Santa Fe Public Utilities Committee Addresses LANL Contaminants

The Santa Fe Public Utilities Committee heard presentations from CCNS, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) this week about the transport of LANL contaminants through surface water and ground water to Santa Fe's drinking water supplies.

Joni Arends, of CCNS, compared the current situation to when CCNS investigated and eventually brought suit against the Department of Energy (DOE) for violations of the Clean Air Act at LANL. She said LANL samples water with methods that hide contamination and are similar to the problems CCNS found with LANL's air sampling methods. For example, LANL is not sampling at the correct locations, the samples are collected with improper methods and some of the laboratory analyses do not detect contaminants at low enough levels. There is also confusion in the way the data is reported to the public. Arends praised the Buckman Direct Diversion Board for its recent letter to DOE and LANL requesting that they do more to protect surface water, groundwater and regional drinking water supplies from LANL contaminants.

Further, the City announced that as a result of the collective work by NGOs, local governments and the regulatory agencies, several of the Buckman wells are now being sampled every three months, rather than every six months. More frequent sampling will allow the City to monitor the transport of LANL contaminants.

One outstanding issue is whether NMED will continue to accept data from wells that have not been purged of water prior to sampling. A sufficient amount of water must be purged in order to ensure collection of reliable groundwater samples. The Cleanup Order between NMED and DOE requires that LANL purge the wells prior to sampling.

CCNS and registered geologist, Robert H. Gilkeson, prepared materials for the Committee that focused on the problems with the regional aquifer wells LANL drilled to serve as sentry wells for the Buckman well field and proposed diversion project. The mistakes with the sentry wells prevent the wells from detecting contamination moving through groundwater.

A LANL representative stated that LANL has determined that only 20 of the 80 sampling points in the wells have not been impacted by the residual drilling additives. The residuals have well-known properties to hide the LANL contaminants.

NMED Hazardous Waste Bureau Chief James Bearzi recognized a long history of mistakes in the groundwater protection practices at LANL. Bearzi stated that making changes at LANL to address the mistakes "won't happen overnight," but that LANL has turned a corner.

Santa Fe City Councilor, and member of the Public Utilities Committee, Patti Bushee was persistent in her questioning of Bearzi about who should be held accountable for the water contamination problems. She questioned NMED's performance record over the last 20 years to address LANL water issues. Bearzi replied that until 2000, the State of New Mexico "was asleep at the wheel." He said that now that the Cleanup Order is in place, which allows for harsh penalties, that NMED has fined LANL $1.4 million in the last 15 months.

The Committee requested that updated presentations be made in March.

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