NMED Funding Shortfall Compels Air Monitoring Cuts

* Budget shortfalls at the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Department of Energy (DOE) Oversight Bureau have forced the bureau to disable their air monitoring system surrounding Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

According to bureau employees, the air monitors have been disabled since June and samples collected in 2004 wait in cupboards to be analyzed when funding becomes available.

The bureau was established in order to help assure that activities at DOE facilities are protective of public health and safety and the environment. As such, the bureau does environmental monitoring and sampling to provide confirmatory measurements against which to compare monitoring and sampling results collected by LANL, Sandia National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

The bureau has been responsible for several important environmental discoveries at LANL, including perchlorate in the springs that emerge from beneath LANL and feed the Rio Grande. The bureau was also responsible for much of the environmental monitoring following the Cerro Grande fire of 2000. The bureau also facilitates the Community Radiation Monitoring Group, which allows community members to remain informed and participate in reviewing air emissions data from LANL.

The bureau was established in 1991 as part of an agreement-in-principle between the State of New Mexico and DOE. Although DOE funds the bureau through the agreement, the bureau operates through NMED. Initially, the bureau was funded at $3 million per year, but funds have gradually decreased and the bureau currently operates at $1.2 million for fiscal year 2004.

Despite repeated attempts by the bureau to secure adequate funding from DOE, the bureau has had to relocate several staff members to other NMED departments since 2002.

Other organizations and activist groups have also supported funding the bureau fully. In 2001, the Northern New Mexico Citizens' Advisory Board, which is a board that oversees LANL environmental programs, argued, "We believe that the DOE Oversight Bureau's work in independently evaluating environmental issues at [LANL] provides the public, DOE and our Board with valuable, credible insight and helpful, independent and unbiased information."

Activists are concerned that while DOE has argued that they do not have sufficient funds to support the oversight bureau, they have recently allocated $600,000 for environmental monitoring at WIPP. The funds will allow the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center to execute monitoring duties previously performed by the Environmental Evaluation Group, which closed with much controversy due to funding cuts earlier this year.

DOE also allocated $600,000 to reopen the NMED DOE Oversight Bureau at WIPP, which closed in the late 1990s.

Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "Given the generosity that DOE is practicing, we are concerned that it is deliberately under funding the LANL oversight bureau because LANL has come under such environmental scrutiny lately. We hope that DOE recognizes that the oversight bureau is essential to the protection of public health and safety in northern New Mexico and will provide full funding as such."

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