20-Acre Fire at LANL High Explosives Area
June 13, 2008
Over the last few months, windows have been rattled from downtown Santa Fe to Espanola by high explosive detonations at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). It was a topic of discussion during the monthly meeting of the Community Radiation Monitoring Group, which was held on Wednesday, June 11 at Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos.
Because of community concerns, the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group, CCNS and Honor Our Pueblo Existence wrote a memo to the Department of Energy, LANL and the New Mexico Environment Department with 24 questions about open air detonations, open air burning as a waste disposal practice, prescribed burns and experiments at the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility at LANL. These activities cause a public health concern because radioactive, hazardous and toxic contaminants can be redistributed into the air and transported away from the LANL site before falling back to the ground.
Jay Dallman, head of the LANL Dynamic and Energetic Materials Division, presented information in response to the questions for almost two hours during the morning meeting. Several questions were about the internal controls that the Department of Energy and LANL have in place for determining whether these activities should take place during certain conditions. Dallman explained that when certain conditions are present, such as high winds and low moisture in potential fuels for a fire, LANL determines that no activities may take place and calls those "red flag days." Dallman noted that because of the high winds, LANL had determined that Wednesday was a "red flag day."
Nevertheless, later that day at approximately 2 p.m., a fire began at a high explosive testing area at Technical Area 39, which is located near Bandelier National Monument. The smoke plume was visible for about three hours.
LANL's preliminary analysis indicates that the fire began as the result of a failed experiment involving a vessel to contain a detonation. A propellant was used in the experiment that is similar to gunpowder. The propellant escaped through a failed valve and ignited nearby grass on a steep wall of Ancho Canyon. The fire burned approximately 20 acres.
About 40 firefighters from LANL, the Forest Service, the Park Service, Santa Clara Pueblo and Los Alamos County responded. Two Forest Service tankers were used to drop fire-retardant.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and LANL are monitoring the air for radionuclides and other metals released during the fire. However, due to the lack of communication from LANL, the NMED air monitoring did not begin until Thursday. NMED is sampling for radionuclides, including americium, plutonium, strontium and plutonium, as well as metals, such as mercury and beryllium. Recent LANL reports indicate that high explosives have been found in the Ancho Canyon Springs, which flow to the Rio Grande.
For a recording of the Community Radiation Monitoring Group meeting, please go to the Cultural Energy website. Cultural Energy is a non-profit organization serving Taos and Northern New Mexico, which creates media voices for youth, arts and activism. The full recording, along with highlights of discussions about red flag days, is posted at culturalenergy.org/listenlinks.htm