By Staci Matlock | The New Mexican
June 8, 2007
Concerns continue for health of regional groundwater sources; lab officials say they take impacts on water supplies seriously
Los Alamos National Laboratory still has a lot of work to do in understanding contamination threats to the regional aquifer from waste produced from decades-long nuclear research programs, according to a report released Friday by the National Research Council.
The lab has until 2015 to identify and remediate groundwater contamination under a 1995 state Environment Department order.
While the lab has made great strides in understanding how water moves through layers of rock, sand and clay around the its 43-square-mile site, researchers lag in understanding the source of contaminants and how they may be moving from the surface into groundwater, according to the council, an arm of the non-profit National Academies.
LANL scientists still don’t understand how contaminants might move between watersheds, the report says.
The lab also needs to beef up its communications with the public on groundwater protection efforts and allow more peer review of the ongoing research into groundwater contamination around Los Alamos, according to the report.
“It is a work in progress. What they’ve done so far seems good,” Larry W. Lake, a University of Texas geosystems engineering professor and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “What we looked at was what they plan to do next.”
Greg Mello, executive director of the LANL watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said the lab’s groundwater research program doesn’t address a key issue – the Lab is continuing to dispose of contaminated solid waste in unlined pits.
“People think this is about net cleanup going on,” Mello said. “Some areas are getting cleaned up; other areas are getting dumped on. Existing sites continue leaching into the groundwater.”
Instead of spending a lot of money on research, the Lab could already have cleaned up existing contamination sites, Mello said.
James Rickman, lab spokesman, said the current staff is committed to cleaning up the contamination and protecting groundwater.
“People could argue that in the past we could have done a better job of clean up. No one really disputes that,” Rickman said.
Now, “the consent order is our guide to clean up and we take the consent order very seriously. The tenor among the staff right now is it wants to make the clean up as effective and efficient as possible.”
He said the radioactive waste buried at dry pits at the lab's Area G will be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant by 2015 and acknowledged some waste was continuing to be buried there.
That waste is the prime source of some groundwater contamination, such as chromium for the lab’s power generating plant. Rickman said the lab plans to stop all contaminated liquid waste disposals in the canyons before 2015.
The committee thought the lab had done a good job with the liquid waste disposal, Lake said.
“We didn’t give them such high marks for the so called (25) dry sites,” he said. “Those are pits up on the mesa where contaminants were dumped and covered up. Their reasoning is those contaminants are less mobile.”
Lake said he thought the lab could meet all the requirements of the state consent order by the 2015 deadline if it followed the report’s recommendations.
Los Alamos National Laboratory has disposed of its radioactive and other waste on lab property since the 1940s. The state Environment Department is concerned those wastes could leak into the region’s groundwater aquifer and contaminate drinking water wells.
The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management.