By KAY MATTHEWS
As I sat down to write this overview of several important Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) permits regulating storm water run-off and hazardous waste, the government shutdown was still in effect and the October 17 debt ceiling deadline two days away. LANL remained open during the shutdown, deemed essential to national security—despite the near doubling cost of its new $213 million security system at TA 55 and the fact that the system is completely nonfunctional and has to be redone. I decided to try to find out if meeting obligations regarding the permits was also being deemed essential, so I called the LANL communication’s officer. He told me that while all regular employees are reporting for work, because Department of Energy (DOE) funding for certain environmental work has already lapsed the Lab received a 30-day extension on the September 30, 2013 deadline to renew the Individual Storm Water Permit that expires March 31, 2014. The letter from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granting the extension states: “The request for extension is granted due to the complex requirements and budget constraints that have resulted in insufficient funding allocated to provide necessary resources in order to develop and submit the . . . permit renewal application.”
Northern New Mexico’s Communities for Clean Water (CCW) acts as both a watchdog and the conscience of LANL. In its information pamphlet the group puts it like this: “In order to ensure the good health of watersheds downstream and downwind from LANL and the good health of the Rio Grande and its tributaries so they can provide safe drinking water, clean water for irrigation, and pure natural water for sacred ceremony now and in the future, LANL’s historic waste must be cleaned up now.”
The coalition, whose main partners are Honor Our Pueblo Existence (HOPE), Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), Amigos Bravos, and the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA), has filed lawsuits and done the hard work of negotiating both the storm water and hazardous waste permits to which LANL must adhere. The following is a summary of a CCW publication detailing what the two permits entail.
Federal Individual Storm Water Permit
In 2008 CCW filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit against LANL claiming the Lab had failed to comply with the terms and conditions of its storm water National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit at 59 dump sites, where contaminated storm water has run off into the soils, surface water, and shallow groundwater in Los Alamos and Pueblo canyon watersheds, eventually traveling down-gradient to the Rio Grande. Specifically, the lawsuit claimed LANL was violating New Mexico’s water quality standards for PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a group of industrial chemicals used in electrical equipment. The run-off has been exacerbated by the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire and the 2011 Las Conchas Fire that burned many thousands of acres on the Pajarito Plateau on LANL property and in the upper watershed.
As the result of a negotiated settlement between CCW, other parties, and LANL, the EPA issued the Individual Storm Water Permit in 2010 that identifies 405 dump sites that need to be cleaned up. Sixty high priority contaminated sites with levels of PCBs over 40,000 times the human health standard must be cleaned up by March 2014. The remaining 345 sites, designated as moderate, must be cleaned up by March 2015.
LANL is also required to submit a Site Discharge Pollution Prevention Plan for all the 405 sites and submit Annual Reports and Compliance Status Reports by March 1 to EPA. You may request a paper or electronic copy of the reports by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
10-Year Hazardous Waste Permit
This permit was issued in-state by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED); it regulates the generation, storage, and treatment of hazardous waste such as hexavalent chromium, pentachlorophenol, and metals.
Over 21 million cubic feet of waste (more than three times the amount of waste destined for the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in the southeastern part New Mexico) are buried in unlined pits, trenches, and shafts on or near LANL. Over 40,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste are stored above ground in fabric tents at the Area G dump, destined for WIPP.
To address all this legacy waste the NMED issued a Consent Order on Cleanup in 2002; lawsuits were filed by both LANL and the DOE, and after three years of negotiations and public hearings a final Consent Order was signed by the three parties in 2005, which addresses only past releases and waste disposal at certain legacy sites. To no one’s surprise, our “Enemy of Nature” governor, Susana Martinez, has granted over 30 extensions of time for the submittal of key milestone documents affecting the clean-up, which will result in extending the 2015 deadline to 2018 or even 2020.
The Hazardous Waste Permit, also issued by the NMED, pertains to sites located within the same Technical Areas (TAs) as those covered in the Consent Order: TA-3, the old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building; TA-16, open burning of hazardous waste; TA-50, the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility; TA-54, containing Material Disposal Areas G, H, and L; and TA-55, the Plutonium Facility. The permit allows hazardous waste operations to take place at 24 sites located within these TAs, with required reports on mitigation efforts, demolition of materials, and removal. The public can sign up to receive DOE and LANL reports submitted to the NMED at http://eprr.lanl.gov/oppie/service.
The researching, analysis, negotiation, and monitoring of these permits is overwhelming, and the CCW groups that do it must raise the money to cover their costs, which is never adequate. Some of them have been working for more than 25 years to expose, regulate, and shutdown nuclear weapons production at this behemoth on the hill. Too bad the “budget constraints” that have delayed the renewal of the storm water permit haven’t also delayed all the work being done to support increased plutonium production for new nuclear weapons supported by the New Mexico congressional delegation.