Sep 17, 2007

Future Water, part 2: Cold War cleanup

New Mexican Story

By ANDY LENDERMAN | The New Mexican

September 16, 2007

LOS ALAMOS — Uphill, there’s 1.38 million cubic yards of nuclear and chemical waste. Downhill, there’s the Rio Grande, one of the state’s main water supplies.

Waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory has yet to seriously impact New Mexico’s drinking-water wells, with the exception of one Los Alamos County well that’s been shut down over production and pollution concerns.

But as Santa Fe prepares to start diverting water supplies directly from the river, environmental activists are focusing attention on what they see as warning signs.

Tests found five contaminants in parts of the regional aquifer, including one that would exceed safe drinking-water standards: hexavalent chromium, which was found in a monitoring well, not a drinking-water well.

And there is uncertainty whether very low levels of plutonium, a dangerous substance created for use in nuclear weapons, were found in one of Santa Fe’s community wells..

“There are definitely too many questions that are unanswered at this point,” said Joni Arends, spokeswoman for Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a Santa Fe group that contends the lab needs new monitoring wells and more sampling.

Based on interviews with state, federal and city officials as well as members of environmental groups, it’s clear there is a lot of work to do, both in monitoring for possible water pollution and cleaning up old dumps from the Cold War. But no one can say with certainty whether lab contaminants will ever seriously show up in local water resources.

Even if that happens, however, water experts say the pollution could be avoided by shutting down a well or removing contaminants before the water reaches your faucet.

“If or when contaminants from LANL begin to arrive at the water supply well, there will be time to take actions to protect the water supply,” said Mat Johansen, an environmental manager with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The nuclear weapons scientists at Los Alamos helped win World War II and the Cold War. Today, they maintain the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

One side effect of this work is that the lab, in the near future, needs to spend $1 billion on environmental cleanup of roughly 700 places on its 43-acre site in the Jemez Mountains northwest of Santa Fe.

The water that must be scrutinized falls into three categories:

  • First, the deep aquifer, which feeds today’s drinking-water wells for places such as Los Alamos County and the city of Santa Fe.
  • Second, Rio Grande surface water, which soon will be tapped for Santa Fe-area drinking supplies when the Buckman Direct Diversion Project comes online.
  • Third, storm runoff from canyons on lab property, which releases pollution trapped in sediments and sends it downhill toward the Rio Grande. Some of those canyons were used as Cold War dumps.

Measurable amounts of chemical or nuclear pollution already have been found in parts of each of these three sources. But that doesn’t mean it is in the drinking water that comes to your house or exceeds health standards.

State Environment Secretary Ron Curry says it’s inevitable that some pollution from Los Alamos will reach drinking-water sources. But the lab spends millions of dollars each year to clean up its waste and track where it goes, and environmental managers say they’re doing all they can to stop problems before they happen.

“The potential for impacts on the water supply is a serious concern that our program is designed to help define and prevent,” Johansen said.

Danny Katzman of the Los Alamos lab said: “That’s everything our program and the consent order are about ... ensuring that that doesn’t happen.” The consent order is a legal agreement between the lab and the state that governs cleanup of hazardous waste.

Five contaminants in deep aquifers

The five contaminants from lab operations that have shown up in deep groundwater aquifers, 600 to 1,200 feet below the lab, include: high explosives, hexavalent chromium, perchlorate, nitrate and tritium. Only chromium has been found in some places at levels exceeding state and federal drinking-water standards. Nine pollutants are in intermediate aquifers from 120 to 500 feet below the lab. These include high explosives, 1,4 dioxane, tritium, chlorinated solvents, hexavalent chromium, barium, boron, perchlorate and nitrate.

These chemicals and a radioactive material stem from weapons production, conventional explosives testing, research and a power plant.

These contaminants are not found throughout the aquifer but have been located in specific places. They don’t pose a public-health risk until they’re found in drinking water at levels above established health standards, many experts agree.

Drinking-water wells tap into the deep aquifer at 600 to 1,200 feet. (Although wells may share the same aquifer as a pollutant, it takes time for the pollution to move toward the drinking water.)

Several contaminants show up in surface or near-surface water, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Some of the intermediate pollutants exceed health standards, and some of the alluvial streams do too — but they’re not used for drinking water. Some underground radioactive waste that came downhill during the Cold War has been found just upstream from the Buckman river-diversion site.

Radionuclides such as tritium can cause an increased cancer risk when they exceed government standards.

These problems can be aggressively treated before the water hits water pipes, city and lab water experts say. And staffers on the Buckman project have suggested the lab pay for five projects aimed at making the water safer for city residents.

Millions are being spent year after year to monitor the situation, and New Mexico’s senators are trying to get more money into the cleanup side of the lab’s budget.

“Currently our status is that the drinking-water supply has not been compromised and that contaminants have not left the site, to our knowledge,” said Tina Behr-Andres of the lab’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Division. “Our network isn’t complete. But we’ve not seen that.”

More work needed to safeguard water

New Mexico’s environment secretary has pushed the lab to build a better set of monitoring wells that can track pollution and to build barriers to prevent it from flowing downhill toward the river.

Still, major unknowns surround water quality in arid Northern New Mexico:

  • The lab’s monitoring network is incomplete, and some critics say it doesn’t work. The lab will have to drill new wells at $1 million to $1.5 million apiece. The lab has already proposed five new deep aquifer wells and two intermediate-depth monitoring wells.

“People are entitled to clean groundwater, now and future generations,” said Bob Gilkeson, a former lab scientist who is allied with Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. “And it’s our responsibility to protect the groundwater resources. And that simply is not being done.”

Katzman, who heads the new well project at LANL, said the lab is working to ensure that pollutants are caught before they leave the lab and get into water supplies. “Our monitoring network is driven by those kinds of concerns,” he said.

  • Federal officials need another five years to complete an inventory of the contamination on lab property.
  • No decision has been made on what to do with a 63-acre site known as Area G, an unlined dump of low-level waste sitting on a mesa above the river. It could be moved, capped or a combination of the two.

Some canyons on lab property release radioactive contaminants such as plutonium — albeit in small amounts — from lab property into the Rio Grande. This usually happens during runoff from major storms or from snowmelt. Research shows no increased health risk, the lab says.

“The laboratory, under the consent order, has a considerable amount of work to do to really nail down not just the extent of the contamination and do something to clean it up, but also to understand ... threats on water supplies, including Buckman,” said James Bearzi of the New Mexico Environment Department.

Lab critic says dilution factor a plus

The planned river diversion will take in water downstream from where plutonium is buried in river sediment, water officials wrote to the local board overseeing the Buckman project. There’s enough plutonium there to exceed regulatory risk limits for long-term residential exposure. But the plutonium will not be dug up, according to the memo.

Even one of the lab’s harshest critics is not worried about contamination to either the Buckman wells or the river. “The deep aquifer contains a lot of water, and the Rio Grande contains a lot of water,” Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said. “And the dilution factors are very large.”

However, Mello added it’s not OK to contaminate the aquifer, and groundwater pollution alone is a tiny piece of the problem.

“The 360-degree threat includes accidents, sudden surface-water contamination episodes and the totally uncertain future of millions of cubic feet of nuclear and chemical waste ... in place in a bad location,” Mello said.

Still, any possible pollution can be treated before it hits the drinking water, experts say — assuming the government pays for it. “First of all, we can work with LANL and (the New Mexico Environment Department) to devise what we’re calling an early-warning system that will allow us to simply stop diverting water during those times when we can anticipate high levels of concentrations in the water,” said Rick Carpenter, project manager for the Buckman diversion.

An early-warning system would measure storms and notify people at the diversion structure to stop diverting water and let the pollution go downstream.

Secondly, a plant will be designed to effectively treat the water before it goes into the drinking-water system, Carpenter said.

“These transuranics and radionuclides like to bond very strongly to smaller particles like sediment and silt,” he said.

The bottom line is that Carpenter is confident the pollution can be dealt with. “We feel that between an early-warning system ... combined with a very robust, state-of-the-art water treatment plant will enable us not to exceed any federal drinking-water standard,” Carpenter said.

The lab has committed to setting up and staffing an early warning system, Katzman said.

Arends of Concerned Citizens said that work is important because of what’s happened in other states. The Department of Energy “has a bad track record of contaminating water supplies surrounding facilities,” she said.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to protect (the) water supply,” Katzman said. “That’s of paramount importance. It’s our highest priority. But we’re prepared, in the event that something occurs that we are unable to mitigate or prevent, to take the appropriate actions to ensure the safe delivery of water.”

Contact Andy Lenderman at 986-3073 or


Anonymous said...

Pit production and environment cleanup... LANL's exiting future.

Anonymous said...

You misspelled "exciting", though "exiting" might actually be more appropriate...

Anonymous said...

The levels of contamination do not seem to warrant $1B in spending (per the SF New Mexican, 9/17/2007).

Perhaps cleanup of surface (or near surface) contaminant sources would be sufficient to reduce the risk to "acceptable levels".