Federal officials would agree only to study the possibility of clearing out waste from the Area G pit and wouldn’t commit to following through, said Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch’s executive director.
“Ideally, the transuranic nuclear waste would go to WIPP, and the low-level radioactive materials would be buried in a landfill with liners and a leachate collection system. Capping and covering the on-site pit is problematic because it’s unlined and could allow toxins to leach into the groundwater,”
| March 23, 2022 santafenewmexican.com
Los Alamos National Laboratory will do extensive waste cleanup and fix a long-broken monitoring system for polluted runoff to comply with a settlement of a watchdog’s lawsuit.
The U.S. Department of Energy and Nuclear Watch New Mexico agreed to a settlement in federal court last week to end six years of litigation for what the watchdog group characterized as neglect of longtime issues.
“It’s now a legal obligation on the part of DOE,” said Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch’s executive director. “I do expect DOE will be cooperative in this.”
The lawsuit claimed the Energy Department had breached a 2005 agreement — known as a consent order — with the state Environment Department to clean up legacy waste generated during the Cold War and Manhattan Project.
State regulators have since sued the Energy Department to end a revised 2016 consent order they say created less stringent guidelines with few penalties for slow or deficient work.
Coghlan said he filed the lawsuit in 2016 partly because of the revamped consent order.
In an email, an Energy Department spokeswoman wrote the settlement reflects the agency’s commitment to cleaning up the lab’s legacy waste.
“DOE is pleased that it was able to reach an agreement to resolve this litigation in a manner that is productive and in the interest of the local communities,” wrote Stephanie Gallagher, a spokeswoman in the agency’s Environmental Management field office in Los Alamos.
Under the settlement, the Energy Department must:
- Reestablish a surface water flow-monitoring station near where Los Alamos Canyon meets the Rio Grande. The station, which acts as a warning system for runoff flowing from the lab to the Buckman Direct Diversion, was heavily damaged during a 2013 flood and was never replaced.
- Treat 158 corrugated metal culverts containing cemented radioactive liquid waste buried in Area G, the lab’s largest waste site. The pipes must be sheared down and packaged for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Southern New Mexico by March 30, 2024.
- Investigate and, if necessary, clean up 290 contaminated sites listed in the settlement by Oct. 1, 2024.
- Conduct a feasibility study for cleaning up a major waste pit at Area G and shipping roughly 900,000 cubic yards of material to appropriate disposal sites. Current plans call for capping and covering the pit.
During negotiations, the agency asked for later deadlines, Coghlan said, adding, “We insisted on speeding it up.”
Federal officials would agree only to study the possibility of clearing out waste from the Area G pit and wouldn’t commit to following through, Coghlan said.
Ideally, the transuranic nuclear waste would go to WIPP, and the low-level radioactive materials would be buried in a landfill with liners and a leachate collection system, he said. Capping and covering the on-site pit is problematic because it’s unlined and could allow toxins to leach into the groundwater, he said.
Lab officials have said the groundwater stands little risk of contamination because it’s roughly 1,000 feet below the waste pits. They also say a 2-foot-thick dirt and rock cover would prevent toxins from leaching into soil and groundwater.
Coghlan said replacing the system that monitors stormwater streaming down Los Alamos Canyon is important because the lab’s runoff can contain toxic pollutants that can go into the Rio Grande, a prime source of drinking water.
The original monitoring station warned Buckman Direct Diversion crews to close the intake gates during storms so the lab’s runoff could be checked, including for radioactive contaminants, Coghlan said.
“The canyon is a known pathway for plutonium contaminants,” he said, adding they can be carried as far as 20 miles to Cochiti Lake.
In the past several months, the Energy Department has been working with the San Ildefonso Pueblo and the Buckman Direct Diversion board to install a new monitoring station on tribal land, Gallagher wrote in her email.
The tribal council approved the installation in January, and the work is scheduled to be finished later this year, she wrote.