Contaminated Spring Found Near LANL

by Jeff Tollefson
February 9, 2003
Copyright the Santa Fe New Mexican
Used with permission.

>The New Mexico Environment Department has found contamination in yet another spring seeping into the Rio Grande below Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Uranium, tritium and nitrates turned up in a spring that was discovered last fall, according to the department. Although the contaminant levels didn't exceed state and federal water standards, the Environment Department cited the pollution as further evidence that groundwater could move much faster than projected by the lab.

"Things are not as rosy as they would have it," said James Bearzi, chief of the department's Hazardous Waste Bureau.

Los Alamos officials last year released a groundwater model indicating it could take thousands of years for groundwater below the lab to reach the Rio Grande and Santa Fe's water supply at the Buckman wellfield.

Testing of water from Buckman wells has never turned up the contaminants in question.

While it does not convey an immediate threat to the city's water supply, Environment Department Oversight Bureau chief John Parker said such evidence calls the lab's modeling into question. In some cases, department officials say, the time frame might be decades, not millennia.

Other contaminants have turned up previously in nearby springs along the river, state officials said, although the lab has disputed the existence of certain contaminants or said they might originate from other sources.

Lab spokesman James Rickman on Friday questioned the latest results of state testing. The uranium could occur naturally, he said, while nitrates could come from the White Rock sewage facility. And tritium shows up in surface waters worldwide due to residual contamination from nuclear testing, he said.

"All data are useful, but it's certainly too early to discount or validate any one particular (groundwater) model," Rickman said. The lab will revise its models as new information turns up, he said.

Parker conceded that all the possibilities mentioned by Rickman are legitimate. State scientists considered the possibility that the sewage plant affected its results, he said, but the overall water chemistry doesn't appear to match up with what would be expected if that were the case. The sample seems more similar to contamination found in Pajarito Canyon, he said.

And while the state reported that uranium previously has not turned up in springs on the west side of the Rio Grande, Rickman said the lab has consistently found uranium in those same springs. The discrepancy is one of many that must be resolved as the state and lab try to determine how contamination from the lab might spread.

It is possible to test the uranium for evidence of weapons activities, but such tests have not been done, Parker said. "We hope to be able to sample this spring some more and try to get a better handle on this."

One thing is certain: Groundwater movement will play a critical role in cleanup decisions regarding waste pits and other pollution at the lab. Los Alamos officials have said they want to leave many waste pits in place, arguing that digging them up would cause more problems than it would solve.

Such an assertion depends on water, however, or the lack thereof. Given enough time, water tends to erode, penetrate and disperse almost everything. The lab argues that local geology and an arid climate are likely to keep the pollution safely in place well into the future.

If the latest contamination stems from the lab, however, that would indicate that groundwater could reach the river in several decades, according to the Environment Department.

"We don't know the pathways very well, and neither does LANL," said John Young, a geologist with the Environment Department.

The lab asked for an exemption from monitoring groundwater several years ago, arguing that geology would prevent contamination from reaching the aquifer, according to Parker. The department denied that request and subsequently implemented a groundwater-monitoring program, which is part of a broader effort to delineate the presence and movement of pollution at the lab.

"What we are learning is that there is more (contamination) down there than anybody thought," Bearzi said.

"Half the time a well goes in, they find some contaminant down there that is likely lab-derived."

A recent paper prepared by state environmental scientists for the U.S. Geological Survey cites the detection of the industrial chemical perchlorate in a Los Alamos County water-supply well in Pueblo Canyon. That pollution might have traveled five miles - half the distance to the Buckman wellfield - in fewer than 54 years, according to the paper.

State officials also detected perchlorate in springs along the Rio Grande, although lab officials also question those results. Parker said the state's test results for perchlorate at the new spring are incomplete.

Perchlorate and other contaminants could come from various lab facilities, including the liquid radioactive waste treatment facility at Technical Area 50.

Department officials located the new spring while meeting with Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. The group conducted a three-day float trip down the river in October.

The spring would have been inundated under normal conditions, but the river was unusually low at the time, officials said.

"This is an example of citizen monitoring of the environment around Los Alamos," said Joni Arends, who heads the group.