Journal Staff Writer
Just two miles or so above the spot where a multi-million-dollar project will divert river water and pipe it southeast to Santa Fe, Los Alamos Canyon empties into the brown waters of the Rio Grande.
The canyon carries storm water from two watersheds in which low levels of "remnant contaminants" such as cesium, strontium, plutonium, all radioactive isotopes, and the toxin PCB have been detected.
It's also the only way in which water— and water-borne contaminants— from Los Alamos National Laboratory can reach the Rio Grande above the proposed site for the Buckman Direct Diversion Project. All other canyons empty into the Rio Grande below the diversion site.
During most times of the year, water from Los Alamos Canyon dries up before reaching the Rio Grande.
But it's currently running strong, surging toward a confluence with the Rio Grande and the spot where the $181 million Buckman project, paid for by local governments, will soon be built.
The proximity between former nuclear weapon-making sites and Santa Fe County's most expensive public works project ever undertaken is startling to many and unnerving to some.
And it raises one very important question: Will the water be safe to drink?
"There is no risk"
Standing atop a rock outcropping overlooking Los Alamos Canyon, Danny Katzman pointed to the river below and tried to put the contamination into perspective.
Katzman, the program manager of LANL's water stewardship program, doesn't deny the presence of contaminants along the stream's banks.
But he says a series of tests have shown the contaminants exist in such small quantities that even a hiker who traversed the affected area 200 times a year wouldn't see his or her health suffer.
"What we've determined is there is no risk," Katzman said.
LANL officials are sensitive about the "bad neighbor" label some area residents have affixed to them since a July 2006 reading at a Buckman well site west of Santa Fe detected trace amounts of plutonium, an element that can do serious harm to internal organs if consumed.
LANL officials cast doubt on that test result but are taking preventive action just in case.
Katzman and others point to a series of measures— such as water monitoring stations, an early warning system in case of flooding and the building of weirs, capped basins and a wetland area to trap water-borne sedimentation— as proof the lab is going above and beyond what it is required to do.
"We understand the need to protect the resource, period," Katzman said.
Nuclear watchdog groups aren't convinced LANL has done all it can, however.
Joni Ahrends, the executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said LANL received $345 million from Congress in the aftermath of the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire to prevent contaminants from getting into the Rio Grande.
But she says LANL didn't do enough to address the situation.
"They didn't do the necessary work to keep the contaminants from going off site," Ahrends said. "It's not enough, and it hasn't been enough and they've had the resources."
The fire, which burned about 48,000 acres, has caused run-off season to occur earlier in the year since much of shade-giving trees were burned to the ground.
In addition, Ahrends said more erosion now occurs, meaning much of the contamination that previously lay on hillsides has been swept to the canyon floor.
She's particularly worried about contaminants that travel on small particles called colloids, in which one substance is evenly dispersed throughout another— in this case, water.
Much of the contamination stems from testing conducted when the current Los Alamos town site was a key testing area that held inventory from the Manhattan Project, a famous atomic bomb-building endeavor.
Pueblo Canyon, which runs into Los Alamos Canyon, has been the primary recipient of the legacy and is one of Ahrends' largest concerns.
In fact, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety has filed an appeal of the final environmental impact statement that paves the way for the Buckman project to move forward.
Treating the problem
To city and county officials, who have largely staked their reputations to the success of the Buckman project, the clean-up actions at LANL aren't being counted on.
Santa Fe City Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger, who chairs the Buckman board, has touted the state-of-the-art water treatment process that will be utilized before Buckman water reaches local taps.
"We are not relying on LANL to do what they're supposed to do," Wurzburger said. "Our system will be designed to remove contaminants of all kinds."
An independent study by University of New Mexico civil engineering professor Kerry Howe concluded the treatment plant will be using the best available technology to remove contaminants, Wurzburger said.
Despite the reassurances, there's still public wariness about the Buckman project.
Santa Fe County Commission candidate Joe Auburg has made the Buckman issue one of his top talking points.
Auburg, a water planner for 40 years, said local officials have only secured three of the 28 permits needed to break ground on the project this fall.
"If they're committed to that process, they better get busy," Auburg said Friday.
And Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, who recently traveled to LANL for a site tour of potential pathways via which contaminants could reach the Rio Grande, admitted he's not immune from the winds of public unrest.
"It is a concern," Coss said of the project's public perception.
While Coss told the Journal his comfort level with the project is high, he said he plans to encourage New Mexico's congressional delegation to push for more federal appropriations aimed at cleaning up LANL contamination dating back to the 1940s and '50s.
According to a 2005 consent order filed by the state Environment Department, residual contaminants on LANL's 36 square miles must be identified and cleaned up by 2015.
But state Environment Secretary Ron Curry said earlier this week recent events have led him to believe the U.S. Department of Energy, which operates LANL, wants to renegotiate and weaken the terms of its cleanup agreement with the state.
The state agency has already fined the lab $750,000 for violations of the cleanup agreement, and Coss also said he wants to see a pro-active approach from laboratory officials.
"It needs to be a priority in their funding requests," Coss said. "They need to be cleaning up at the source so we're not managing sediment for the next 60 years."
A global legacy
The odd-looking stations along Los Alamos Canyon appear to be something left behind by a NASA expedition.
In fact, the 80 or so devices scattered around the Pajarito Plateau sit motionless for much of the year. But when water levels reach a certain height, the contraptions spring into action, taking samples of water in small cylindrical tubes.
If the tubes detect contamination, a signal can be sent to the Buckman operator, who can close the diversion gate and prevent any of the contaminants from reaching the pipeline even before it reaches the water treatment center.
The "early warning" system was actually suggested by Katzman and was adopted as one of six requests made by the Buckman board in a letter sent to LANL in October 2007 to help ensure contamination doesn't shut down the Buckman project.
Claiming all six of those requests have been addressed, Katzman plans to send a formal response back to the board in the next two weeks.
But he and other LANL officials don't feel they should be viewed as the only source of harmful pollutants.
"People talk about Los Alamos contamination like it's somehow worse, but it's really no different than the other stuff that's out there," Katzman said. "The amount of global fallout going down the Rio Grande is equally impactful."
After his site tour, Coss came away with positive things to say about LANL's efforts to address Buckman-related concerns.
"I'm reassured the situation can be managed," Coss said.
The Buckman project, once it's operating at full bore, will divert nearly three billion gallons of water per year from the Rio Grande.
But even that much water won't be able to fully quench Santa Fe's thirst. Groundwater from area wells and flows from Santa Fe's twin reservoirs located just east of the city will be used to balance the regional water portfolio.
So while the Buckman project will use surface water, the condition of ground water near the Buckman site is also a concern.
Certain contaminants are known to work their way down through geological layers to aquifers, though such a process takes decades at a minimum.
For that reason, LANL has installed monitors at varying depths to keep track of potential contaminants.
Katzman said it's unlikely, if not impossible, that unknown contaminants could be working their way toward ground water supplies. But others aren't so sure.
Ahrends said the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't have safety standards for some of the substances that may have been tested at LANL during its bomb-building heyday.
"They've used every single element in the periodic table to discover if they can be used in nuclear weapons," she said. "We don't know (the potential impact)."
Buckman Direct Diversion Project Details:
- Tentatively approved $181 million contract.
- 11-mile pipeline from Rio Grande to Santa Fe.
- Includes state-of-the-art water treatment plant.
- Expected to be operational in 2011.
Low levels of cesium, strontium, plutonium and toxic PCBs have been found in Pueblo and Los Alamos Canyons within the confines of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
But data compiled by LANL indicates the Santa Fe River actually has a higher PCB level during recent run-off testing than seven different Rio Grande sites.