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Group calls for more air-quality monitoring at LANL

Posted: Thursday, December 17, 2015 10:30 pm | Updated: 12:11 am, Fri Dec 18, 2015.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

Members of a watchdog group and San Ildefonso Pueblo say “low-emission” sites at Los Alamos National Laboratory collectively may be creating much more pollution than the lab is reporting, and they’re asking the state Environment Department’s Environmental Improvement Board to increase air-quality monitoring requirements at the sites.

A hearing Thursday morning was opened in Tewa, the language native to the people of San Ildefonso Pueblo. Kathy Sanchez, a pueblo member, was among those objecting to the current scope of air-quality monitoring at the lab, which lies adjacent to the pueblo and uses its ancestral lands.

Sanchez spread a handkerchief on a table beside the court reporter and laid out Native emblems — a beaded child’s slipper; a palm-sized clay saucer; a carved black bear — objects meant to “acknowledge the sacred space” and represent what is at stake, she said: the health of future generations, the legacy of pueblo land and the wildlife lost from activities at the lab.

The display smelled of lavender, sage and cedar.

At issue is a five-year permit for the lab issued by the state Environmental Department under the federal Clean Air Act. Following a public comment period beginning in December 2014 and a series of negotiations that required special one-year monitoring of a soil vapor extraction system, LANL was granted the new permit at the beginning of 2015.

But critics at Thursday’s hearing questioned the effectiveness, scope and transparency of current air-quality practices at LANL and asked the board to consider changes that would offer more protections to LANL workers and the “downstream” public susceptible to air pollutants.

According to Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Security, a key petitioner at the hearing, LANL is just below “major source” levels, and the lab is allowed to emit 200 tons of volatile organic chemicals — high levels of which are linked to asthma, organ damage and cancer — 7,500 tons of greenhouse gases and 24 tons of hazardous air pollutants. If LANL were to produce 25 tons of air pollutants instead of 24, it would be bumped up to the “major” polluter designation, she said.

Arends and Dr. Maureen Merritt, formerly with the U.S. Public Health Service and the Indian Health Service, said they want LANL to be considered a major polluter, because this clarification would put the lab under greater scrutiny and might motivate officials there to install emission-capturing devices.

They’re proposing changes to the labs’s current air-quality permit that include better monitoring of “low-emission” sites, including clear reporting of all beryllium operations — a chemical used in bomb production that has been linked to respiratory illness and cancer — as well as constant monitoring to determine whether air might be contaminated by evaporated wastewater.

Arends believes these emissions, deemed “insignificant,” actually may be contributing to a much larger air pollution problem at the lab.

A representative for the Environmental Department and Los Alamos National Security, the private consortium that operates the lab, stressed that pollution limits have not been exceeded and that the regulations called for by the petitioners fall outside the department’s legal purview.

John Verheul, an attorney for the state, said the responsibility to provide evidence of pollutants is on the shoulders of the petitioners.

A air quality specialist from the lab, Charles Blankenship, said emissions were shown to be so low that additional monitoring would be possible but “fruitless.”

But Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, called the current emission caps for LANL “generous.”

“The implication is that you can pollute enormously in some part of that site without exceeding the overall cap. It doesn’t really make sense,” he said in an phone interview following the hearing.

Christopher Timm, a member of the Environmental Improvement Board, questioned whether the lab had a history of violating air safety regulations, but a representative for the state was unable to recall any violations. A lab official did say that the rate of “insignificant emissions” was found to be less than 1 ton per year, far below caps set for the lab.

Sanchez, however, spoke about growing up close to the lab. She said she remembered the sound of test detonations during her childhood on the pueblo, and of seeing plumes of smoke rise into the air.

“My heart is very heavy now,” she said in a final statement, explaining that her 37-year-old daughter is pregnant.

“I just know these toxic chemicals pass through the placenta, and I just pray,” she said. “The mental, emotional and spiritual impact of the laboratory on my family, my people and me … [is] of [an] exponential nature.”

The board is expected to issue a decision on the petition Friday morning.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 986-3011 or

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