Sandia National Laboratory Defends its Toxic and Radioactive Landfill at Public Meeting

By DAVID CORREIA

Sandia National Laboratories held a public meeting on Tuesday at Albuquerque's Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center in order to gather input from the public on management of Sandia's 2.6-acre Mixed Waste Landfill. From 1959 to 1989, Sandia dumped between 100,000 and 1.5 million cubic feet of toxic and radioactive waste in an shallow, unlined pit a few hundred feet above the aquifer. The New Mexico Environment Department issued Sandia a conditional permit to store those wastes on-site in 2005. Sandia then covered the landfill in dirt. There were more Sandia representatives than members of the public at the meeting.
Sandia National Laboratories held a public meeting on Tuesday at Albuquerque’s Manzano Mesa Multigenerational Center in order to gather input from the public on management of Sandia’s 2.6-acre Mixed Waste Landfill. From 1959 to 1989, Sandia dumped between 100,000 and 1.5 million cubic feet of toxic and radioactive waste in a shallow, unlined pit a few hundred feet above the aquifer. The New Mexico Environment Department issued Sandia a conditional permit to store those wastes on-site in 2005. Sandia then covered the landfill in dirt. There were more Sandia representatives than members of the public at the meeting.
MWL_Dave
Dave McCoy (right), of Citizen Action New Mexico talks with John Cochrane (left) of Sandia labs. McCoy has been a tough critic of Sandia’s plan to store high-level nuclear wastes in unlined pits. If it were proposed today, he pointed out, such a landfill would violate every law and environmental regulation on the books. When McCoy pointed out to Cochrane how dangerous it was to store toxic and radioactive wastes in unlined pits, Cochrane responded, “I know, it feels wrong.” But he then went on to explain that, despite not having a complete inventory of the actual wastes in the pit and despite that the landfill includes plutonium, depleted uranium (which caught on fire in the 1970s), hundreds of thousands of pounds of heavy metals and enormous amounts of cancer causing solvents, everything will be perfectly fine and there is nothing to worry about.
The format of the meeting almost guaranteed few people would attend and little would be accomplished. The terms of the permit required that Sandia hold a public meeting, but the lab did little to publicize the meeting. Moreover, there was no public presentation during the four hour (4PM-8PM) meeting. Instead the lab set up six "stations" with posters providing information on various factors regarding the landfill and the permit. They staffed each "station" with employees who were unable to talk about anything other than the information on the posters they stood in front of.
The format of the meeting almost guaranteed that few people would attend and few complaints would be received. The terms of the permit required that Sandia hold a public meeting, but the lab did little to publicize the meeting. Moreover, there was no public presentation during the four-hour (4PM-8PM) meeting. Instead the lab set up six “stations” with posters providing information on various factors regarding the landfill and the permit. They staffed each “station” with employees who were unable to talk about anything other than the information on the posters they stood in front of.
I asked the Sandia representative standing in front of this poster how they could conduct corrective measures when they didn't know exactly what was in the landfill.  He said they just doubled the amounts of everything they knew was in the landfill and planned accordingly. I asked if that meant they knew the toxic and radioactive contents of the landfill but were just unsure of amounts. He said he didn't know the answer to that question.
I asked the Sandia representative standing in front of this poster how they could conduct corrective measures when they didn’t know exactly what was in the landfill. He said they just doubled the amounts of everything they knew was in the landfill and planned accordingly. I asked if that meant they knew what toxic and radioactive materials were in the landfill but were just unsure of amounts. He said he didn’t know the answer to that question. He didn’t know that the landfill included high-level nuclear wastes.
Dave McCoy's chief concern about the landfill is the threat of toxic and radioactive contamination of groundwater. Sandia's own studies have found elevated levels of nickel, toluene, tritium and volatile organic compounds in sub-surface soils and groundwater. Despite this troubling fact, Sandia representative John Cochrane told me at the meeting that he was unconcerned because there was no path for the wastes to groundwater. I asked if they'd kept the Pueblo of Isleta informed. He directed me to Tami Moore, Sandia's Public Affairs Director. The risk of contamination to groundwater would effect Isleta directly. The direction of groundwater heads directly toward the Pueblo. Despite Sandia's confidence, shouldn't the Pueblo be apprised of groundwater contamination concerns?  Moore responded by telling me their on the mailing list. Isleta has a Department of Natural Resources. "Do you know the name of the Director of Isleta's environmental compliance office?" I asked Moore. She said "They're on the mailing list."
Dave McCoy’s chief concern about the landfill is the threat of toxic and radioactive contamination of groundwater. Sandia’s own studies have found elevated levels of nickel, toluene, tritium and volatile organic compounds in sub-surface soils and groundwater. Despite this troubling fact, Sandia representative John Cochrane told me at the meeting that he was unconcerned because there was no path for the wastes to groundwater. I asked if they’d kept the Pueblo of Isleta informed. He directed me to Tami Moore, Sandia’s Public Affairs Director. The risk of contamination to groundwater would affect Isleta directly. The direction of groundwater heads directly toward the Pueblo. Despite Sandia’s confidence, shouldn’t the Pueblo be apprised of groundwater contamination concerns? Moore responded by telling me that the Pueblo is on their mailing list. “You don’t contact them directly?” I asked. She repeated that they’re on the mailing list. Isleta has a Department of Natural Resources. “Do you even know the name of the Director of Isleta’s environmental compliance office?” I asked. She handed me her card, thanked me and walked away.
In 2005, then NMED Secretary Ron Curry ordered that Sandia cover the landfill with dirt. The terms of the conditional permit required that Sandia consider a plan to extract and remove the waste. The labs have never conducted this study. A 2002 and 2003 study by the labs indicated this was possible, though expensive. I asked UNM emeritus professor of chemical and nuclear engineering Eric Nuttall why NMED would permit the labs to keep the wastes on-site. "It's entirely about money," he told me. "The material would obviously be safer in an engineered facility but Sandia doesn't want to spend the money."
In 2005, then NMED Secretary Ron Curry ordered that Sandia cover the landfill with dirt. The terms of the conditional permit required that Sandia consider a plan to extract and remove the waste. The labs have never conducted this study. A 2002 and 2003 study by the labs indicated this was possible, though expensive. I asked UNM emeritus professor of chemical and nuclear engineering Eric Nuttall why NMED would permit the labs to keep the wastes on-site. “It’s entirely about money,” he told me. “The material would obviously be safer in an engineered facility but Sandia doesn’t want to spend the money.” He added, “In addition, we don’t know what’s in the classified portion of the landfill. They won’t tell us. In another classified landfill at Sandia they once dug up an unexploded hydrogen bomb. What do you think’s in this one?”
A group of activists tried to bring signs into the meeting. The facility director and security staff met them at the door and refused them entry. When they asked why, the director told them, "we don't allow signs in this facility. This is a public meeting, not a protest." One of the activists complained that this was a violation of the First Amendment. The facility director responded by saying, "It's Sandia's meeting and they don't want signs." I asked her how she could ban signs critical of nuclear waste but allow Sandia's signs supportive of nuclear waste. She walked away.
A group of activists tried to bring signs into the meeting. The facility director and security staff met them at the door and refused them entry. When they asked why, the director told them, “we don’t allow signs in this facility. This is a public meeting, not a protest.” One of the activists complained that this was a violation of the First Amendment. The facility director responded by saying, “It’s Sandia’s meeting and they don’t want signs.” I asked her how she could ban signs critical of nuclear waste but allow Sandia’s signs supportive of nuclear waste. She walked away.
MWL_WasteKills
Sign the petition demanding that NMED order Sandia to remove high-level nuclear wastes from the landfill and store them in an engineered facility. https://www.change.org/p/secretary-ryan-flynn-new-mexico-environmental-department-clean-up-the-high-level-nuclear-and-hazardous-wastes-at-sandia-labs-mixed-waste-landfill?share_id=KRfKfdzhDG&utm_campaign=friend_inviter_chat&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition&utm_term=permissions_dialog_false
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One comment

  1. Excellent reporting.

    Some of that stuff will still be causing tumors 250,000 years from now, 25 times longer than the longest civilization ever, China. It seems like every few years they uncover a civilization buried under the sand or under a jungle floor that no one knew anything about, and in each one of those civilizations there was a John Cochrane standing in the square saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll stay on top of of it. We’ll take care of it. We’ll always be here to keep an eye on it.’

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