Secretary Pete Maggiore
Re: We request cessation of nuclear waste disposal at
"Area G" landfill and formal closure of the site, as required by law.
Dear Secretary Maggiore -
The "Area G" nuclear and chemical waste landfill is located one mile
west of White Rock, NM, on Mesita del
Area G is the only nuclear/chemical waste landfill at LANL still operating at this time. It began receiving waste in 1957, and so far has accumulated approximately 11 million cubic feet of waste.
Further background information regarding Area G can be found in Attachment 1.
Secretary Maggiore, we are writing to respectfully remind you of your long-standing obligation to close Area G to further nuclear waste disposal and begin a process of selecting remedies for the site that meet, in both process and substance, all applicable legal requirements of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
Why Area G must close
As you know, Area G admittedly received, for at least the first 28 years of its operation if not also since then, a broad spectrum of RCRA-regulated chemical wastes, as well as a wide variety of nuclear wastes. In 1980, LANL and DOE submitted a "Part A" application for a RCRA hazardous waste disposal permit for all of Area G and for all other sites within TA-54. First the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and later the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division (EID), the predecessor of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), granted LANL temporary "interim status" permission to continue disposal of RCRA waste anywhere in Area G, pending application and subsequent issuance of a full operating permit for the site. This was done despite a number of fundamental defects in LANL's application for interim status, including the absence of the required closure plan and of groundwater monitoring at the site.
This 1980 declaration on the part of LANL and DOE, which was resubmitted with modifications on other occasions between 1980 and 1985, and the long record of agency actions taken pursuant to that declaration since 1980, has made this site in its entirety subject to the permitting and closure requirements of RCRA.
No full permit application ("Part B") was ever submitted by LANL for approval, however, and Area G was never permitted for operation. Instead, in 1985, LANL withdrew its "Part A" application for interim status for Area G, triggering RCRA's closure requirements for the site. But instead of immediately closing the site as required by law, state and federal regulators allowed Area G to fall into a legal "limbo" from which it has never recovered.
Since 1985, EID, now NMED, having granted an "interim" permit to LANL to operate the site as a chemical waste dump for the 1980 to 1985 period, has been under an obligation to either permit the site - which is impossible, given the lack of an application -- or to formally close it.
The question of whether Area G is or is not currently receiving regulated chemical waste, in addition to nuclear waste, does not bear on this clear requirement under RCRA to promptly, formally and fully close Area G, and to develop, with full public participation, binding plans and commitments to remove, partially remove, or to permanently stabilize Area G's wastes, as RCRA provides. The argument that neither permitting nor closure is necessary because this site allegedly stopped receiving RCRA-regulated waste in 1985 is simply not germane, given that for 28 years RCRA-regulated wastes, amounting to millions of cubic feet in total volume, were disposed at the site. (2)
This regulatory history is summarized with some additional details in Attachment 2 to this letter.
In addition to RCRA-regulated wastes, Area G has received and may still be receiving for permanent disposal other toxic chemical wastes, such as pesticides, herbicides, and polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), which are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). While NMED does not regulate these substances at Area G directly, they do add significantly to the overall risk posed by the site and must be taken into account in site closure plans. Many of these substances bioaccumulate in the food chain; PCBs have already been found at levels dangerous to humans in fish caught in Cochiti Lake and in Bandelier National Monument.
Environmentally, Area G is a poor site, and should close
The waste interred at Area G is now buried, as it was in 1957, in shallow unlined pits and shafts. When the pits are nearly full, they are covered by about three feet of crushed volcanic tuff, a sand-like material; the shafts are topped off with a concrete plug. Most of the waste has little or no primary containment. There is no secondary containment, no cap, and no liner. The total inventory of chemical and nuclear waste at the site is unknown; its volume already exceeds the ultimate capacity of WIPP.
Secretary Maggiore, we would like to emphasize
that Area G is directly adjacent to springs and wetlands, and is both
directly upstream and upwind from White Rock, NM. Surface water in
In sum, Area G's natural setting is not favorable for the disposal of nuclear waste. It is highly unlikely that Area G or for that matter, any chemical or nuclear waste disposal facility, could ever be permitted today at TA-54. The same is true for the rest of the Pajarito Plateau, which receives too much precipitation, is too dissected by canyons with streams, and is too permeable for the permitted disposal of chemical and long-lived nuclear wastes.
The New Mexico Attorney General's office has asked you to close the site
For many of these reasons, Lindsay Lovejoy of the New Mexico Attorney General's office wrote to James Bearzi, Chief of the NMED Hazardous Waste Bureau, on July 12 of this year, asking him, among other requests, to close Area G. That letter states, in relevant part,
We have pointed out to NMED that these MDAs [Material Disposal Areas G, H, and L] were long ago required to stop receiving waste, have an approved closure plan, and close, but this has not happened. MDAs G and L were required to close under 40 CFR §§ 265.112(d)(3) and 265.113 (b) after NMED accepted LANL's withdrawal of its request for a permit for these areas in April 1985, terminating interim status under 40 CFR § 270.73(a). MDAs G, H, and L, were also required to close based on loss of interim status in November 1985, under 42 U.S.C. § 3005(e)(2) and 40 CFR § 270.73(c). However, to date they have neither been closed nor permitted.
Your agency has made no reply to this letter.
Many New Mexicans have requested closure
Secretary Maggiore, in addition to the imperatives of law and of science, approximately 2,000 New Mexicans have written to Governor Johnson and to you, respectfully requesting that you close Area G. They have requested that you hold public hearings, as required by law, regarding what is to be done with the site and the waste in it, as well as regarding the cleanup and stabilization of contamination at LANL generally.
We refer to the participants in the Los Alamos Study Group's "Can-Paign." What is more, these people have not merely signed a petition, but have paid $3.00 for the privilege of placing that letter on a food can that could display the letter in a way likely to be noticed and truly read by the Governor and yourself. We have read that appeal, appended here as Attachment 3, and we endorse it. We urge you to consider these requests carefully, as indeed you are required to do by law.
Alternatives to disposal at Area G exist and are environmentally superior to current practice
Secretary Maggiore, we recognize that there
is no perfect answer to the question of what to do with the nuclear waste
that continues to be generated by
A number of other alternatives for sequestration of waste could also be mentioned, many of which, like generating less waste from LANL programs, are environmentally superior to disposal at Area G. In any lineup of alternatives, common sense dictates that under no circumstances should the dumping of nuclear waste in shallow unlined pits directly above our streams and drinking water supplies be an option that is seriously considered. Although it seems obvious enough, it is highly likely such poor practice will be the only alternative seriously considered until Area G is closed.
This letter is not the place to exhaustively list these alternatives or to discuss their relative merits. Certainly NMED has no statutory responsibility for the generation and ultimate disposal of LANL's non-RCRA-regulated nuclear waste, unless of course that waste is being disposed at Area G, a site subject to RCRA regulation.
One option DOE may select is to open a new nuclear landfill at LANL. As you know, a sequence of four new nuclear waste disposal sites have already been planned for LANL, whether or not Area G is formally closed. The closure and post-closure commitments chosen by you for Area G, with ample and substantive public involvement, will undoubtedly help establish the precedent for the design and operating standards for any new disposal facility at LANL.
Environmentally speaking, there is no downside to closure of Area G. When - and how - you close Area G will help determine the standard of environmental protection for any new nuclear landfills at LANL.
We appreciate your attentiveness to this matter, which has gone without regulatory attention for so long. We respectfully request that you formally close Area G, as required by law.
[signature pages follow]
cc: Governor Gary Johnson
Dolores S. Herrera, Executive Director
Dorelen F. Bunting,
Brian Shields, Executive Director
Deborah Reade, Research Director
Hilario Romero, President
Eulynda Toledo Benalli
(from the Dine' Nation), President
Harry Brown, Executive Director
Peter Neils, Director
Geoffrey H. Fettus, Attorney
Helga Schimkat, Executive Director
Coila Ash, Director, Executive Director
Jay Coghlan, Director
Melinda Smith, Director
Marsha Mason, President
David Bacon, President
Michael Guerrero, Executive Director
Jorge Garcia, Strategy & Planning Director
Sam Hitt, Founder
Letter from Organizations
to Secretary Maggiore,
Attachment 1: Background Concerning LANL's "Area G" Nuclear Landfill
Prepared by the Los Alamos Study Group
According to DOE, Area G is slated to annually receive 44,000 drums'
worth of nuclear waste for permanent disposal.
(3) While actual disposal rates are at present about only 43%
of this amount, the rate of waste generation and disposal is expected
to increase as LANL begins its planned production of plutonium "pits," the cores of nuclear weapons, and as ambitious nuclear weapons testing
programs come on line at
Area G lies in LANL's Technical Area (TA-) 54, and is 63 acres in size. It contains at least 39 disposal pits and more than 209 shafts, which together cover most of the site. When it is completely filled, LANL anticipates dedicating four more sites to permanent nuclear waste disposal, three in TA-54 and one on another mesa, in TA-67.
Historically, Area G has been a disposal site for dangerous wastes of
all types, including a wide range of toxic chemicals, pesticides, PCBs,
transuranic (TRU) wastes of the kind now destined for WIPP,
spent nuclear fuel and components of small nuclear
Beneath the mesa surface, plumes of hazardous waste vapors and radioactive
tritium have mingled to cover much of the site. These plumes are close
to permanent springs and surface water, which are located immediately
adjacent to and below Area G, in
While Area G is likely to retain most of its buried waste for many centuries, waste will escape through a number of processes. The infiltration of rain and snowmelt, which percolates unimpeded through the waste, is enhanced by the greater permeability of waste relative to the surrounding tuff and will be accelerated by future waste subsidence. Infiltration is also enhanced by impervious structures built on the portions of the surface. Liquid and vapor transport through the fractured rock beneath the site, which varies from one place to another in an unknown and unknowable manner, cannot be predicted. Contaminants will also leave the site through wind erosion, and through the cumulative actions of plant roots and burrowing animals, both of which deposit radionuclides at the surface. These natural processes, while small in any given year, will have a cumulatively large effect over the course of centuries. Human intrusion, both intentional and inadvertent, cannot be ruled out, and could lead to massive breaches of containment. The rate of leakage is unknown; what is known is that the leakage will eventually be total.
In addition to the waste permanently disposed, Area G now stores some
46,000 drums' worth of TRU waste destined for WIPP. DOE hopes to ship
all this waste, along with newly-generated TRU waste, over the next three
decades. In 1994, DOE estimated that the nuclear waste at
Letter from Organizations
to Secretary Maggiore,
Attachment 2: Summary of the Regulatory History of LANL's "Area G" Nuclear Landfill
Prepared by the Los Alamos Study Group
That permitting process has never come close to being completed; nor has it been conducted in the manner required by law, with opportunity for public comment.
In its initial application, LANL filed what is known as a "Part A" notification of hazardous waste activity, a simple application no more than a few pages in length, which purported to cover all hazardous waste activity at LANL. Despite the deficiencies subsequently uncovered by inspectors (which included the total absence of any plan for closure of the sites, or for any ground-water monitoring whatsoever), "interim status" - a kind of temporary, standardized, stripped-down operating permit - was granted to LANL for its active hazardous waste disposal sites, including Area G in its entirety (63 acres).
This "interim status" lasted for five years, despite enforcement actions first initiated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New Mexico State Environmental Improvement Division (now the Environment Department, or NMED) beginning in June of 1983 and then, with somewhat greater effect, in May of 1984.
The loss of interim status normally should have triggered RCRA closure requirements, including public hearings on closure, but LANL had been allowed to operate without an approved closure plan for Area G, and so there was no plan to implement. Right up to the present day, no serious closure plan for Area G has ever been submitted, none has been approved, none has been implemented, and no public hearings on the future of this site have ever been held.
Without an approved permit or even interim status, LANL was required to close the site by an early date certain, following a process set forth in federal regulations. Even starting from scratch, without a closure plan, all closure activities were to be completed and certified within 420 days (from 5/1/85); if a closure plan were in place, closure was to be complete within 270 days after the last truckload of hazardous waste was received at the site.
Under RCRA, hazardous waste disposal sites must either be fully permitted for operation under legally-binding, agreed-upon guidelines that protect public health, workers, and the environment, or else they must be formally closed. A central thrust of RCRA was, and remains, to make sure that there is no third option.
Any approved closure plan for Area G must by law include a number of protections for citizens and the environment, including commitments to long-term monitoring, financial assurance, creation of an accurate waste inventory, and careful selection of closure options. Such closure options range from long-term containment in place to removal of some or all of the waste.
Although LANL claimed in 1985 to have ceased disposal of chemical waste at Area G, later investigation by a LANL contractor, (5) and still later enforcement action by NMED, revealed that chemical wastes were at times disposed at Area G well into the 1990s - if indeed sporadic, inadvertent, hazardous waste disposal has ever fully stopped.
Disposal of nuclear waste at Area G continues today, with no plan to stop and no external regulation.
Letter from Organizations
to Secretary Maggiore,
Attachment 3: Text of Letter from the 2001 "Can-Paign" to Close Area G
Dear Governor Johnson:
Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to dispose of large quantities
of radioactive waste in shallow pits and shafts in its "Area G" landfill
near White Rock, NM. I respectfully request that you, through the New
Mexico Environment Department (NMED), close Area G to further disposal
of nuclear waste. I request that NMED hold formal public hearings on the
required closure plan and subsequent cleanup and stabilization measures
both for Area G, and for all other nuclear and chemical waste disposal
sites in Los Alamos. If I am a
1. The first category excepted from local disposal today
is waste known to contain chemical wastes regulated under RCRA, a determination
made by LANL without external review. The second exception is waste which
contains more than 100 nanocuries per gram of
transuranic elements (those elements with atomic number greater
than 92), which is called TRU waste. The first category of waste is shipped
to commercial off-site treatment and disposal facilities; some of the
radioactive portion of this RCRA waste is shipped off site for treatment
and is then returned for final disposal at LANL. The TRU waste is placed
in long-term above-ground storage at Area G for eventual shipment to the
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near
Prior to the mid-1970s, all transuranic waste produced at LANL was permanently buried at Area G and other LANL disposal sites.
2. In 1985, LANL claimed that Area G would receive no more RCRA-regulated chemical wastes. There has never been, however, any system of independent regulatory oversight to verify this claim, and in the 1990s there was at least one enforcement action by the NMED for the illegal disposal of RCRA-regulated hazardous waste at Area G. As discussed in the attachments below, LANL's most definitive Area G waste inventory lists "unknown chemical wastes" in every disposal pit used at Area G since 1985.
3. See Area G for a summary of official DOE disposal projections and maps of future LANL disposal sites from its Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (LANL SWEIS, 1999). All other background information cited in this letter is from DOE and LANL sources; most of it can also be found at the above web site and related pages.
4. According to the LANL "Comprehensive Site Plan 2000," more than $5 billion in new nuclear weapons facilities are being planned for LANL, many of which will create additional nuclear waste (see <http://www.lanl.gov/csp2000/>). As of this writing, this web site has been taken down by LANL; its content is available at the Los Alamos Study Group office.
5. IT Corporation for LANL, 1992, "Operable Unit 1148 Data Report." This document attempts to inventory wastes disposed at Areas J, H, L, and G by disposal pit and time period.