LANL Faces Fine of Nearly $800,000
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Hazardous Waste Bureau has taken a monumental step in proposing to fine Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) nearly $800,000 for failing to report toxic hexavalent chromium contamination to the groundwater beneath LANL.
The fine was issued by NMED under both the state Hazardous Waste Act permit and the Cleanup Consent Order between NMED and LANL. LANL was required to notify NMED of any release “in which there is a statistically significant increase over the background data ... no later than 24 hours after discovery.” LANL first learned of the chromium contamination in January 2004. They did not verbally report the findings to NMED until December 23, 2005. LANL did not report the contamination for almost two years. By the time LANL reported the contamination, the hexavalent chromium levels had nearly doubled. They were four times the federal and eight times the state drinking water standard.
During this time, NMED and LANL completed negotiations about the Cleanup Order for LANL. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) believes that the Consent Order would have been more stringent and better able to protect public health and the environment had NMED known about the hexavalent chromium contamination.
Hexavalent chromium is know to cause cancer and liver and kidney damage. The fast-moving contamination was found in a well drilled to determine the geologic characteristics of the area. It was found in Mortandad Canyon, which is surrounded by Los Alamos County drinking water wells.
Furthermore, Mortandad Canyon discharges to the Rio Grande on the east side of the river, across from Santa Fe's Buckman Wellfield. The Buckman Wellfield provides Santa Fe with approximately 40% of its drinking water. The total chromium levels in the Buckman tank are rising, and increased five-fold between 2004 and 2005. It is unknown whether this chromium is toxic or not.
NMED secretary Ron Curry said in a statement, "New Mexico's groundwater is the source of drinking water for the vast majority of our citizens and the amount of this penalty [of $795,620] reflects this importance." However, NMED has offered to enter into settlement discussions with LANL. In the past when NMED has issued proposed fines, those fines have been reduced dramatically during the negotiation process.
CCNS has sent a letter to Secretary Curry requesting that NMED stand behind the severity of the fine. In the letter, Joni Arends states,
"Historically, DOE/LANL's violations have always resulted in initially higher proposed fines. Yet these important first steps are rendered moot by the negotiation process. NMED has the opportunity to change this pattern with the new managers at LANL and have started off on the right foot by issuing such an extensive fine. The initial Notice of Violation means nothing if NMED's power to protect New Mexico is undermined during negotiations with DOE and LANS. The people of New Mexico cannot afford for such practices to continue. Now is the time to stand firm, enforce the law and change the careless and bad reporting habits that have hurt the public."