By ANDY LENDERMAN | The New Mexican
May 18, 2007
Officials say pollution poses no immediate health risk
Canyons downhill from Los Alamos National Laboratory continue to release plutonium and other radioactive contaminants into the soil and the Rio Grande, a new state Environment Department report shows.
However, state officials and a spokesman for the nuclear-weapons laboratory said there is no immediate health risk from the pollution, tracked in a nearly decadelong study released Friday.
One of the report’s authors stressed that no plutonium has been detected in any drinking-water wells in Northern New Mexico.
While the New Mexico Environment Department sees no immediate health danger, the constant release of plutonium — a highly toxic substance used in nuclear bombs — still worries the state agency.
“Basically we haven’t seen the levels of plutonium decrease in the storm water over the last six years,” said Ralph Ford-Schmid, a department employee who helped write the report. “So we think there’s still a lot of plutonium leaving the lab. Pueblo Canyon appears to be the primary source of the plutonium.”
Most of that plutonium was dumped there by the lab in the 1950s and 1960s, he said. Increased erosion after the massive Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 exacerbated the release of the contaminants.
Plutonium is created from uranium in nuclear reactors, and ingestion by humans “is an extremely serious health hazard,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says in educational materials.
“It generally stays in the body for decades, exposing organs and tissues to radiation, and increasing the risk of cancer,” the agency has reported.
In one location near the Rio Grande, state investigators found plutonium levels 170 times higher than normal in sediment suspended in the water. In another, they found plutonium in storm-water runoff at 16 times the safe drinking water standard.
Ford-Schmid said the plutonium in sediment is diluted greatly when it hits the Rio Grande. He also said water-treatment processes can remove such pollutants to undetectable levels.
Santa Fe is working on a project that eventually will draw water directly from the Rio Grande and treat the water for use in the city and county utility systems. The city of Albuquerque already has begun diverting surface flows from the river.
Lab spokesman James Rickman pointed to three studies — performed by the lab, the Environment Department and an outside firm — that show no health risks even under the most extreme circumstances. Those studies were commissioned after the Cerro Grande Fire.
“All three of those studies unquestionably found that even under the most extreme scenarios, where every bit of contaminated sediment was washed off site and was ingested through even the most extreme ingestion scenarios by the public ... that these sediments did not represent any credible health risk whatsoever,” Rickman said.
Rickman also stressed that the lab has worked to mitigate the problem by replanting vegetation and building structures to trap the sediment in arroyos.
Both the Environment Department and a Santa Fe citizen’s group said the lab must do a better job to keep the contaminated soils in place on lab property.
“This report shows something must be done now to protect New Mexicans and the environment from continued discharges of harmful contaminants to the Rio Grande,” Environment Secretary Ron Curry said in a news release.
Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said her group and others, including the New Mexico Acequia Association, have filed a notice warning the lab they intend to sue “for failing to install and maintain the required pollution-control measures for storm water or flooding as required by the Clean Water Act.”
Rickman said lab managers are willing to meet with the department “to see if there are other measures to be taken to provide even greater protection.”
Arends also said the latest report shows why New Mexico’s congressional delegation should push hard for money to pay for environmental cleanup at Los Alamos.
“It’s not OK for the plutonium to be rolling down through these storm events to the Rio Grande,” Arends said.
Contact Andy Lenderman at 995-3827 or firstname.lastname@example.org.