LANL Says Acid Canyon Cleanup Complete; Activists Are Not Sure

* Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) held a meeting this week to announce the completion of cleanup of the South Fork of Acid Canyon. LANL submitted cleanup plans to the Energy Department in June, and cleanup began in early September.

The South Fork of Acid Canyon is located between the municipal swimming pool and the Skateboard Park in Los Alamos. Between 1944 and 1964, LANL dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated and untreated liquid radioactive waste into the canyon. This is third cleanup attempted on Acid Canyon, although it is the first to focus on the canyon bottom rather than the sides.

LANL removed 480 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the canyon. Preliminary data from radiation screening indicates that LANL left approximately 140 picoCuries per gram of plutonium in the soil, although LANL's initial plans called for leaving 280 picoCuries per gram. A picoCurie is measure of radioactivity. California's standard is 2.5 picoCuries per gram. LANL is pleased with the result. Al Pratt, project leader said, "I'd classify it as one of our better successes."

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (or CCNS) is pleased that cleanup work took place in the South Fork, but is concerned about whether the cleanup is, in fact, complete. The data presented is preliminary, the final data will not be available for up to two months, and the final cleanup report will be available in the spring. Therefore, there are several unanswered questions about the final amount of plutonium left in the soil and worker exposure.

LANL determined during the first week of cleanup work that the workers no longer needed personal air monitoring equipment, respirators or dust masks. LANL reasoned that although the workers were working in the most contaminated areas, the personal air monitors were not picking up contamination. However, data from the state Environment Department high-volume air monitors, which was verified by LANL, indicates that over 41,000 attoCuries per cubic meter of plutonium was measured in the air on a promontory above where the workers were removing soil. The average amount of plutonium in the air found by LANL through its environmental air monitoring network is approximately 1 attoCurie per cubic meter. This indicates that the disturbance of the canyon bottom with hand tools and vacuuming of soil caused contaminated particles to be dispersed.

Plutonium can cause cancer if it is inhaled or ingested. Despite LANL's claims that there was no risk to workers, they will conduct urinalyses on one of the workers to ensure that they were not unnecessarily exposed. CCNS is pushing for lifetime medical monitoring of all of the workers. John Tauxe of Los Alamos said "The Energy Department does not have a good track record on worker exposure. A lot of people have gone into situations they were told were safe, and bad things happened to them."

Several Los Alamos residents asked about the restoration of the canyon, including what kinds of seeds and fertilizer were used. Also, Los Alamos County has requested removal of signs warning the canyon's recreational users of its status as a LANL cleanup site. CCNS requested another public meeting when the final report is complete.

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