COVID-19 Impact on NEPA Analyses in New Mexico

By KAY MATTHEWS

Comment periods for several critical National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses that directly affect New Mexicans have been extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • LANL’s proposal to vent radioactive tritium gas from four containers of Cold War-era waste on April 17 has been postponed until, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “the laboratory is able to support the activity with a full complement of operational personnel.” The tritium-contaminated waste is inside four 50-gallon, high-pressure storage vessels at Technical Area 54, less than five miles upwind from White Rock, on the border of the Pueblo of San Ildefonso. Lab officials claim that the containers need to be vented because a build up of hazardous gases could rupture the containers during handling. According to the All Pueblo Council of Governors, tribal leaders did not have a chance to review the proposal that the Department of Energy (DOE) received clearance for last year. The DOE and NNSA claim that the amount of tritium that will be released, eight millirems of off-site radiation, is below the 10 millirem limit set by the federal government.
  • On April 8, the NNSA released an announcement that the public comment period on plutonium pit production at LANL will be delayed 15 days until May 9. The draft Supplement Analysis (SA) to the 2008 Site-wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS) for Continued Operations of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) will examine whether the environmental impacts associated with expanded plutonium pit production at LANL require preparation of a new or supplemental EIS for LANL.

As I reported in the March 11 La Jicarita, more than 700 people signed a petition to the New Mexico Congressional delegation and the governor that a new Site-Wide Environmental Impact Study (SWEIS) for LANL be conducted before any expanded plutonium pit production and associated infrastructure projects begin. In an ironic twist of fate, on the same day, March 10, the NNSA published on its website the Draft Supplemental Analysis (SA) with a 45 day comment period. Many changes have taken place at LANL since 2008: studies that indicate the potential for significant seismic activity on the Pajarito Plateau; the increased threat of forest fires, as demonstrated by the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas fires; the discovery of a toxic chromium plume in Los Alamos adjacent canyons; and the ruptured waste container that forced the closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for three years.

According to Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, “When the federal government is planning to spend billions of dollars on modified and new nuclear weapons, it is unrealistic during this time of COVID-19 for the DOE and the NNSA to release documents to support their plans for public comments. For the LANL Supplement Analysis (SA) the references alone are seven pages long, comprising 77 documents. Those documents are tiered off a programmatic environmental statement finalized in 1996—24 years ago; that statement and the tiered statements, if pages were stacked on top of one another, would be at least six feet tall. The LANL SA does not provide specific page numbers to the referenced documents. While NEPA requires the opportunity to provide informed public comments, how can the public provide them when DOE has not provided direct sources: page numbers, the number of a table, the DOE number of the document, etc.”

CCNS has created an on-line petition, directed to Senators Udall and Heinrich, requesting that the comment period be suspended until the pandemic is over. Please check the CCNS website for more information: nuclearactive.org.

  • On April 9, 22 Senate Democrats (including NM Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich) sent a letter to Acting Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requesting that OMB indefinitely extend existing public comment periods and hearings until the public can safely gather after the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic have passed. The senators are also requesting that the Trump administration pause new federal rulemaking unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic response during the national emergency. The Trump administration has proposed and issued a total of 15 federal rules since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a Public Health Emergency declaration for COVID-19 on January 31. According to Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, “Whereas the two Senators strongly support pit production at LANL, by definition they should now support further extension of the LANL Supplement Analysis public comment period. Previously, in response to public requests, the National Nuclear Security Administration had extended the public comment period by a mere 15 days, from the original deadline of April 24 to May 9.”
  • The bad news is the NNSA has not extended the comment period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Plutonium Pit Production at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which proposes the production of 50 pits per year, with capacity for up to 125 pits per year (due May 18). SRS Watch, Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Tri-Valley CAREs, sister groups in the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, have long asserted that before the Savannah River Site EIS is prepared that a nation-wide programmatic environmental impact statement is legally required to assess all pit production alternatives, such as the reuse of existing pits. The agency has refused to prepare that new PEIS, setting up the possibility of a lawsuit under the National Environmental Policy Act.
  • On a different issue, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation have extended the public comment period on the Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (EA) to analyze the effects of implementing the Taos Indian Water Rights Settlement Mutual-Benefit Projects (the Abeyta Adjudication) to April 18. Once again, in its announcement of the extension, the BOR states, “While this analysis will examine the effects of project construction and operation, it will not reopen the terms of the settlement agreement.” (See La Jicarita’s analysis of the EA here.)

So we have these delays but we still have the possibility that LANL will be turned into a pit factory in the escalating nuclear arms race that should have died with the Cold War. I’m enclosing the letter and questionnaire sent to 2020 senate, congressional, state and local candidates by Taoseños for a Peaceful and Sustainable Future that lays out what we’re up against unless we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic that a return to unlimited expansion of the military/nuclear industrial complex is a threat to our very existence.

Open Letter with Questions to 2020 Senate, Congressional, State, and Local Candidates

Dear Candidates,

Thank you all so much for your willingness to throw your hats in the ring in an effort to represent the very real needs of the people in this darkest and most challenging of times in US history and the history of the world as we know it. We recognize that whoever of you become our new representatives will have a challenging and often thankless job.

We are at a critical juncture in human history, where our world is now facing facing not two, but three existential threats, climate crisis, nuclear war, and the COVID-19 global pandemic. While there is a rapidly growing movement that recognizes the reality of catastrophic global warming and the 6th mass extinction that is underway, not enough of us understand the enormous role the United States war economy, and the corporate military-industrial complex, of which the nuclear weapons industry is a huge component, play in driving the destruction of our beautiful planet Earth.

We understand that most of your potential constituents are struggling to get by from day to day because of the COVID-19 pandemic and simply do not have the time or energy to become well informed on issues that don’t impact them in an obvious way. But you, as candidates have the opportunity, the power, and the responsibility to bring these uncomfortable subjects into the public’s awareness.

These realities are intrinsically linked to, if not the actual cause of all the problems we face in our society and throughout the world. And even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, US nuclear war-planning surges ahead unabated. Continued failure to address US militarism and nuclear weapons proliferation during the campaigns and following the elections will result in business as usual; no change will be possible, and our hopes for future generations will be lost.

The massive $738 billion 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) nuclear weapons budget calls for industrial scale plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) with a price of over $13 billion over 10 years.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has decided that it is unnecessary to conduct environmental review before commencing. And our New Mexico Congressional delegation agrees! At the same time, DOE has cut LANL’s 2020 cleanup budget almost in half!

The failure of our powerful senators, congressman, and governor to demand environmental review for the LANL plutonium pit expansion is a betrayal of Northern New Mexico’s peoples, cultures, health, safety, environment and more.

The nuclear weapons juggernaut that has a stranglehold on New Mexico and its impoverished economy, (and which fools so many Americans with its false mantras of “deterrence” and “keeping us safe”) must be boldly addressed in order for your congressional seat and any plans for mitigating climate change, or dealing with pandemics, to have any real meaning.

We are writing today with questions about your positions on these issues that have barely been touched on by your campaigns, but that we feel must be brought into the light of day; US foreign policy and the growing existential threat of nuclear war.

QUESTIONS:

  1. What is your position on US military spending and the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act?
  2. Do you see the connection between the US war economy and climate change?
  3. What is your position on “modernization” of the United State nuclear weapons arsenal and industrial scale Rocky Flats-style plutonium pit production at LANL?
  4. As a member of Congress, would you lead your colleagues by demanding a Site-wide Environmental Impact Statement for the LANL plutonium pit expansion, even if it means standing up to our two powerful senators, Congressman Lujan, and our other two congressional members?
  5. If you were in office now, would you pressure DOE/NNSA to halt nuclear weapons production and tritium activities at our National Labs, in other words, shift to “minimum safe and secure operations” during the pandemic?
  6. Our powerful New Mexico congressional delegation and our governor claim that New Mexico’s two nuclear weapons labs, which lead the world in spending for weapons of mass destruction, are a vital economic engine driving the state’s economy. But as the labs have grown, New Mexico’s relative economic standing has declined and now trails almost all other states. We are currently ranked the worst state in the US in which to raise a child. Do you believe New Mexico’s social and economic success depends on these massive increases in nuclear weapons spending?

State Legislature candidates:

  1. Would you write/sponsor legislation/or House Memorial that would study LANL’s economic impact on the Northern New Mexico communities surrounding LANL from an independent perspective in relation to LANL’s UNM BBER study, e.g., fund an independent cost-benefit analysis and/or True Cost accounting study of LANL’s economic impact on the region, including the Pueblos and New Mexico in general?
  2. As a member of the state legislature, would you stand behind citizen-generated petitions which demand that environmental impact studies be conducted before expanded plutonium pit production moves forward, use your voice from your position of leadership on their behalf, and reach out to the governor and the federal delegation in support of the petition’s demands?

County Commission candidates:

Many individuals, businesses, and non-profit organizations from around Taos County have expressed their support for Town of Taos (ToT) Resolution County 19-22, “Regarding Health, Safety, and Environmental Contamination Issues at LANL.”

The resolution asks for expanded cleanup and safety efforts, opposes pit production, and requests nuclear weapons funding to be redirected to peaceful and sustainable research and development.

  1. As County Commissioner, would you introduce ToT Resolution 19-22 or a similar updated resolution to the Commission for legal review and consideration in solidarity with ToT and growing public support?
  2. Would you stand behind the citizen-generated petition which demands that environmental impact studies be conducted before expanded plutonium pit production moves forward, use your voice from your position of leadership on their behalf, and reach out to our state and federal legislature in support of the petition’s demands?

Candidates, please respond with your answers to:

Taoseños for Peaceful and Sustainable Futures

eototos@gmail.com