NMED Requires Study of Closing Options for Sandia's Mixed Waste Landfill

* Sandia National Laboratory's proposal to cap its Mixed Waste Landfill has been stalled due to requirements of the New Mexico Environment Department (or NMED) that Sandia complete a full cleanup study of the site. NMED announced this month that a Corrective Measures Study (or CMS) must be completed in order to examine alternatives to Sandia's proposed plan.

The Mixed Waste Landfill is located in Albuquerque on Kirtland Air Force Base, near the Journal Pavilion Amphitheater. The landfill was used for thirty years to dispose of waste from weapons development at Sandia. The mostly chemical and hazardous radioactive waste is now disposed of in shallow pits and trenches in the landfill. Sandia claims that this waste poses no risk to the public and should be left where it is. However, activists are concerned that the landfill poses more of a risk than Sandia will admit.

Citizen Action, the Albuquerque-based group spearheading the push for cleanup of the landfill, argues that the landfill must be cleaned up because it is contaminated with long-lived and carcinogenic radionuclides and hazardous constituents, including plutonium, depleted uranium, tritium and iodine.

Citizen Action had been working for more than a year to learn what is buried in the landfill and the dangers that it poses. Finally, under the Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA), documents were obtained that indicated that the contaminants, dumping procedures and risks posed by the landfill are much more severe than originally reported by Sandia. Through FOIA, it was revealed that haphazard dumping practices, including dumping of uncontained liquid waste in and around the landfill, did not cease until the late 1980s. The documents retrieved through FOIA also show that there is a great potential for tritiated air to be released from a number of pits and trenches on the site. Miles Nelson, of Citizen Action, said, "NMED did the right thing when they [ordered] Sandia to look at other potential solutions to this dump."

If the landfill were capped, the waste would remain in the ground and Sandia would undertake long-term monitoring, or stewardship. Citizen Action is also concerned because there is no financial assurance from the Department of Energy for long-term stewardship of the site.

Greg Lewis, of NMED, said that the decision was made because of the technical questions surrounding the risks and benefits of all of the alternatives for managing the landfill, and also because of public outcry about Sandia's plan to cap the landfill.

NMED's decision comes after the release of an independent review by a panel organized by WERC, formerly the Waste Education Research Consortium, which is based at New Mexico State University. The WERC review concluded that there was nothing unreasonable about Sandia's plans for capping, but that cleanup alternatives should be examined.

The CMS would not eliminate the option for capping, it would only examine other alternatives for handling the waste, such as full or partial excavation, or doing nothing at all. The CMS process requires public participation, in the form of public meetings and comment, and a possible public hearing. The study is expected to take two years and cost approximately $2.2 million.

Back to News Index