Public Comments Needed on Water Quality Assessment of LANL Watersheds

January 29, 2010

The New Mexico Environment Department recently released its comprehensive assessment of the watersheds of the Pajarito Plateau, where Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is located. The assessment found that PCBs, selenium, aluminum and other metals, as well as gross alpha radiation have exceeded standards measured in storm waters. Public comments will be accepted until February 16th.

Using samples collected between 2004 and 2008, data from LANL, as well as from the Surface Water Quality and Department of Energy Oversight Bureaus, this is the largest single water quality assessment done by the Environment Department.

Marcy Leavitt, Environment Department Director of the Waste and Waste Management Division, said, "I commend our Surface Water Quality and Department of Energy Oversight bureaus for their years of work that made this study possible. We are concerned that waters in these areas exceed state standards designed to protect human health and wildlife. We must continue to do more to address those concerns."

The findings are of concern for those living downstream of LANL who will soon be drinking, or are drinking, water from the Rio Grande. The study is part of the Environment Department's draft 2010-2012 Integrated List, which is required by the Clean Water Act. The list indicates whether waters are protected for their designated uses. The designated uses can include domestic and public water supplies, irrigation, aquatic life, wildlife habitat and human health. Unfortunately, the study does not focus on the origins of the impairments.

For example, PCBs exceed the human health criterion throughout most of the study area where sufficient data were available, and exceed the wildlife habitat criterion in the Los Alamos, Pueblo and Sandia Canyons, all of which discharge to the Rio Grande above or at the Buckman Direct Diversion Project.

The New Mexico standard for adjusted gross alpha is 15 picoCuries per liter for watering livestock. This is a measurement of the total radioactivity due to alpha particle emissions. The standard excludes radon-222, uranium and source, special nuclear and by-product material as defined by the Atomic Energy Act, which allows DOE to be self-regulating for these radioactive contaminants. Even after adjusting for the excluded radionuclides, the standard was exceeded nearly everywhere sufficient data were available within the study area.

Rachel Conn, of Amigos Bravos, which monitors the Integrated List of New Mexico waters, said, "We commend the Environment Department for conducting a comprehensive study of the streams on the Pajarito Plateau. We are concerned that 22 of the 23 water bodies that were assessed on LANL property were listed as not meeting water quality standards. As we assert in the Communities for Clean Water lawsuit, cleanup of the legacy of pollution at LANL is long overdue."

For more information, please visit the New Mexico Environment Department, Surface Water Quality Bureau website.

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