LANL Wells Could Hide Groundwater Contamination
A new report by the US Department of Energy Office of Inspector General states that materials used in the construction of some of the groundwater wells at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) "could mask the presence of radionuclide contamination and compromise the reliability of groundwater contamination data."
Since 1943, LANL has conducted experimental research on the development of nuclear weapons and explosive materials that has generated a variety of hazardous, radioactive and solid wastes. While LANL has disposed of some of these wastes in septic tanks, pits, trenches and landfills at the facility, it has also discharged industrial wastewater and other waste into canyons, which may flow to the Rio Grande. Contaminants, such as plutonium, americium and tritium, have been detected in soil and shallow groundwater at the site.
In 1995, LANL requested a waiver of groundwater monitoring requirements. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) responded to LANL's request by requiring additional monitoring of the groundwater beneath the site. As a result, in 1998, LANL began construction of 32 wells to the regional aquifer to determine if the concentration of contaminants in groundwater exceeded regulatory limits and whether the groundwater monitoring program needed to be expanded.
In the construction of the wells, LANL used drilling muds and fluids. If not properly removed, these drilling additives could mask the presence of radionuclide contamination and compromise the reliability of groundwater data. LANL stated that it was necessary to use these additives in order to stabilize the drill holes, in some cases over 1,000 feet deep. While LANL's construction of the wells was allowable under regulatory guidelines, LANL did not follow specific constraints when using drilling additives. Therefore, LANL could not assure that residual drilling fluids were removed.
The DOE Office of Inspector General investigated the construction of these wells and found that the additives used in the construction of 24 wells were not completely removed from several of them. The report made three conclusions, which are "[i]n the case of certain wells at LANL, (1) muds and drilling fluids did affect the chemistry of the groundwater; (2) drilling fluids [ ] that impact the analysis of hazardous constituents in groundwater samples were used; and (3) well development procedures, including purging, did not assure that contaminants introduced during drilling were totally removed."
NMED issued a statement supporting the inspector generalŐs report. They intend to request that LANL submit a full report detailing which wells may be affected by the drilling additives and that LANL prepare a plan to address the problems raised by the inspector general.
Activists are concerned about the threat to drinking water. One impacted well, known as R-16, located east of LANL's Area G waste site and above the Rio Grande, serves as a sentry for the Buckman wellfield. This wellfield supplies Santa Fe with 40% of its drinking water. Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "Los Alamos County residents rely entirely on the regional aquifer for their drinking water. It is unfortunate that after a decade of work we are not better able to protect our drinking water supplies."