NMED Issues Open Burning and Detonation Permits for LANL

* The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) recently issued two permits allowing for the open air burning and detonation of high explosives and depleted uranium at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Although such activities have been on-going at LANL since its opening in 1943, this is the first time that the public has been involved in the permitting process. Prior to these permits, LANL was allowed to burn such materials under the same regulations that permit private burning of garbage. Changes to the New Mexico Air Quality Act in 2003 established a more rigorous permitting process for these hazardous materials. At the time of the changes, NMED Secretary Ron Curry said, "This change will help make citizens safer...."

These permits allow LANL to burn 91,000 pounds of wood, 800 gallons of diesel fuel, 3,700 pounds of high explosives and 1,600 pounds of depleted uranium per year. Both high explosives and depleted uranium have been shown to have serious health effects. For example, high explosives contamination constituted the highest exposure risk following the Cerro Grande fire if ingested through fish caught from Cochiti Dam. Further, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research recently released a report that shows that depleted uranium may promote cancer incidence in exposed community members and have the same neurotoxic effects as lead.

Activists believe that the public participation process for this permitting did not allow for thorough participation in the permits' release, which may impact human health and safety. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) and the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group (EVEMG) had been participating in the permitting process since Summer 2004. Despite continued communication with these groups about the permits, NMED released the draft permits three days before the comment period ended and four days before the final permits were as released, over the Easter holiday weekend. Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, "These materials are far too dangerous to burn in the open environment without thorough community participation. NMED effectively stifled that with these permits."

Jon Goldstein, of NMED, said that his agency worked to address the concerns of the organizations before the permits were released. Goldstein said, "I think we've done everything we can do through our regulations."

The groups argue that there are problems with the permits that justify their being withdrawn and redrafted. For example, the permits never expire, which means that LANL could continue burning these materials indefinitely without further public review.

Also, there are no mandatory monitoring provisions in the permits, which rely only on computer modeling of emissions resulting from these burns. However, as Abel Russ of Clark University noted recently, computer modeling may not adequately gauge the risk presented by emissions.

Sheri Kotowski, of EVEMG, said, "How can LANL expect the public to trust that their modeling techniques are accurate given that they may have seriously miscalculated emissions from the Cerro Grande fire? Environmental monitoring is absolutely essential to gaining our confidence that they are not adversely effecting our health and community well being."

The organizations intend to appeal the permits within the next 30 days.

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