FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, February 25, 2021
The New Mexico Environment Department has announced that it is filing a lawsuit against the Department of Energy to terminate a “Consent Order” governing cleanup at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Nuclear Watch New Mexico, which has fought against that Consent Order ever since it went into effect nearly five years ago, strongly supports and applauds NMED’s decision.
Much to its credit, in 2005 the State of New Mexico successfully compelled DOE to enter into a strong, enforceable Consent Order after years of tough negotiations and lawsuits brought against it by DOE and the University of California (then LANL’s manager). However, at the Lab’s request the anti-regulation Susanna Martinez Administration eviscerated that Consent Order with more than 150 milestone extensions. Further, in a process riddled with conflicts of interest, the Martinez Administration negotiated a revised 2016 Consent Order that subordinated cleanup to the budget that DOE wants instead of having cleanup drive the budget. As a direct result, DOE added $900 million to LANL’s nuclear weapons programs in FY 2021 alone (to a total of $2.9 billion) while proposing to cut cleanup by nearly half to $120 million (fortunately Congress blocked that cut).
As late as 1996 LANL was claiming that groundwater contamination from its nuclear weapons programs was impossible, even going so far as to request a waiver from NMED from having to monitor for contamination to begin with (which was fortunately denied). Since then, extensive groundwater contamination from chromium, perchlorates, high explosives and VOCs has been documented.
As a harbinger of more to come, plutonium has been detected up to 240 feet below the surface of Area G, the Lab’s largest waste dump. LANL plans to “cap and cover” some 800,000 cubic yards of toxic and radioactive wastes at Area G, creating a permanent nuclear waste dump in unlined pits and shafts above our common groundwater that supplies most of our drinking water, some three miles uphill from the Rio Grande.
Despite the threat to irreplaceable water resources in this semi-arid State, the revised 2016 Consent Order allowed DOE to determine cleanup priorities based on its desired budget, which is the reverse of the original 2005 Consent Order. The 2016 Consent Order allowed LANL and DOE to get out of cleanup by simply claiming that it’s too expensive or impractical to clean up.
Shortly after the 2016 Consent Order went into effect, DOE took advantage of it by estimating a lifetime budget that projected a top range of $3.8 billion to clean up the Lab (with nearly half already spent), while delaying completion to 2040. That worked out to only around $150 million per year, when NMED is already on record that $250 million per year is needed. DOE is planning “cleanup” on the cheap. Worst of all, DOE claimed that only 5,000 cubic meters of mixed radioactive wastes needed to be cleaned up, willfully ignoring the estimated 800,000 cubic yards in Area G alone.
Today’s press release by the Environment Department’s closes with “NMED will vigorously pursue this matter to ensure timely clean-up of legacy contamination that New Mexicans deserve through a comprehensive, expeditious and enforceable clean-up plan at LANL.”
Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, commented, “What New Mexicans really deserve to have needed cleanup drive funding instead of the budget that DOE wants driving cleanup. We strongly salute the Environment Department for taking legal action against DOE’s scheme of expanding dirty nuclear weapons production over cleanup.”
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The New Mexico Environment Department’s press release announcing its litigation is available at:
NMED’s complaint initiating its lawsuit is available at:
For Nuclear Watch New Mexico’s detailed critique (including alleged conflicts of interests) of the 2016 Consent Order see: