NMED Issues Draft Cleanup Order for LANL

* The New Mexico Environment Department (or NMED) issued what may be the most comprehensive draft cleanup order ever to Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) last week. The order is in response to NMED's May 2nd determination that, "past or present storage, treatment or disposal of hazardous and solid waste at the facility may result in an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment."

LANL disagrees with NMED's determination. Beverly Ramsey, of LANL's division of risk reduction and environmental stewardship, contends that LANL's own monitoring demonstrates that, "risks to the public and the environment from past and current operations are minimal." Nevertheless, the draft orders LANL to complete a thorough investigation of known and yet to be discovered contamination at sites in and around the facility under the state's Hazardous Waste Act. The investigation will include a review of the historical operations at the sites.

NMED hazardous waste bureau chief, James Bearzi, said that LANL will not be required to clean up all contamination, particularly considering that some cleanup may prove impossible. However, NMED will require LANL to contain its contamination. The order provides a framework that addresses all areas contaminated with hazardous and radioactive contamination since LANL's opening in 1943, including landfills on the mesa tops and canyon bottoms; testing, outfall and disposal areas; rock, soils and sediments; spring water, surface water, the regional aquifer, and other sources of ground water.

Although LANL estimates that the cleanup process could take as long as 40 years, Environment Department Secretary Pete Maggiore, says "This is our sincere attempt to accelerate the process." The draft order includes a schedule that may reduce the process by 20 years. NMED plans to issue requirements for storing and disposing of waste later this year in an effort to tighten control of the waste at LANL.

Maggiore is hoping the order will provide leverage for the Department of Energy (or DOE) and LANL to request more cleanup funding from Congress. LANL's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2003 is close to $2 billion and it is one of a few DOE sites without an anticipated closure date. For that reason, LANL is low on DOE's list for cleanup and receives less funding than for other DOE facilities set for closure, such as Rocky Flats near Denver, Colorado. The President's 2003 proposed cleanup budget includes $48.5 million for LANL and more than 12 times that amount, $609 million, for Rocky Flats.

Jay Coghlan, of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, was encouraged that the draft order includes provisions to fine LANL up to $25,000 a day for non-compliance. Commenting on the order, Coghlan said that "As long as the environment department is diligent, it can lead to genuine and accelerated cleanup."

The 60-day public comment period for the draft order ends on July 1, 2002. Public comments will be considered by NMED in formulating the final order. The final order may be appealed to the courts.

NMED will hold four evening public information meetings in the following communities: Espanola on May 21st, Jemez Springs on May 23rd; Los Alamos on May 28th; and Santa Fe on May 30th.

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