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Data Dump

LANL’s massive database is a flashpoint—but can anyone use it?

11/27/2012

Alexa Schirtzinger

IntellusIntellus Coordinator Karen Schultz Paige trains public employees and an activist to use LANL’s massive environmental database.

Intellus New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory’s massive database, is “the future of environmental data”—at least according to its website.

If that’s true, then the future’s pretty murky. Even though Intellus offers more than 9 million pieces of information about the lab’s impact on the surrounding environment (air, soil, water, etc.), it’s just plain hard to figure out. 

“What’s missing from this equation is the meaning of the data,” says Greg Mello, the executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, which advocates for nuclear disarmament. “So 100,000 or a million pieces of information about water quality in and around the lab is not useful to anyone. What’s absent is a trustworthy interpreter of that information.” 

Mello is no novice. A Harvard graduate and former hydrogeologist, he’s spent nearly 25 years researching and observing the lab, and he’s well-versed in the relevant jargon. 

In fact, the future of New Mexico’s environmental data is at a critical juncture. The database recently underwent two major changes: transitioning to a new, cloud-based system that automatically publishes new data; and transferring its management from an independent third party to the lab itself. 

While many observers consider the technological upgrade an improvement, they’re split on the change in management. For eight years, the New Mexico Community Foundation—a nonprofit that provides grants for education, environmental improvement and other community needs—managed Intellus and its predecessor, the RACER (Risk Analysis, Communication, Education and Reduction) database. NMCF got the job after the lab failed to timely report water contamination; critics worry that without NMCF, there won’t be anyone to hold the lab accountable. 

“If the lab has control of the monitors, if they have control of the data, how are we to know that it’s dependable and readable?” wonders Kathy Sanchez, the Environmental Justice Program manager for Tewa Women United, which works with tribal communities near the lab. “It was better when they had a third party to get you what you want to see.”

Denise Gonzales, NMCF’s director of community philanthropy, says the nonprofit worked hard to help the public understand the database and keep the lab honest.

“Our focus was really to talk to communities, understand what were their concerns, what did they want to hear,” Gonzales says. “And if they had questions—that was the other thing—we were kind of able to hold the lab responsible for those answers.”

In 2011, she says, NMCF conducted an audit of the lab, “and we found they weren’t turning in all of their information.” She worries that, without NMCF’s oversight, such missteps may go unnoticed.

But the US Department of Energy, which oversees the lab, terminated NMCF’s contract in September, citing cost concerns and budget uncertainties. In an email to SFR, DOE spokeswoman Toni Chiri characterizes the nonprofit’s role in the database as “purely mechanical,” not regulatory, adding that the updated database allows for more transparency.

Although the roughly $127,000 NMCF received to manage the database seems puny against the lab’s nearly $2 billion budget, Mello points to other problems with NMCF’s involvement.

“It created a funding stream from Los Alamos National Laboratory to the New Mexico Community Foundation which we regarded as—and still do regard as—politically dangerous and unwise,” he says. 

In addition to the money it received to run the database, NMCF also got DOE funding—$1 million in 2011, plus another $300,000 this year—to give to other nonprofits “to increase public participation in the DOE’s environmental cleanup efforts at nuclear waste sites nationwide,” according to the program website

But Gonzales says that funding doesn’t affect NMCF’s ability to monitor Intellus.

“They have nothing to do with each other,” she says. “There’s no conflict of interest whatsoever.”

In effect, it’s moot: NMCF no longer has a role in the Intellus project. That leaves LANL in charge of not only reporting its own data, but also presenting it in a way that’s understandable to the public. 

The task of regulatory oversight, Chiri writes, rests with the New Mexico Environment Department, which recently ended the requirement for independent management of LANL’s database. NMED spokesman Jim Winchester did not return repeated calls for comment.

Still, the lab appears to be taking up NMCF’s mantle. According to LANL spokeswoman Colleen Curran, it has held trainings aimed at familiarizing New Mexicans with Intellus’ arcane language and extensive data sets.

“It’s been great,” Curran tells SFR. “…I think we’ve been averaging between two and six people per class.” 

Whether such trainings are actually reaching the public is a separate question. Only five people attended a recent training session: two NMED officials, one LANL staffer, Scott Kovac of the advocacy group Nuclear Watch New Mexico and SFR. After leading attendees through a 10-page instruction packet, Intellus Coordinator Karen Schultz Paige pointed to the database’s “Contact” button.

“We’re always available to answer your questions,” she said. “We will respond.”

But Gonzales has her doubts.

“We were helping people,” she says. “We would sit down with the public—people could walk into our office at any time, [and] they could schedule one-on-one time. I mean, you would be hard-pressed to get one-on-one time with the labs right now."


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