Little Known One Year After Chromium Contamination Reported
A year ago, on December 23, 2005, the Department of Energy (DOE) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) reported chromium contamination in the regional aquifer beneath LANL at eight times the New Mexico groundwater quality standard and four times the federal drinking water standard. Despite the year that has passed, DOE and LANL still have not determined the direction or the extent of the contaminant plume.
In March 2006, the public learned that the chromium in the aquifer is toxic hexavalent chromium, which was made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich. The Environmental Protection Agency has found hexavalent chromium to be toxic, even from brief exposure. Hexavalent chromium may cause lung cancer and can damage the kidney, liver, circulatory system and nerve tissues.
Robert H. Gilkeson, Registered Geologist, said, "We know the contamination level is high and the concentrations are growing with each sample. We know that the contamination is located in aquifer strata, which will allow it to travel quickly, but we still do not know how close the contamination plume is to the drinking water wells." Gilkeson was a lead consultant for LANL's well drilling program.
The regional aquifer is the soul drinking water supply for Los Alamos County. The chromium was found in a characterization well, named Regional Well-28 (R-28) in Mortandad Canyon. It is surrounded by five of the Los Alamos County drinking water wells, two of which are the most productive wells in the system.
LANL has proposed drilling a new well to determine the direction of the plume. The location of this well would be between R-28 and the most productive drinking water well, Pajarito Mesa 3. However, the drilling will be delayed until March 2007, 15 months after the chromium was first reported to the public.
LANL first knew about the rising levels of chromium contamination in January 2004. When first discovered, the levels were four times the New Mexico groundwater quality standard and two times the federal drinking water standard. At that time, DOE, LANL and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) were in negotiations for the fence-to-fence cleanup of LANL property. Joni Arends of CCNS said, "CCNS believes that the cleanup Consent Order would be more protective of human health and the environment had LANL reported the contamination when first discovered during the negotiations."
Once the contamination was reported, NMED responded with a notice of violation to DOE and LANL with a potential fine of $795,000.
Chromium is not the only LANL contaminant which threatens drinking water. In June, DOE released data on the current conditions which revealed increasing levels of contaminants in the Los Alamos County drinking water wells and the Buckman Wellfield, which supplies Santa Fe residents with over 40% of their drinking water. These contaminants include neptunium, a radionuclide with similar health impacts to plutonium and directly related to nuclear weapons. Neptunium was found at levels above the current drinking water standards in the Los Alamos County drinking water wells.
Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, "DOE and LANL must address this environmental emergency more efficiently and effectively than they have thus far."