.News Update 8/29/08

Ancho Canyon Fire Results in Changes at LANL

August 29, 2008

Changes in procedures have been made at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) as a result of the 17-acre Ancho Canyon fire, which began on June 11, 2008. The fire started when a valve failed inside an experimental piece of equipment called the Large Bore Power Gun Assembly.

LANL officials recognized the seriousness of conducting closed container experiments without strict controls. Jay Dallman, head of the division in charge of detonation testing at LANL, said that the changes are "significant." He said, "We've learned from the issue that we had and we're going to be making more changes."

Ironically, Dallman had presented information about detonation experiments at the June 11 meeting of the Community Radiation Monitoring Group (CRMG). At that meeting, Dallman said that LANL did not conduct detonations on "extreme" or "red flag" days. Such days are defined as days when the wind exceeds 10 miles per hour, which was the case on the day of the fire.

Beginning in 2004, the CRMG has served as a forum for public information about regional emergency management through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the New Mexico Environment Department. The DHS worked with the Environment Department to establish protocol for testing emergency preparedness. One section of the protocol addresses Warning and Emergency Public Information. A workshop about the protocol was held recently in Pojoaque and attended by emergency response personnel from New Mexico Area 3, which is the region surrounding LANL. Participants included representatives from the Pueblos; Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Rio Arriba and Taos Counties; state and federal government officials; and the public. The focus was about communicating emergency information to the public in ways that reach both rural and urban communities.

One reoccurring issue is the scarcity of information released to the public during the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000. Questions remain about how information is released to the public during emergencies involving LANL.

In response to the Ancho Canyon fire, the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group (EVEMG), Honor Our Pueblo Existence and CCNS requested that LANL present the latest information about the fire to the CRMG. The organizations submitted a list of questions to LANL, including a section about emergency management.

At the August CRMG meeting, Dallman responded to the questions and told the group about changes to LANL procedures. The changes include requiring a high-level management review before for any closed container experiments are conducted on red flag days. If approved, the Los Alamos Fire Department must be on-site during the experiment. Further, a review of the experiments will result in developing additional standards.

Unfortunately, the emergency management questions were not answered at the meeting. A LANL public outreach official stated that their emergency management personnel did not feel that the CRMG was the appropriate forum for answering the questions. She stated that the appropriate venue would be the Area 3 workshops.

Sheri Kotowski, of EVEMG, said, "Emergency preparedness is an ongoing effort where cooperation by all parties is essential. To change the rules in the middle of the game serves no one."

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