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"Forget the Rest" blog

Area G expansion raises concern; Forum to address future of LANL’s radioactive dump
By Diana Heil - The Santa Fe New Mexican

April 27, 2005
Just 20 minutes [sic: miles] from the Santa Fe Plaza — and a mile from the community of White Rock — a huge inventory of low-level radioactive waste is buried in unlined pits and shafts.

In Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Area G, a dump that dates back to 1957, some nuclear-weapons waste is covered with only a few inches of dirt. By contrast, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad stores radioactive material 2,000 feet underground.

Area G’s past is a sore spot among environmentalists. But so is its future. While considering measures for cleaning up Area G, lab officials are planning on expanding the size of Area G from 63 acres to 93 acres as early as this fall.

At a May 3 public forum in Santa Fe, Northern New Mexico Citizens’ Advisory Board, a federally funded group that advises the Energy Department on environmental issues concerning the lab, will bring together all the players so community members can be informed.

Area G is the largest of more than 20 radioactive waste dumps at Los Alamos. It sits on Mesita del Buey, above the regional aquifer that supplies water to Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Pojoaque and Albuquerque.

“We do not have enough information to ensure the public knows what the longterm impact to the environment will be,” Jim Brannon, vice chairman of Northern New Mexico Citizens’ Advisory Board, said.

Perspectives on Area G are far-flung.

“If this were a municipal landfill, you would never get away with it,” James Bearzi, chief of the state Environment Department’s Hazardous Waste Bureau, said.

A city dump has tighter controls than Area G, and oversight from the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have been limited," he said.

“Citizens and legislators are never given the opportunity to say whether the engineering controls (at Area G) are appropriate because DOE is self-regulated,” Bearzi said.

But lab officials beg to differ with the analogy.

City dumps have different monitoring requirements because they can receive a variety of wastes, including small quantities of hazardous waste such as paint, oil, pesticides, herbicides, batteries and computer parts, lab spokeswoman Kathy DeLucas said. Area G, however, only accepts radioactive waste.

“Before waste is disposed of at Area G, we know exactly what we are receiving,” DeLucas said. “The waste goes through a very rigorous inspection, characterization and certification process. ... It’s a world of difference from your ordinary landfill, and there is no comparison.”

The state has a regulatory hook on the situation because of hazardous waste disposed there in the 1980s and 1990s. Under the state Hazardous Waste Act, the Environment Department can impose closure.

But many questions will be up for debate. What gets closed — the hazardous waste part of Area G only or the entire site? And what does closure mean — digging up the old stuff and sending it for storage elsewhere or capping the waste on site for years to come?

The implications are farreaching, not only for people who drink the water and breathe the air, but workers who would be digging 80 feet deep into this type of waste. Everyone from Santa Fe to Los Alamos — and in between — has a great need to care, Brannon said.

Twice, Los Alamos lab submitted closure plans for Area G to the state Environment Department, which deemed it inadequate. By this time next year, permits will be due for ongoing waste management at the lab and closure of the old units.

“Under current environmental standards, Area G would never be permitted today,” Bearzi said.

The extent of environmental contamination caused by Area G is under investigation. Though releases of known carcinogens have been documented, “nobody knows how far or how much has migrated,” Bearzi said.

Greg Mello, who is well acquainted with Area G from his former work as a hydrologist at the state Environment Department and his current work as director of the disarmament nonprofit called the Los Alamos Study Group, said the dump’s proximity to springs is part of the problem. “Area G is untenable as a long-term waste site,”he said.

His solution would be to dig up and sort the old waste, then ship the dangerous stuff away and bury the other stuff where it is.

The lab’s new waste should be packaged, properly characterized and shipped to other sites, such as the Nevada Test Site, which is situated in a drier climate, or WIPP, which is deeper, he said. He also hopes people will explore why Los Alamos continues to make so much nuclear waste.

“Area G is not a health problem today to anyone, except to people who work there maybe,” Mello said.

Instead, he frets about the waste falling into the wrong hands. “People could mine the dumps of Los Alamos for the material to build nuclear weapons,” he said.

Through Mello’s petition efforts, 4,000 people, 200 businesses and 100 organizations have requested that Area G be closed. Still, the battle won’t be easy.

“This state has never been able to stand up to the labs,” Mello said.

Courtesy photo/Northern New Mexico Citizens’ Advisory Board Area G is the largest of more than 20 radioactive waste dumps at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The radioactive waste disposal site dates back to 1957, and some nuclearweapons waste is covered with only a few inches of dirt. Lab officials are planning a cleanup of the site, and a May 3 forum in Santa Fe will bring together all the players so the public can be informed. Clyde Mueller The New Mexican


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