Runoff From the Aftermath of the Cerro Grande Fire is Studied

Environmental Group Warns of a Lawsuit to Stop LANL Dam

Senate Appropriations Committee approved a nuclear weapons budget of $4.9 billion

*On June 2nd, Los Alamos had its first significant thunderstorm after the Cerro Grande Fire. The runoff flushed plutonium-239 and uranium down Los Alamos Canyon near the closed Omega West Reactor at higher levels than ever detected before. The preliminary data from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) shows that measurable amounts of plutonium, cesium-137, strontium-90 and other contaminants moved down the canyon. Overall, there was enough combined radioactivity above levels that can trigger cleanup of drinking water. LANL officials said that since humans don't drink the water in the canyons, the regulatory standard doesn't really apply, but the data does give a conservative read on the magnitude of the moving contamination. These test results on the runoff were released because of public concern about the contamination and its impact on the environment.

Scientists from the State, LANL and University of New Mexico continue to study runoff samples from major storms to evaluate the risks to human health and the Rio Grande.

Because the June 2nd storm was brief and runoff was weak, it is a questionable indicator of what levels of contaminants will be moved when the torrential downpours hit Northern New Mexico. It is known, however, that radioactivity for plutonium, uranium and other contaminants did exceed drinking water standards for alpha radiation at the boundary of the lab on June 2nd.

*The environmental group, Forest Guardians, warned they may file a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps (pronounced core) of Engineers for improperly permitting a 70-foot, $6.8 million concrete dam to be built in Pajarito Canyon on LANL property. The Santa Fe-based group said the Department of Energy (DOE) and LANL failed to show the dam is really needed. Forest Guardians want to force the Corps to fully investigate the environmental impacts of the dam and possible alternatives.

The excavation of the dam site, in a narrow reach of Pajarito Canyon, about a mile above LANL's Technical Area-18 (or TA-18), has already begun. TA-18 is of great concern because there are several small experimental nuclear reactors at ground level in the canyon bottom. Lab workers have removed the nuclear fuel from what the lab has named "Kiva 1." DOE decided to move all the materials at TA-18 over the next year because the site is too old and too expensive to protect against potential terrorist attack. During the Cerro Grande fire, the buildings at TA-18 was surrounded by fire on three sides. Besides TA-18, the dam is also supposed to protect the community of White Rock. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a 100-year flood would not reach the homes in White Rock.

The Corps authorized its own environmental approval for the dam under the provisions of the Clean Water Act for emergency fire rehabilitation projects. The nationwide permit only applies to projects proposed by U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies, not DOE. By using the nationwide permit, the Corps did not have to perform detailed analyses of the impacts the dam may have or look at other alternatives, like a smaller and less environmentally damaging way to control the expected flooding.

In a letter to the Corps, Sam Hitt of the Forest Guardians stated, "There is no debate that significant impacts will occur during the construction and operation of this dam. Clearing for the dam and site for a concrete batch plant will move hundreds of tons of soil and rock, harm some of the best habitat on LANL property for the federally protected Mexican spotted owl, inundate a perennial water course and its riparian community and cause long-term harm. Nationwide permits are only appropriate for actions that will have minimal adverse impacts, which is clearly not the case in this instance."

*Tuesday, July 17th, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a nuclear weapons budget of $4.9 billion, $250 million above what the Clinton administration's request was for fiscal year 2001. The bill provides $4.9 billion for the nuclear weapons program for stockpile stewardship and manufacturing nuclear weapons. Only $204 million is budgeted to repair damage from the Cerro Grande Fire and another $16.8 million for ongoing and new programs to help support the health of the Rio Grande, from Northern New Mexico to Las Cruces.

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