Community Groups Negotiate Historic Clean Water Act Settlement with LANL

April 29, 2011

Facing billions in potential fines, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) recently settled with community groups over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. The citizens' lawsuit, which was filed in 2008 in the United States District Court in New Mexico, alleged violations of the stormwater requirements to keep contaminants from migrating through the canyons to the Rio Grande.

Storm water is created when rain or snow melts and the water does not percolate into the ground. The Rio Grande is a source of drinking water for two major downstream cities, Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

The community groups were represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, based in Taos. The plaintiffs in the case are Gilbert and Kathy Sanchez, and the non-governmental organizations Tewa Women United, SouthWest Organizing Project, Rio Grande Restoration, Partnership for Earth Spirituality, New Mexico Acequia Association, Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group, Don Gabino Andrade Community Acequia Association, located in the South Valley of Albuquerque, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, and Amigos Bravos.

The community efforts to address the stormwater violations began shortly after the Cerro Grande fire in May 2000. The fire burned over 47,000 acres on the Pajarito Plateau, where LANL is located. Increased flooding, erosion and runoff resulted because LANL did not have the required stormwater control measures in place. Every time it rained or snowed, contaminants from LANL migrated toward the Rio Grande. While LANL denies such claims, their own data states the contrary. For example, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were recorded at levels 38,000 times the New Mexico water quality standard that is protective of human health.

The groups began their efforts by educating themselves about the issues, conducting their own sampling, writing reports, and eventually participating in the annual trips to take samples of the Rio Grande springs that flow from the Pajarito Plateau, conducted by the New Mexico Environment Department and LANL.

The individuals and most of the non-governmental organizations, along with Honor Our Pueblo Existence, appealed the storm water permit issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. The result of the appeal was one of the strongest stormwater permits in the country, which was one of the goals of bringing the litigation. The permit requires that in the next five years, the release of pollution from over 400 of the worst dumps will be stopped.

The individuals and groups negotiated for critical public participation components to be added into the permit and the settlement. They will receive $200,000 for expertise to facilitate public participation in the permit decisions.

Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, "This is an enormous victory for community people standing up for clean water. Together, we held the polluters and regulatory agencies accountable for protecting human health."

Other articles:

"LANL Reaches Settlement"
By Mark Oswald / Journal Staff Writer on Thu, Apr 28, 2011

"LANL, Community Groups Settle Storm Water Concerns"
By Susan Montoya Bryan / The Associated Press on Wed, Apr 27, 2011

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