What public engagement?

This article was originally published July 6, 2019 in the Santa Fe New Mexican

Article Written by NukeWatch NM Volunteer: ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

The Department of Energy’s new attempt at “enhanced public engagement” on legacy nuclear waste cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory failed both its stated objectives to consider public input and provide public education. To turn things around, officials should actually listen to public attendees and provide complete information at future meetings.

In the two-hour June 26 forum in Los Alamos, officials from the department’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office, alongside N3B, the contractor tasked with implementing the cleanup, repeatedly proclaimed their interest in hearing from the public and pledged total transparency, but they didn’t give anyone in the packed room a chance to speak.

The only “stakeholders” who spoke were Energy and N3B employees. The “Stakeholder Engagement” and “Community Values” sessions entailed a professional N3B public relations expert reading and answering questions from selected question cards. All in all, the environmental management field office only allowed a handful of such restricted questions, denying the one audience member who had the audacity to actually try to ask a question out loud.

In the future, the field office should allocate at least half of the time to audience questions and commentary. The public should be able to ask unfiltered questions aloud, instead of submitting written questions from which PR experts can choose.

It wasn’t just the lack of real public participation that was troubling, but also the serious misrepresentations on cleanup work from environmental management and N3B.

One glossy environmental management brochure claimed more than half of the LANL legacy cleanup has been completed, omitting the fundamental fact that the vast majority of LANL’s nuclear waste is not included in the planned cleanup. Directly contradicting the Department of Energy and N3B’s claims of total transparency, they have already decided behind closed doors to “cap and cover” 150,000 cubic meters of radioactive, toxic waste in unlined pits and trenches at the lab’s Area G, thus creating a permanent nuclear waste dump that will threaten our water resources into perpetuity.

Energy and N3B presenters touted their experience working to clean up the Rocky Flats Plant, a Colorado plutonium pit production site turned national wildlife refuge. None mentioned the shortcomings of the cleanup, which allowed high levels of plutonium contamination to remain under 3 feet of soil and left swaths of land permanently contaminated. That’s exactly what Northern New Mexicans should reject, a Rocky Flats style cleanup on the cheap.

Future meetings should feature information from local organizations that have been monitoring nuclear cleanup at LANL for years and that could fill in the any omissions. Any researcher worth her salt knows you can’t rely on only one source of information to get the full story.

Finally, it’s important that environmental management office and N3B officials don’t patronize the public by overstating the cleanup’s complexity, which was repeatedly mentioned throughout the meeting. While cleanup studies and related documents can certainly pack in a lot of jargon and acronyms, the core issues at stake are not too complicated to understand.

Dangerous waste is threatening our precious water resources. Years after cleanup efforts began, there have been far too many missed deadlines and billions of taxpayer dollars spent without sufficient results. There’s a chromium plume that recent samples show is four times more contaminated than the state limit a quarter-mile from a drinking water production well for Los Alamos County. You don’t have to be able to dissect a consent order cover to cover to understand that nuclear contamination is a mess whose cleanup is way overdue.

If the Los Alamos field office and N3B are really interested in public input, officials in future meetings need to spend more time listening than speaking and speak the whole truth when they do.

Alicia Sanders-Zakre is a volunteer with Nuclear Watch New Mexico. She lives in Santa Fe.

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