.News Update 10/3/08

Gilkeson Study Reveals Lead Plume in LANL Ground Water

October 3, 2008

A new study conducted by Robert Gilkeson, a registered geologist and former contractor at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), has found high levels of lead in ground water under an abandoned disposal area at LANL. The high lead levels raise concerns that lead and other contaminants from the former test site may have formed a large plume in the regional aquifer. Gilkeson made a presentation about the elevated levels at a recent meeting in Santa Fe of the Northern New Mexico Citizens' Advisory Board.

Exposure to lead can damage organs, such as the brain, kidneys, nerves, and blood cells. Children under the age of six and infants are more harmfully affected by lead than adults.

From 1959 to 1961 the test site, called Area MDA-AB, was used for secret experiments to test the safety of nuclear weapons. The explosive tests were conducted in 70 shafts dug to depths of 30 to 100 feet. These tests involved explosions of large quantities of radionuclides and metals, such as plutonium, uranium-235, uranium-238, barium, beryllium and lead.

Danny Katzman, program manager of LANL's water stewardship program, challenged Gilkeson's study, saying that the high lead content was due to a non-filtered result that was mistakenly listed in the LANL database as a filtered sample. However, the LANL data show that many samples from all three monitoring wells repeatedly measured lead concentrations far above the Safe Drinking Water Act action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), prompted by Gilkeson's concerns, conducted an investigation and released a detailed report on ground water protection at LANL. The report found that contaminants considered "immobile" by LANL could potentially contaminate ground water in the future. The NAS found that the sources of these contaminants were poorly understood and inadequately controlled at MDA-AB and many of the other LANL disposal sites. In addition, the NAS found an overall failure of LANL to install reliable monitoring wells anywhere at LANL.

In 1961, LANL installed a layer of asphalt across MDA-AB because the explosives tests contaminated the ground surface with plutonium. The leaky asphalt pad focused the flow of rainfall and snowmelt down through the buried waste and greatly increased the possibility of ground water contamination.

After Gilkeson's study, LANL announced plans for additional monitoring wells; a decision, which they say, is completely independent from the findings of the study.

Members of the Citizens' Advisory Board, who are charged with providing environmental recommendations to the Department of Energy (DOE), were prohibited by the federal agency from asking questions of the study's author during the meeting.

Gilkeson said, "The attempt by LANL to dismiss the exceptionally high level of lead contamination measured in one sample doesn't address the overarching factor that high levels of lead far above the Safe Drinking Water Act action level were measured for many years in filtered samples from all three of the old test wells that monitor MDA-AB."

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