Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has proposed to conduct two prescribed, or controlled, burns at contaminated firing sites as a way to ensure that an unplanned, high-intensity catastrophic forest fire, like the Cerro Grande fire, will not occur again. One of these firing sites, called Technical Area 36, or TA-36, was the subject of a coalition effort to stop the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) from allowing LANL to conduct open burning and open detonation experiments there. Typically, LANL uses depleted uranium, high explosives, which are highly mobile in air and water, and other hazardous and toxic materials in their firing site experiments. The concerns of the coalition included the re-suspension and re-distribution of radioactive, toxic and hazardous materials into the air that are easily inhaled.
CCNS, the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group and Tewa Women United opposed the open burning and open detonation air permits through the state administrative process. In January 2005, LANL withdrew their request for the air permits.
TA-36 is located in the southern portion of LANL, near the community of White Rock. It surrounds Potrillo Canyon, which mergers with Water Canyon and flows to the Rio Grande. During the summer of 2006, LANL used mechanical equipment to thin TA-36 and spent approximately $700,000.
NMED postponed indefinitely the TA-36 burn, pending additional information requests. However, NMED is allowing the 33-acre prescribed burn in the next canyon south of Potrillo Canyon to go forward on Monday, November 26. Outstanding issues at this Fence Canyon burn include PCB contamination.
In 1999, the Department of Energy (DOE) analyzed possible accident scenarios impacting future operations at LANL in the Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement. The report analyzed soil contamination data and estimated the potential exposure to a LANL worker or firefighter working at a fire at the TA-36 firing sites. For a LANL worker, their daily exposure is more than a quarter of their annual DOE allowable rate. For a firefighter, their daily exposure is estimated to be almost six times DOE's annual public exposure rate.
Further, given the release of the dust study last summer by the Government Accountability Project, more people are concerned about the impacts of LANL operations on their health. The study found elevated levels of radionuclides in offices and homes in Los Alamos, as well as surrounding communities.
Sheri Kotowski, of the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group, a downwind neighbor to LANL, said, "Open burning of radioactive and toxic vegetation and soils is never, never acceptable. It is beyond reasonable for DOE to be using a practice that serves to further disperse contamination generated by LANL activities into surrounding communities and ecosystems."
There are alternatives to burning. LANL could again use mechanical means to reduce the fire hazard, by cutting grasses, shrubs and trees. Those materials could then be composted, which would compact the contamination rather than disperse it.
CCNS recommends that concerned citizens contact Governor Richardson at 476-2200 to express their concerns and request that he act to protect public health and the environment and stop the proposed prescribed burns.