The great dust-up
Group pursues more investigation of accumulated particles
ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor
PICURIS PUEBLO, N.M. - The New Mexico Environment Department is organizing a follow-up project on a watchdog report last July that found radioactive dust particles outside Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Bill Bartels of the state bureau that provides oversight of the Department of Energy said he had consulted with LANL officials to begin developing "data quality objectives" for distinguishing between natural occurring radon levels and reported lab-related radioactive particles in dust samples from homes, businesses and environmental sources adjacent to the laboratory and in the surrounding communities.
Bartels discussed the early steps of the project at a meeting of the Community Radiation Monitoring Group Wednesday held in the "Big Room" of the Picuris Tribal government building. Some two-dozen people, including a number of representatives from tribal environmental departments and groups, were present.
The main purpose of the meeting was to hear from Marco Kaltofen of Boston Chemical Data, the author of the study conducted late last year and released July 10. He was joined in the teleconference by Tom Carpenter, nuclear oversight director for the Government Accountability Project and publisher of the report.
The unresolved status of the report continues to raise concerns outside the perimeter of the laboratory and a number of strong feelings and alarms were expressed at the meeting.
Kaltofen reviewed the study and reiterated some of its key findings. He highlighted his analysis that of approximately 80 samples several indoor dust samples had higher radiation levels than surrounding soils. Six or seven of the highest radiation levels were found in dusts, and "significant" plutonium 239/240 detections were found, he said, adding, "just background doesn't account for the findings."
Responding at the time, DOE and laboratory officials said the claims in the report did not match the data. They attributed the radioactivity to fallout from atmospheric testing and naturally occurring background.
In a two-page reply, the laboratory welcomed input on ways for improving its "extensive monitoring regimen," that currently includes radiation sampling from soil, groundwater and vegetation.
While not disputing the data, the lab's response expressed "concerns that the conclusions drawn or implied are erroneous."
When Kaltofen was asked about his results in July, he said he was disappointed by the laboratory.
"I would have expected some new testing and new data from them prior to releasing conclusions," he said in an e-mail to the Monitor. "The point of the study is that these particulate vectors remain unexplored by LANL."
Among other comments, Kaltofen acknowledged that NMED had said a larger number of samples was needed, a point with which he agreed.
He and Carpenter both emphasized the budgetary limitations under which they worked on the original screening project and the uncertainty of future funding.
During the meeting Wednesday, Kaltofen said he would share his samples with the laboratory and agreed to consult on the follow-up work. He outlined needs for a follow-up report, if another visit were possible, but encouraged LANL and NMED to conduct routine indoor dust sampling as part of their routine responsibilities.
Bartels said his proposed dust study would depend on what question needed to be answered.
Sheri Kotowski of the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group said, "What I'm seeing already happening is the citizen's excluded from the conversation."
Bartels said, "You have to let us think and do some work and then we'll come to the public."
The Community Radiation Monitoring Group meets monthly for the purpose of understanding and communicating public health issues related to radiation from airborne materials that result from activities at LANL.