LANL Fined For Failure to Report Chromium VI Contamination Found in Groundwater September 15, 2006

NAS Revisits Regional Water Issues August 24,2006

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The Rio Grande Watershed Initiative

Ten million people downstream from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) use the Rio Grande for drinking, agriculture and recreation. Currently, the Cities of Santa Fe, Albuquerque and El Paso are considering diverting water from the Rio Grande for drinking. However, possible waste sources in northern New Mexico require that we investigate the quality of the water flowing through New Mexico into Texas and Mexico, particularly considering that water compacts with our neighbors to the south require that we guarantee both water quantity and water quality.

Therefore, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) created the Rio Grande Watershed Initiative in order to investigate, through independent technical means, the effects that LANL operations may have on the water quality of the Rio Grande.

Through the Rio Grande Watershed Initiative, CCNS has:

  • Organized two rafting trips from Buckman to Cochiti Dam in order to collect samples of moss and water from the springs that emanate from beneath LANL and feed the Rio Grande. Those samples were independently analyzed for chemicals and radionuclides.

  • Released Early Warning: A Radioactive Rio Grande, a report by CCNS's technical collaborators, The RadioActivist Campaign (TRAC). Based on the samples collected by TRAC, low levels of radioactive cesium-137 were found in a spring that feeds the Rio Grande. The finding prompted the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to develop a new experimental method for sampling very low levels of cesium in surface water.

  • Participated in the State of New Mexico's Triennial Review of its surface water quality standards by supporting the testimony of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Amigos Bravos, a Taos-based environmental group dedicated to stewardship of the Rio Grande. Evidence was presented that supported the NMED's position that ephemeral streams that are created by stormwater runoff and snow melt in the canyon bottoms on LANL property should be regulated by NMED.

  • The New Mexico Court of Appeals determined that the State of New Mexico has authority to regulate the quality of ephemeral streams that flow through the canyons near LANL and into the Rio Grande.

  • Collaborated with George Rice, an independent groundwater hydrologist, in order to investigate the groundwater pathways from LANL to the Rio Grande and the time it may take for contaminants to travel from LANL waste sources to the river. His report, The Potential for LANL Contamination to Reach the Rio Grande, was released by CCNS in August 2004.

    Waste Sources at LANL

    South Fork of Acid Canyon/ Acid Canyon/ Pueblo Canyon System: From 1944 to 1964, LANL dumped untreated and treated liquid radioactive waste into the South Fork of Acid Canyon. Between 1944 and1952, between two and three million gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste was dumped into the canyon. In 1967, LANL conducted an inadequate cleanup of the South Fork and transferred the area to Los Alamos County. The South Fork was converted into a county park and later the municipal swimming pool and skateboard park were built nearby. In the late 1990s, the NMED found hot spots of plutonium contamination at 7,700 picocuries per gram of soil. In 2001, another cleanup of the South Fork by LANL left an average of 206 picocuries of plutonium per gram of soil. Cleanup levels at LANL's sister laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, are 2.5 picocuries per gram, or nearly 80 times lower than cleanup levels in the South Fork.

    Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility: The Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility at Technical Area (TA) 50 opened in 1963 and treats hazardous and radioactive liquid waste. Most of the hazardous or radioactive constituents are separated from the liquid and stored at the waste disposal facility at TA-54. However, about 60,000 gallons per month of liquid effluents containing americium, plutonium, nitrate, perchlorate and fluoride at levels considered to be below regulatory concern are discharged into the upper reaches Mortandad Canyon. The discharges are usually absorbed by the soil before reaching the lower reaches of Mortandad Canyon.

    Solid Radioactive and Chemical Waste Facility at TA-54: TA-54 covers 943 acres and includes Area G, LANL's radioactive waste dump, which encompasses 63 acres. Since 1957, Area G has received plutonium-contaminated sludge, tritium waste, fuel rod elements and contaminated waste from demolished buildings for storage or disposal. Area G contains over seven million cubic feet of radioactive waste. Approximately 40,000 drums of plutonium-contaminated waste are stored in fabric tents awaiting transport to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant while low-level radioactive waste is disposed daily in unlined shallow pits, trenches and shafts bored into the underlying tuff.

    Hydrogeologic System of the Pajarito Plateau

    LANL is located on the Pajarito Plateau. The complex hydrogeologic system of the Pajarito Plateau includes subsurface water found in canyon bottoms, alluvial groundwater, intermediate perched groundwater and the regional aquifer. The regional aquifer provides as many as 1.43 billion gallons of drinking water per year to LANL and the communities of Los Alamos and White Rock, as well as Bandelier National Monument through 11 deep wells in three well fields found on Pajarito Plateau and in Los Alamos and Guaje Canyons.

    In 1995, NMED ordered LANL, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, to create a Hydrogeologic Workplan for investigating groundwater contamination and protection at LANL and determining if contaminants in the system exceed regulatory limits or risk levels.

    Contaminated surface or groundwater have been found in the following areas:

    Stormwater in Pueblo Canyon where it connects with Los Alamos Canyon: In January 2003, NMED reported stormwater sampling results containing the highest levels of plutonium leaving LANL property ever recorded. LANL estimates that there are approximately 1,000 millicuries of plutonium stored in the Pueblo Canyon system sediments. The median plutonium concentration found in six storm samples was 94 picocuries per liter, or approximately 100 times the stormwater concentrations that were reported by LANL for 1995 through 1999, and more than three times the Department of Energy Derived Concentration Guideline for plutonium.

    During a single storm in the summer of 2002, NMED estimates that over 18 millicuries of plutonium left LANL property in storm water in the Pueblo Canyon system. This is two to three times the average annual amount of plutonium leaving LANL in the 1950s and 1960s, before LANL was forced to comply with environmental regulations. For comparison, in 1957 LANL released 44 millicuries of plutonium and in 1968 there were 22 millicuries released.

    CCNS Spring on the Rio Grande: This west side spring was discovered in October 2002 during CCNS's first independent sampling trip along the Rio Grande. Chemical analysis by NMED indicates that the spring contains uranium, gross alpha contamination, radioactive tritium and nitrate. These levels do not exceed New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission or federal Environmental Protection Agency Standards. However, uranium, gross alpha and nitrate contamination levels are at half of the current standards. Uranium and gross alpha contamination is at over 90% of current standards.

    After reviewing more than 30 years of LANL's Environmental Surveillance Reports, it appears that the chemistry of the CCNS Spring is unique amongst the springs on the west side of the Rio Grande. The chemistry of the CCNS Spring is also unique amongst local wastewater streams, such as the White Rock sanitary treatment facility. This may indicate that the CCNS Spring emanates from a previously undiscovered groundwater pathway. For more information, please see

    Spring 4 Series in Pajarito Canyon: The Spring 4 series also feeds into the Rio Grande. Perchlorate and nitrate have been found in the Spring 4 series at the confluence of Pajarito Canyon and the Rio Grande.

    In March 2004, NMED found low levels of radioactive tritium in the series. NMED believes that this contamination is a result of LANL operations. Although the tritium does not yet pose a risk to human health or safety, NMED argues that it is further proof of the need for thorough and adequate cleanup of the LANL complex.

    Revised August 19, 2004