Cover-up and Collusion at the Sandia National Laboratory Corral

By STEPHANIE HILLER

In a world with few heroes, Dave McCoy is a warrior for environmental justice who never gives up. For seven years he has been fighting for public protection from the toxic brew that fills the two and a half acre pit on the property of Sandia National Laboratory. He believes that the radioactive and chemical wastes in the Mixed Waste Landfill are being improperly managed and monitored, and that these nasty elements are destined to pollute Albuquerque’s water supply.

McCoy, an environmental lawyer and executive director of Citizen Action, Albuquerque, has plenty of evidence that the trickle down effect has begun. But his efforts to get the landfill excavated have been repeatedly blocked by a bureaucracy operating in collusion with a giant military corporation for whom profit is the commanding principle of operation.

The bureaucracy is the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) with its allies in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The corporation is the nation’s biggest and most powerful weapons manufacture, the Lockheed Corporation, which runs Sandia Lab for the Department of Energy.  Citizen Action, formed by Sue Dayton in the early 2000s to represent public concerns regarding the management of the landfill, has torn into the blanket of denials and deceptions that have wrapped around nuclear industry since the days of the Manhattan Project.

Despite being rebuffed for every attempt to protect the local citizenry from a looming disaster, McCoy has kept on keeping on for seven years, protesting that the dirt cover installed over the dump in 2009 will not be adequate to protect the public against the migration of wastes that include long-lived radioactive toxins like plutonium and americium.

Last month, at the urging of State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino, Citizen Action succeeded in having a Memorial heard and passed in two legislative committees that demanded the NMED comply with its own Final Order requiring that Sandia Laboratory evaluate the need for excavation to protect groundwater. The Memorial did not make it to a vote on the floor, but Ortiz y Pino has said he will try to pass it again next year.

How serious is the threat of contamination? “We don’t know,” McCoy told me in a phone conversation. And what we don’t know is the problem.

McCoy has been an environmental lawyer for nearly thirty years. In California, he drew attention to the poor construction at the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant, finally forcing the plant’s shut-down. In Idaho, prior to coming to Albuquerque, he worked to stop the incineration of nuclear wastes at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), blasting mercury, plutonium, and arsenic into the pristine air along the banks of the Snake River. INL had been operating two polluting incinerators for 15 years without securing the obligatory permit from the federal government as required by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Dave McCoy, executive director of Citizen Action
Dave McCoy, executive director of Citizen Action, Albuquerque. Photo by Veronica McCoy

McCoy laughs. “They claimed they were on Interim Status and did not have to have a permit. I told them perhaps they were uncertain about the meaning of the word ‘interim.’ I said, let’s look that up in the dictionary.”

Under threat of a lawsuit from the Snake River Alliance, INL shut down the incinerators.

McCoy knows RCRA chapter and verse. It’s a good law, and he believes in it. Written in 1976 and amended in 1980, RCRA exists to protect the public from contamination of the environment. But companies and their regulatory agencies have learned how to get around it, and until they run into a bulldog attorney like McCoy, they generally succeed.

Laws exist to protect the public from sleights of hand by public agencies and private corporations, and McCoy says the NMED has broken the law repeatedly. “I’ve never seen anything as corrupt as the state of New Mexico,” he sighs. According to McCoy, the NMED has followed the letter of the law but not the intent, and in the process the agency has hidden crucial information in a number of reports kept not only from the public but from EPA Region 6, which is tasked to oversee the department. (Processes that involve nuclear materials require federal supervision.)

One such report was done by Tech Law, an independent environmental research company whose website claims its business is to make sure its clients have the information they need.  The company had been called in by NMED to evaluate Sandia’s plan to cover up the 2.6-acre unlined landfill with three feet of dirt.

When the report said the cover would not be adequate to protect the aquifer, NMED buried it; and when McCoy filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of it, he received 13,000 pages of additional studies and reports that had been kept from public view.

In response, the NMED sued him! Then officials tried to silence McCoy by banning him from hearings and meetings with other, more polite, environmental groups in New Mexico.

The then head of NMED, Ron Curry, opined that McCoy “called me a criminal,” but according to McCoy, “what I actually said was that according to RCRA it was criminal to prevent the public from access to agency procedures.”

Although it is located only a mile from a children’s park planned for Mesa del Sol, a new residential development south of the city, the landfill is no children’s sandbox. Dumped in the landfill from 1958-1988 are an estimated 1,500,000 cubic feet of radioactive and mixed hazardous wastes including PCBs, TCE, chromium, plutonium, and a wild array of unidentified materials packaged in plastic bags, cardboard boxes, and steel drums. Some of the waste has already begun to enter the groundwater, says McCoy, including nickel, chromium, cadmium, and nitrates. Their presence has been documented by the very agencies that approved the cover. Soil vapor studies conducted in 2007 by Sandia Lab, for example, show that cancer-causing volatile organic solvents are moving deeper beneath the Mixed Waste Landfill. Sandia has also reported that tritium concentrations are ten times higher, and found at deeper levels, than a decade ago; tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that binds well with oxygen to form radioactive fluids.

Drinking water contaminated with these types of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals is implicated in the epidemic spread of cancers and many other chronic diseases with which the public is already riddled. Once such materials are washed into the aquifer, it will be very difficult to remove them. It’s not too late to remove them now.

“RCRA law does not permit placing a dump a mile away from a children’s playground and residential area,” says McCoy, referring to the development expected to house 80,000 to 100,000 people, but NMED has argued for years that the flow of the water in the aquifer is to the northwest, and therefore will never reach Mesa del Sol. The problem with that assessment, according to McCoy and consultant Robert Gilkeson, the hydro-geologist who advises Citizen Action, is that it’s wrong. The water flows to the southwest.

That’s not all that’s wrong, according to the TechLaw report, which stated that Sandia scientists were using a “black box” computer model – that is, one in which inaccurate information fed into the system produces an inaccurate conclusion – and that it was not reliable for predicting the movement of contaminants; nothing could be known about those contaminants because the well-monitoring system put in place to monitor their movement was inadequate. Based on an incorrect assessment of the direction of the movement of water above the aquifer, all of the wells except one were in the wrong locations.

There were other problems with the wells. They were too deep to pick up the contaminants from the moving water. The well screens became clogged with bentonite clay, making it impossible to discern what was in the water.

But the worst problem was their placement. Since the wells were improperly located, the information they delivered, that there was no contamination in the water, was valueless.

Strangely enough, Sandia knew that was true. According to McCoy, the problem with the wells is noted in Sandia documents and in reports by the NMED (and he can tell you what those documents are). EPA Region 6 also noted that the wells were unreliable. Yet based on useless reports from those defective wells, the Environment Department approved Sandia’s plan to cover up the pit with a specially designed dirt cover, and EPA didn’t object.

“It saved them millions of dollars,” said McCoy. “That’s all they care about.”  Sandia scientists know they have to tow the line or get fired, he explained, so they produce the information Sandia wants. “They are scientific prostitutes.”

Those are strong words, but McCoy is not withdrawing them.

The situation that prompted Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino to introduce Memorial 34 has to do with Sandia’s failure to comply with NMED’s Final Order of 2005, which had approved the dirt cover on the condition that Sandia reevaluate the situation every five years to assess whether excavation had become necessary.

Now eight years since that order, Sandia has not performed the assessment. Instead, Sandia made a private request to NMED that this requirement be waived. In a phone conversation, Senator Ortiz y Pino reported that two representatives of the Lab had come to see him before the Memorial was heard, telling him of the Environment Department’s agreement to modify this requirement.

McCoy laughed when he heard the news. “Once again, the public has been ignored. It’s all been done by e-mails, phone calls, private meetings, all behind closed doors.”

As to how Citizen Action plans to respond to this development, McCoy is keeping mum for now.

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4 comments

  1. Citizen Action also had to sue the EPA Region 6 that wrongfully withheld a report about groundwater monitoring at Sandia’s dump by labelling it “confidential” for national security. The confidential report by EPA staff confirmed the allegations of Citizen Action that the monitoring network was defective and that the dirt cover decision was based on worthless data. Now former Secretary of the NM Environment Department is the Administrator at EPA Region 6. Does anyone believe he will enforce the requirement that Sandia has to review the feasibility of excavating the dump “every five years” as he required in his Final Order while he was at NMED? NMED has allowed a modification of the Final Order without allowing the public a hearing on the matter as required by federal law.

  2. Just think what Dave could do if the citizens got interested in their own health and welfare, and that of their children and grandchildren.

    Selling homes in Mesa del Sol will be interesting, given full-disclosure requirements, or will the New Mexico government waive the requirement so as not to worry potential homeowners with minor irritants like cancers and leukemia?

    Crusaders like McCoy and Gilkenson have an exceptionally hard row to hoe, as they have to piece together the truth from bits and pieces of information that are accumulated over years. Then, once a picture starts to appear, they have to use FOIA requests to get a clearer indication. On the government’s side, they just deny and obscure, and use the power of the State to overwhelm. Imagine, the government suing someone who has lawfully requested public information, to keep from having to give that information. Alice in Wonderland might understand it, though I doubt anyone else does.

    At least the cover-up of the nuclear waste is dirt. The dirty cover-up by NMED and EPA is a type of dirt known as BS. If McCoy is wrong, I suppose all the politicians, bureaucrats, and scientists would willingly get their eight (8) glasses of water a day from the test wells nearest the nuclear waste dump. It might be equally healthy for the Mesa del Sol developers to stay hydrated, too.

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