Pantex Contamination Found in Ogallala Aquifer

Pantex Contamination Found in Ogallala Aquifer

Toxic hexavalent chromium, RDX and other contaminants from the Pantex nuclear weapons plant have been found in the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer lies beneath the Great Plains, from North Dakota into Texas. Hexvalent chromium, when drunk, is known to cause ulcers, convulsions, as well as kidney and liver damage. RDX is a high explosive, which, when ingested, is known to cause tremors and convulsions leading to death. Both contaminants have also been detected at high levels in the regional aquifer beneath Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Pantex is located in the Texas Panhandle, 17 miles north east of downtown Amarillo. Pantex is a Department of Energy (DOE) facility which serves as the final step in nuclear weapons production. It is where high explosives are fabricated and combined with plutonium triggers and other components to make a nuclear warhead.

For years, Pantex burned chemical waste in unlined pits, dumped waste into unlined trenches and discharged wastewater into unlined ditches on-site. The contamination from these practices is moving south and east through the ground water.

Pantex was named as a federal Superfund site in 1991. Since 1995, DOE has treated 480 million gallons of contaminated groundwater beneath the site, and removed 4,884 pounds of high explosives and 220 pounds of chromium from it. However, their monitoring systems and new computer models have indicated that contamination has seeped off-site and exceeds health based standards in the upper aquifer. Contaminates have also been found in the lower aquifer, but are at levels below the health standard.

Pantex is requesting that the federal government buy 2,200 acres east of the site, where the ground water has already been contaminated. If the government paid the average price of land in that area, it would cost $880,000 and could be as much as $1 million. Pantex has stated that it will focus on cleaning the groundwater once this purchase is made. These efforts are intended to prevent further spread of contamination and protect the Ogallala Aquifer.

Billie Poteet, who owns about 320 acres about a half-mile east of Pantex, said "When I bought it, I thought it was too close to Pantex to have any of my family live on it. . . . [DOE] told us that they wanted it partially for a buffer zone and because the water was contaminated."

Although computer models are only now indicating contamination above health based levels off-site, Pantex knew that the plume was moving east for some time. Test results between 1996 and 2003 indicated maximum RDX and chromium concentration levels which exceeded cleanup standards in wells monitored by both Pantex and the State of Texas. A few years ago, DOE responded to residents’ complaints about water quality by installing filtration systems in their homes. Over time, as contamination was seeping further from the site and increasing in concentration, DOE’s attention to the public’s drinking water decreased. Marta Brown, a tenant of Poteet, drinks well water through one of these filtration systems. She said, "when [DOE] first put it in, they took all of the care of it. They stopped."

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