January 14, 1997

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Lee Lysne or Jay Coghlan 505-986-1973



Facing $2.5 billion in possible penalties and the potential shut down of many of its facilities, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the nation's premier weapons laboratory, has settled a landmark lawsuit based on LANL's violations of the federal Clean Air Act regulating levels of radioactive air emissions.

"We have testimony from whistleblowers documenting the lab's intentional violations of the Clean Air Act air emissions requirements, evidence that the lab willfully ignored problems and violations, and a history of continuous violations since 1990 which even the lab has admitted," stated Jay Coghlan, program director for Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), the Santa Fe-based nuclear safety citizens group which brought the suit against LANL, which emits plutonium and other long-lived radionuclides to the air.

In the precedent-setting ending to a five-year legal battle, filed in federal district court in Albuquerque on Tuesday, January 14th, CCNS and the Department of Energy (DOE) entered into a consent decree that requires independent, non-governmental auditing of the radioactive air emissions monitoring program at LANL. LANL has admitted that 31 of its 33 stacks emitting radionuclides to the air were not in compliance with the law.

"What this means, " says Coghlan, "is that LANL, which prides itself on its scientific reputation, didn't know how much radioactivity it was emitting, because its monitoring systems were non-complying." This is believed to be the first time a facility in the US nuclear weapons complex has submitted to independent auditing of any aspect of its program.

LANL claims that it achieved full compliance with the law in June of 1996. CCNS disputes that claim. To date, there has been no independent verification of LANL's claim by EPA or by any outside entity.

"Under the Clean Air Act, citizens groups like ours don't receive monetary awards," stated Lee Lysne, Executive Director of CCNS. " The penalties would simply have gone to the U.S. Treasury. Instead, we obtained agreement for the independent audits, as well as improvements to the LANL air monitoring system, and several projects which DOE is going to fund." The consent decree between CCNS and DOE requires DOE to pay for as many as four independent audits of LANL's radioactive air emissions program, to be conducted by a team led by John Till, Ph.D., President of Radiological Assessments Corporation in South Carolina. Dr. Till is a national expert in dose assessments and has participated in many studies of nuclear weapons plants. The audits will occur in 1997, 2000, and if the independent auditor believes it desirable, again in 2002 and 2003.

Although the results of the audit are non-binding, LANL is expected to take them seriously. "If the auditor finds significant problems, we expect LANL to rectify them promptly, or we'll be back in court to see that they do," stated Carol Oppenheimer, partner in Simon & Oppenheimer, counsel for CCNS.

The consent decree also requires the DOE to pay for CCNS to monitor the work of the independent auditor, as an additional safeguard for the independence of the process. CCNS' scientific consultant, the Takoma Park, Maryland, based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), is nationally recognized for its pioneering work in assessing environmental damage and estimating compliance with air pollution regulations from the operation of nuclear weapons plants.

"The burden of proof that a facility is in compliance with environmental laws should lie on the party that is emitting the pollutants, not on those who are exposed to them," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of IEER. "Otherwise, it encourages those who are emitting pollutants to avoid making measurements and instead to make unsubstantiated claims of compliance. This is an historic settlement agreement. We shall have little to pass on to our children if we do not protect the environment from pollutants, some of which have half lives longer than the history of human civilization."

Bernd Franke, IEER's Executive Director, who provided consulting advice to CCNS in the lawsuit, said "IEER has found that claims of compliance by nuclear weapons plants have often been made on the basis of poor and incomplete data or inappropriate models. Our goal over the next several years will be to ensure that Los Alamos makes the efforts that are needed to go from a mere claim of compliance to one that can be clearly demonstrated from the monitoring data."

The consent decree also requires LANL to change its air monitoring system to include some additional air monitoring stations between LANL and Santa Fe, and some increased monitoring of its diffuse emissions. According to Coghlan, "Diffuse emissions are radioactivity which comes from waste dumps and open air firing sites, for example, rather than from a stack. They need to be monitored, too, and we believe the current DOE monitoring is inadequate. These changes to the current air monitoring system should give better and more complete data about what LANL is really putting into the air."

As an additional part of the settlement, DOE will make its air emissions data available by Internet for the next five years. The settlement also requires DOE to give the University of New Mexico (UNM) Public Health Program $450,000 to establish a course of environmental studies related to the Clean Air Act.

In addition to the UNM funding, which will be administered by Nina Wallerstein, Ph.D., DOE will be required to fund radiation training for individuals to be appointed by the counties, cities and pueblos surrounding the lab, as well as CCNS members. The lab is also required to make radiation detection equipment available for people who have completed the training course to use in evaluating citizens' concerns about radioactivity contamination in surrounding communities. Lastly, DOE will pay a $150,000 penalty to the U.S. Treasury under the agreement. Siegfried Hecker, director of the lab, remains as a defendant, based on allegations of his personal involvement in the 6 year long violations at the lab.

According to Lysne, "This decision represents a major victory for citizen activism and the community's right to know. Public support enabled CCNS to fight the lab and win. We believe this victory will inspire communities across the country to demand environmental accountability."

For additional media information: Contact, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, and Bernd Franke of IEER 301-270-5500.

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