the greatest exposure might occur, 24 hours and day, 365 days a year.

McNaughton said that for the last two years the MEI, has been associated with environmental remediation. In 2006, it was located near the ash pile project at the airport. In 2007, it was identified as a spot across from the fire station on DP road where preliminary work on the cleanup of an old disposal area has begun.

Craig Eberhart, who heads the annual survey, said a simplified report for non-experts, written by two college students, would be available soon for the general public.

The scientists spoke at a meeting Wednesday of the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board. The advisory group chartered by the Department of Energy to provide recommendations on environmental issues met at Santa Fe Community College.