Risk Assessment Corporation Meets with Public Concerning Study on Risks of Cerro Grande Fire

* The Risk Assessment Corporation (or RAC) met with the public this week to discuss their plans for assessing the risks to public health from the Cerro Grande fire, specifically the consequences of the burning of more than 7,000 acres of Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) property last May. Some of the property contained radioactive and hazardous waste sites.

Dr. John Till, head of RAC, spoke about RAC's one-year plan to assess the on-going risk. He began by stressing the difficulty of risk assessment in a situation like this. Dr. Till explained that, "it's a very complex piece of work, in a very short time, with a very broad scope." Because of the unique nature of this study, there isn't an exact plan for the assessment. Nevertheless, RAC is confident that it can be done thoroughly.

Dr. Till presented the four objectives of this study. The first is an analysis of the risk from the air pathway, specifically the transportation of dangerous substances through the air currents. Secondly, RAC will analyze the risk from surface water pollution and the associated long-term impacts. Also, the RAC team will document the lessons learned from the Cerro Grande fire from a scientific point of view. Should a similar disaster strike, the lessons learned will outline methods for protecting public health and safety. The last objective is public outreach in the form of public meetings and media alerts as soon as important findings are made. RAC is also planning monthly progress meetings with the public to inform them of the progress and findings of the assessment.

RAC began six weeks ago to analyze the data collected by LANL, the Department of Energy (or DOE), the state Environment Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and others. The data, however, has been difficult to work with because of different methods of collection, equipment and amount and format of the data. For air analysis, RAC proposed an area of 1,500 square miles, comprising Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Espaņola. For surface water analysis, an area of 300 square miles bounded by the Rio Grande, Cochiti Dam and Santa Clara Canyon were proposed.

Dr. Till also assured that his team will assess the danger to the firefighters, media personnel and workers exposed to the fire and smoke.

Both Dr. Till and John Parker, of the New Mexico Environment Department, stressed the importance of an independent study of the risks presented by the fire. As Parker said, "The state is not going to make any effort to massage the findings of Dr. Till and his team." RAC has conducted many independent analyses of DOE sites across the country. In 2000, RAC conducted an audit of LANL's compliance with the Clean Air Act in accordance with the settlement of CCNS' citizen's lawsuit against DOE.

The public questioned whether RAC would participate with the pueblos in the area. Dr. Till responded by saying that he had already sent a letter to the governors of eight northern New Mexico pueblos asking for their support in the assessment.

When the analysis is complete, Till said his scientific peers, to ensure accuracy and fairness, will review all of the findings.

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