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"Forget the Rest" blog
Will Richardson Halt LANL Nuclear Dumping, Clean Up Mess?
Greg Mello
Published in the Santa Fe New Mexican
November 16, 2002

Since 1943, the Department of Energy (DOE) has designed, built and tested nuclear weapons in New Mexico. This business has left behind a considerable toxic legacy, including more than 1,000 contaminated sites at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), of which 25 are hazardous and nuclear waste landfills.  At LANL, groundwater is contaminated in several locations, and low levels of contaminants have shown up in area wells.  Despite this, unregulated nuclear waste disposal continues on a narrow mesa just above springs, streams, and ancient burial sites -- an entirely unsuitable site -- with no signs of stopping. 

The currently-active dump is called "Area G."  Waste is buried here in shallow pits and shafts and covered with as little as three feet of earth, just as it was in the 1950s. 

Amazingly, this disposal is still entirely unregulated.  There has been no licensing process, no hazardous waste permit, no closure plan, no commitment to post-closure care, no performance bond, no disclosure of waste, and no external regulation of disposal.  The New Mexico Attorney General finally said last year that the site has been operating illegally since 1985.  Subsequently, more than 2,000 New Mexico residents and 27 environmental organizations petitioned the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to close Area G.  But neither Attorney General Madrid nor NMED, which is charged with regulating the site, has acted.   

            But isn't LANL being cleaned up, at least?   Hardly.  DOE has now spent more than $700 million on LANL "cleanup" -- meaning a program by that name, not the removal of waste from the environment.  Few actual cleanups have been done - and because of the continued disposal, the total waste in the environment just keeps increasing.  Most of the cleanup money has gone to University of California (UC) overhead, or paid for research. 

Unregulated nuclear waste disposal does more than despoil the environment.  It also defines a relationship - subjugation -- and it creates a future, one where governmental failure allows "rogue" institutions to exploit the state's resources and subvert its regulatory functions, making a "good business climate" for more of the same. 

In May, NMED finally determined that there might be an "imminent and substantial endangerment" of human health and the environment at LANL and so issued a "corrective action order."  The problem is, this order required no corrective action.  Instead, it ordered several years of further study, primarily risk assessments of various kinds, in substantial part to keep federal dollars flowing to LANL (as Secretary Maggiore explained at the time).  The studies requested will accomplish no cleanup, and most of them don't even relate to cleanup. 

Then NMED turned right around and signed a "letter of intent" with DOE, a sort of preemptive regulatory surrender, signaling clearly that aggressive cleanup won't be necessary.  In return, NMED will receive about $700,000 from DOE.

But even NMED's not-too-subtle surrender did not satisfy UC or the Bush DOE, who want no regulation of Area G and the other hazardous and nuclear waste landfills at all.  So UC reached into DOE's deep pockets (yes, they can do that, and yes, those are our pockets) and filed a massive lawsuit against NMED in federal court which aims to decimate New Mexico's ability to regulate essentially any nuclear waste or environmental contamination in New Mexico (except possibly at WIPP, where separate legislation might provide some protection). 

Will Governor Richardson vigorously defend the state's environment and sovereignty against UC and the Bush crowd?  Will NMED take itself off the DOE dole, repudiate the weird "letter of intent" signed by the last administration, and start real environmental cleanup at LANL?  Probably not -- unless citizens ask for it.

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