Aug 4, 2007
ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor
Speaking to state legislators last week, Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Michael Anastasio made a sweeping statement about environmental compliance in the last year.
He was giving a summary of "challenges and successes" in safety, security, programs and the environment during the first year of management by Los Alamos National Security (LANS), LLC.
Speaking of the environmental consent order, which governs the comprehensive environmental cleanup of the laboratory, Anastasio reiterated the laboratory's commitment to the agreement.
"We have met 103 out of 104 milestones on time," he said.
Anastasio, chief executive officer of LANS, has directed the laboratory since LANS became the prime contract manager and operator of the laboratory June 1, 2006.
During a year marked by several large penalties and notices of violations for not having accomplished specified deadlines for deliverables, the claim was not questioned, although it seemed at first to contradict the record.
On Dec. 21, 2006, while notifying the Department of Energy and LANS that it would assess penalties for failure to finish scheduled work at Material Disposal Area C (MDA-C), the New Mexico Environment Department noted that the violation was the fifth enforcement action against the laboratory in six months. MDA-C is a dumpsite from the Cold War era. The laboratory was fined for not having completed four bore holes for testing on the 11.8-acre site.
"On that one, we had more than 50 holes and a whole suite of data and we opted to turn in as complete a report as we could at the time, without endangering our work force, the public or the environment, while we came up with a suitable plan for cleaning up the rest of it," said LANL spokesperson James Rickman.
The MDA-C milestone was the most notable one that was missed, he said.
Three other sets of penalties and those issued during the first few month's of LANS' assumption of responsibilities were technically not the fault of the new manager.
As in the case of a baseball relief pitcher, not accountable for scores made by runners already on base, the current LANL managers are charging missed deadlines to the previous managers when they can.
For example, a set of penalty violations totaling $2.3 million was proposed by NMED in October 2006 for storing mixed hazardous and not-hazardous waste from a former explosives processing building and then moving it to another unauthorized location.
That activity took place in 2005, before the LANS era began.
Similarly, violations during the cleanup of debris from an old incinerator at the Ash Pile site near the airport were settled for $50,095 at the end of Feb. 2007.
These occurred after the National Nuclear Security Administration, assumed direct responsibility for the cleanup of the site and technically could not be blamed on LANS.
The most recent settlement penalty of $251,870 reached in June 2007 was related to LANL's failure to report significant increases in chromium contamination in a monitoring well in late 2004. This was also something that took place during the University of California's watch.
UC was the sole manager of the LANL contract for 63 years, before it joined the LANS partnership and began to share the management within a newly formed and separate entity.
Asked about Anastasio's "103 out of 104" calculation, NMED replied with a prepared statement that did not directly contradict the LANL director, but clearly took a different view of the situation.
"LANL's efforts to implement the fence-to-fence cleanup order to date have been inadequate," stated the department in an e-mail on Thursday. "That is why we have been forced on several occasions to resort to stipulated penalties once deadlines have been missed. In particular, LANL has fallen far short of adequately characterizing groundwater conditions both with regard to assessment of releases and determining groundwater monitoring needs."
Rickman said the "bottom line" on Anastasio's statement was that "the laboratory has met the vast majority of its requirements of the Consent Order in the last year since LANS has had the contract."
With more than a hundred Consent Order deliverables, he said, LANS has met the "lion's share of those requirements."
Asked if that was a fair assessment, James Bearzi, the hazardous bureau chief who oversees work under the consent order, wondered why there had been no mention of the most recent notice of violation, mailed on June 1, but having to do with failure to take required water samples during May in Water Canyon.
"It's always somebody else's fault," Bearzi said. "Big deadlines, little deadlines, they all represent the lab's promise to New Mexico. When they blow it, they break that promise."
Rickman said the laboratory and the people in environmental programs are committed morally and ethically to the task.
"We know we need to clean up as quickly as possible and in such a way that we're going to protect the natural resources and also the taxpayer's investment," he said.
Bearzi said, "The laboratory's commitment to the community manifests itself in a variety of ways, not just in enforcement actions."