By STEPHANIE HILLER
Los Alamos National Laboratory has abruptly ended its contract with the New Mexico Community Foundation (NMCF), which served as the independent monitor of the Lab’s vast environmental database. This action has disturbed many stakeholders who saw this data management process as a valued improvement in the Lab’s accountability to the community, making information about radioactive and other toxic releases far more accessible to the public.
The reason given was “budgetary constraints.”
Since 2008, the NMCF had fulfilled its role as required by the 2007 Chromium Agreement signed by LANL and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) when the Lab was found to be out of compliance with a prior Consent Order. But the NMED had released LANL from this requirement in October, saying that the conditions of the contract had been met.
Kathy Sanchez of San Ildefonso Pueblo was distressed by this news. “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? It was better when they had a third party to get you what you want to see.”
San Ildefonso is one of four pueblos directly adjacent to the Laboratory. For these communities, as well as towns and villages downwind, accurate data collection is crucial.
In addition to checking that the data was properly entered and updated, the Foundation held trainings for community members in its use, held an environmental forum called FEED that was attended by 120 local people, and called together a Steering Committee of key stakeholders.
The process of integrating the environmental data into one organized database had begun after the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, when locals worried that the fire had released toxic and radioactive contaminants into their water supply or onto their crops. In response, the Department of Energy (DOE) hired John Till, President of the Risk Assessment Corporation in South Carolina, to evaluate the potential danger to health. Till found a tangle of data, entered in different units and according to different models by various departments at LANL. “It’s not that it was inaccurate, it’s just that it took so long to access it, you couldn’t tell people in a timely fashion what to expect.” He told DOE, “You’ve got to do something about this.” That was the beginning of a new database that was called the Risk Assessment, Communication, Evaluation and Prediction – RACER.
But data collection is not enough; it has to be recorded. In 2004 the Lab began noting excess levels of chromium in a well that supplies drinking water to the people of Los Alamos County.
The Lab had been mandated by the Consent Order to report such “exceedences” – excess levels – within 24 hours. But LANL did not report this data for more than a year. Chromium hexavalent is toxic and it causes cancer. NMED slapped the Lab with a fine of a quarter of a million dollars.
Also at the time, NMED’s then-Secretary Ron Curry added the requirement that the Lab hire an independent monitor until the Consent Order expires in 2015.
It was an unusual assignment for NMCF, but Denise Gonzales, Director of Philanthropy, said, “We saw this is as a civic engagement project to connect disenfranchised communities.”
But late in 2010, the NMCF audit showed that 80 percent of the data in LANL’s database had not been fed into RACER. NMED fined the Lab $14,000, “a slap on the wrist,” said Gonzales.
Given such discrepancies, it’s hard to understand why the NMED would release LANL three years early from the Chromium Settlement, but the officials who wrote that agreement no longer work there. Ron Curry, former secretary of NMED, and James Bearzi, head of the Hazardous Waste Bureau, were both replaced when Susanna Martinez took office in 2010.
No one, including NMED’s public information officer, Jim Winchester, replied to repeated requests to explain their reasons for removing this requirement, except Tom Skibitski of NMED’s newly created DOE Oversight Bureau. He called to say that I should speak to the present head of Hazardous Waste, John Kieling, but Kieling did not respond to several e-mails and a phone call.
Asked whether the Chromium Settlement, which is the document requiring the independent monitor, is the law, Skibitski replied thoughtfully, “That’s a good question.” After a pause he replied tentatively that it was a contract, and if both parties agreed, the contract could be terminated.
The Oversight Bureau, established last September 17, is funded by a grant from the DOE.
Gonzales said Bechtel, one of the four companies that runs the Lab as the Los Alamos National Security LLC, had never liked the idea of an independent monitor and in particular had objected to the Steering Committee meetings among key stakeholders that the Foundation had initiated.
Chris Echo Hawk, the Lab’s Environmental Data and Analysis Group Leader and one of the Lab’s two representatives to the Steering Committee, had begun telling the Steering Committee that RACER was outdated, the location of its servers in Michigan was inconvenient, and arrangements should be made to house it on the “cloud,” the Internet-based information storage system that powers smart phones.
The Foundation had worked with the Lab to transfer the system to Intellus, a new, centralized, cloud-based database application. Lab representatives continued to assure Gonzales that NMCF would still be needed as the independent monitor.
Up on the “Hill,” minutes prior to a November 16 training in the use of the new database, I spoke with Chris Echo Hawk in the presence of Press Information Officer (PIO) Colleen Curran, as well as the Intellus Project Leader, Karen Schulz Paige, who was waiting to find out which room to use for the training.
Echo Hawk was eager to speak about the new database and its present housing. He considers its creation to be the primary achievement of his 12 years at Los Alamos. He was sorry the NMCF had been dropped and said he considered Denise Gonzales a friend. He didn’t want to talk about why NMCF was let go, but implied that with the new technology, the independent manager was irrelevant. “People can see the same information that the scientists see,” he said.
Echo Hawk is a Pawnee Indian from Oklahoma. His uncle, Larry Echo Hawk, served in the first Obama administration as the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.
I asked him three times whether the contract was terminated due to financial constraints before Echo Hawk replied, “If it’s the budget, it’s not up to me. It’s the DOE.”
PIO Curran was unable to come up with a contact at DOE to answer this question for me, but Jay Coghlan, Executive Director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, told me in a phone conversation that NMCF’s $127,000 contract was hardly enough to make the Lab blink. Its budget peaked at $2.5 billion in 2011 and was reduced by only $300 million with the postponement of the new Chemical and Metallurgy Reliable Replacement facility and elimination of 600 jobs.
“You have to remember,” said Coghlan, “that 50 cents out of every taxpayer dollar goes to pay Bechtel’s overhead.” He added that the Lab’s budget has risen eight-fold since Bechtel arrived on the scene.
The database, with its 11 million data, is complicated. In a small room with a big screen, Paige gave a presentation to five people – two NMED officials, one LANL staffer, Scott Kovac of Nuclear Watch, and me. Paige led us through a ten-page instruction packet that is supposed to be on the IntellusNM website, but on later examination proved to be difficult to find. She pointed out the Contact button.
“We’re always available to answer your questions,” she emphasized. “We will respond.”
But for Kathy Sanchez, the fox is back in the henhouse. “It makes you very uneasy,” she said. “They haven’t been the most dependable, most reliable people to work with.”
Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the whole thing “makes me too angry” but to her, much more critical than the management of the database, is the chromium in well R-28. According to a recent report, the amount has risen steadily since it was first reported, from 400 ppb (parts per billion) in 2004, to 1200 ppb now. That’s 24 times the state’s drinking water standard, she said. The well is just west of the Buckman Wells that supply Santa Fe County’s drinking water. Arends said that the size of the plume is not known, nor its distance from the drinking water.
Asked whether the cancellation of the NMCF contract indicated that the Lab was withdrawing into its former secrecy, Arends said, “To me, this is just the Lab’s modus operandi since Bechtel came on.
“When you have 11 million pieces of data, you have to have somebody that’s watching.”
The real reason for canceling the contract with NMCF is still unclear. Although the Lab has taken on the task of holding trainings, the word is not getting out to the public; the location is not very accessible to members of the community. The Environment Department’s failure to respond to my many attempts to find out why it had released the Lab from its commitment to work with an independent monitor also indicates a lack of transparency from that agency.
John Till’s comment was, “I don’t understand what the fear is.”
Unless there is something to hide.
Stephanie Hiller is an independent journalist and editor based in Santa Fe. She blogs at http://stephaniehiller.wordpress.com