Press Release 9/1/04


For Immediate Release September 1, 2004

 DOE, Environment Department Release “Cleanup Plan” for Los Alamos – Sans Cleanup Requirements

Nuclear Waste Disposal in Shallow Pits Continues as “Cleanup” Runs in Reverse, No Sign of Stopping

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200

 Today, the Department of Energy (DOE), New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), and University of California (UC) – the owner and operating contractor, respectively, of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) – released their joint proposed Consent Order (Order) governing all investigation and cleanup responsibilities for sites at LANL contaminated with hazardous wastes.  

            The Order was issued under provisions of the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act (which essentially mimics the requirements of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA).

            The 271-page document can be found at 

            “It’s very important to understand that the Order does not, in fact, require any cleanup, nor set any schedule for cleanup, apart from the handful of small cleanup actions already begun by LANL,” remarked Study Group Director Greg Mello.  “Instead, it describes an 11-year process of investigation and possible cleanup – where future cleanup decisions are to be subject to site-specific “risk analyses,” themselves based on “projected land uses” and subject to a large number of other subjective factors, all in the context of a complex dispute resolution process rather than in the context of any clear regulatory requirement. 

            “In fact, NMED promises, in this Order, to promptly remove all permit requirements for cleanup.  Why?  One reason is that performance under a permit is subject to citizen suit as well as NMED enforcement.  NMED also promises never to sue DOE to resolve future disputes that may arise in implementing the Order, and forever after as well.”

            “The investigations proposed in this Order, while they are set forth with great technical competence as far as the details are concerned, are nonetheless largely irrelevant, in some cases because enough is already known to begin cleanup, and in others because no amount of money will ever be enough to provide the answers,” Mello continued.  “If Hercules felt he needed to count the piles of dung in the Augean Stables, he would have neither counted them successfully nor cleaned up the stables.  In the real world, as in the fable, you just have to start digging.  You count as you go.” 

            “This Order is not really about cleanup.  It is about providing large environmental budgets for LANL without actually ordering any cleanup – which would be very problematic to the weapons program and hence to NMED, which is partly supported by DOE.  What NMED has produced is an environmental science welfare program, and little more.  LANL has already spent almost a billion dollars without significant cleanup, and the endless wells of money are not going to be endless for very long.  The big money needed for cleanup at LANL is being spent right now in Iraq, and on the tax cuts enjoyed by our wealthier citizens.  The country is now expected to run big deficits for the foreseeable future.”

            “Actually, the amount of contamination at Los Alamos has been increasing, not decreasing, as nuclear wastes and some chemical wastes (e.g. PCBs) continue to be disposed in shallow pits,” emphasized Mello.  “This is the real problem with the so-called ‘cleanup.’  There isn’t any and won’t be any, since DOE will never clean up Los Alamos as long as it needs the lab as a major dumping site for its nuclear weapons program, especially for the plutonium pit production program starting up at LANL. 

            “The big nuclear waste disposal site at LANL is already twice the volume of WIPP, and it’s growing every day, just as it has since the 1950s.  NMED has authority over this site, but has chosen not to exercise it.”  Twenty-seven environmental organizations and more than 3,000 people have petitioned governors Johnson and Richardson to close the LANL dump, called “Area G.”

            Today’s proposed Order is especially notable in that it proposes to substitute the Order, which has been privately negotiated under duress of multiple lawsuits filed by DOE and UC against New Mexico, for the statutory open hearing and citizen appeal provisions of RCRA.  There is a vestigial “public involvement” process in the Order, but there is no legal authority cited.  “This is because public involvement is really voluntary on the part of the NMED and involves no right of appeal, as this Order resolves litigation which citizen plaintiffs were not a part.  Formally and legally, citizens are shut completely out of this process.  Public relations have replaced public hearings,” said Mello.

            “All in all, the Order continues a process by which State regulation of LANL has been weakened by conflict of interest, federal intransigence and bad faith, and by a lack of political courage on the part of the Governor’s office and NMED.” 

            “This Order not only wastes money and time but gives away the State’s power.  NMED has strong legal authority, but has chosen not to use it at LANL,” charged Mello – who was the State’s first inspector at LANL in 1984, and who wrote the initial enforcement actions at the site  that same year. 

            The investigative process ordered today will continue prior investigations that first began on a large scale in the 1989 timeframe.  Results of those investigations fill a small library today.  Almost an entire generation of LANL environmental scientists have been employed in producing them.  Many have retired, and the long passage of time is causing some of the early work – never applied to actual cleanup, because cleanup was not requested by the State – to be lost from memory. 

            Many months of preparation lay behind the original May 2, 2002 Order.  Thus today’s Order represents some three years of investment by the NMED so far.  During this long negotiating period, at least one enforcement action and at least one NMED-issued schedule for site investigations were stayed, as well as previously-planned issuance of draft permit documents and subsequent public hearings on the operation and cleanup of portions of LANL.  Thus most other progress on bringing LANL into full formal compliance has been held in abeyance pending the conclusion of these secret negotiations. 

            Further background can be found at

            Further comments are available upon request. 


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