New LANL Contaminant Found in Regional Aquifer

October 2, 2009

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) recently reported to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) that significant detections of bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP, was found in the regional aquifer below the center of the 40 square mile site. and The detections of DEHP were found in two new LANL regional monitoring wells located to study groundwater contamination from two legacy waste dumps. The DEHP exceeded the allowable contaminant level by up to 16 times. This level is equivalent to the exceedance of the hexavalent chromium also found in the regional aquifer below LANL.

DEHP is a plasticizer and used to manufacture polyvinyl chloride. DEHP is found in foods and medical products packaged in plastic and in well water near waste sites. It is classified as a probable human carcinogen.

James Bearzi, Chief of the NMED Hazardous Waste Bureau, said that the finding was "disturbing" and that the source of the contamination may be the large Cold War legacy waste dump located uphill. That dump is called Material Disposal Area C, which was used for disposal between 1948 and 1974. Bearzi described the dump as "A witch's brew of contamination []. [It] would also have organic chemicals that would provide a mechanism for moving the phthalate down into the aquifer and elsewhere into the environment." LANL is required to submit its latest report on the investigation of Material Disposal Area C next week. Bearzi added, "They're going to need to do more than just watch it."

Danny Katzman, LANL's water stewardship program manager, explained that LANL has reported similar contamination in their monthly reports to NMED in wells installed in the intermediate zone. He said, "[DEHP] pops up early on or goes away after a few rounds, completely or below trace levels."

Robert H. Gilkeson, a registered geologist, former LANL contractor and now a whistleblower, brought attention to the new finding in a paper he presented to the September 30 Northern New Mexico Citizens' Advisory Board (CAB) in Santa Fe. Gilkeson recommended that the CAB request that independent sampling be conducted at the two regional wells by the Environmental Protection Agency. He also recommended that the CAB ask the Department of Energy (DOE) to use Recovery Act funding to install networks of monitoring wells at locations appropriately close to the legacy waste dumps where significant contamination has been detected.

Gilkeson said, "The precious groundwater below the large legacy waste dump sites is contaminated at LANL. The necessary knowledge on this contamination does not exist. LANL's computer models say that LANL contamination will not reach the regional aquifer for over 1,000 years; yet the contamination is present now in the groundwater below three of the legacy dumps. DOE has a responsibility to protect groundwater and they need to use the Recovery Act funding to install the necessary groundwater monitoring wells close to the legacy waste dumps."

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