Acid Canyon Cleanup May Be Affected by Proposed Budget Cuts

* Cleanup of the South Fork of Acid Canyon in Los Alamos may be in danger due to deep cuts in President Bush's proposed Fiscal Year 2002 budget. The South Fork of Acid Canyon was a Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) radioactive liquid waste dump, turned Los Alamos County park, that contains plutonium hotspots. The Department of Energy (or DOE) concluded that approximately 200 cubic yards of contaminated soil must be removed from the South Fork, but that they may not be able to afford it because of the President's proposed budget cuts.

From the 1940s through the mid-1960s, LANL dumped untreated and treated liquid radioactive waste from Technical Area-1 into the canyon. A check of the contamination in the area in 1997 by the New Mexico Environment Department revealed weapons-grade plutonium at levels upwards of 10,000 times higher than found in the backyards of Los Alamos. Also found were elevated levels of cesium-137, americium, strontium-90 and other radioactive and toxic metals, such as mercury and lead. Two cleanup attempts have already been made on the South Fork, where tons of soil were removed from the mesa top, but nothing from the floor of the canyon. Picnickers, hikers, and children now use the canyon recreationally. DOE contends that the contamination is not dangerous to frequent visitors, who are estimated to receive less than 15 millirems of radiation per year, which is the level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency to be harmful. As DOE's Ted Taylor said, "we believe there is no imminent risk to humans in Acid Canyon."

Nevertheless, activists and Los Alamos citizens are concerned that plutonium particles might be resuspended into the air and inhaled, or washed down to the Rio Grande. In recent public comments to the Los Alamos County Commission, Joni Arends, CCNS's Waste Programs Director, said that "If this land were DOE land, it would be behind a fence, and there would be signage." CCNS requested that contamination signage be placed around the area, or as an alternative, closure of the park to the public. CCNS also requested that the Commission appoint a task force to investigate the proposed cleanup and make a recommendation to the County. CCNS is recommending the removal of 880 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the stream channel.

Activists are requesting cleanup and remediation similar to those that have been conducted at other LANL sites. One example is cleanup of the north side of Los Alamos Canyon hillside, where DOE removed soil from the area, instigated erosion control, posted signs around the area warning the public of dangers they may face when visiting, and fenced the areas to prevent public access.

Activists are also encouraging Los Alamos County and citizens to write to New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici urging him to obtain funding to remove 880 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the South Fork. As one editorialist in The Santa Fe New Mexican said, "As Los Alamos National Laboratory takes on more of our country's nuclear-weapons work, it also must assume greater responsibility for the contamination risks posed by the plutonium and other elements with which its scientists and technicians work."

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