By ROGER SNODGRASS
Los Alamos Daily Post
With scant hope that additional funds may yet be found for the current year, the newly structured Los Alamos clean-up project under the revised compliance order with the state is gearing up for a long haul. Project officials gave a comprehensive report on current priorities and milestones at the first annual public meeting in Fuller Lodge Thursday evening. There may be 20 or more annual meetings, according to the current schedule.
The departing Obama administration’s request of $189 million for FY2017 has been reduced, by way of a continuing resolution through Dec. 9, 2016, to $185 million as the lower number, between the $185 million approved by the House of Representatives and $199 million approved by the Senate. Another extension is expected through March, which would enable the new administration to influence the remaining budget for the year and might or might not add or subtract from the current appropriation.
Katie Roberts, director of resource protection for the New Mexico Environment Division moderated the meeting. David Rhodes, director of quality and regulatory compliance for the Department of Energy’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office, gave a detailed account of accomplishments for last year, with scores of investigations, monitoring and testing reports, as well as remediation and removal activities underway for this year. He also sketched overviews of expectations for the next two years.
Rhodes said a large portion of the available resources will be invested in the chromium plume problem that has contaminated the underground aquifer on the lab’s eastern border with San Ildefonso Pueblo.
“We are about to turn on the interim measures in order to retard and prevent further migration of the chromium plume off laboratory property,” said Rhodes, referring to a kind of push-me-pull-you hydraulic system that will extract water from one side of the plume and inject treated and purified water on the pueblo side to keep the health hazard from advancing while a permanent solution can be devised.
“This is by far our biggest single bucket of money that we’re spending,” Rhodes said. ‘This is what is driving most of the EM funding at this point.”
It was also the most discussed topic during the two hour meeting.
Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico who has frequently questioned the discrepancy between available funding and visible results in the cleanup program, was skeptical about how the chromium project could be the largest expense, when he understood from previous EM information that, among several larger expenditures, one-third of the budget went to catching up on pensions
Rhodes acknowledged that EM was responsible for expenses outside Consent Order, but that within the Consent Order, the chromium project this year would absorb about a quarter of the available funds.
The laboratory has been drilling test wells to characterize the nature and extent of the chromium problem since it was noticed and reported in 2004. But as the 2005 consent order began falling farther and farther behind and then missed its 2015 deadline, the quandary of preventing contamination from spreading into the aquifer on San Ildefonso property has increased in urgency.
During the meeting, Bruce Robinson, program director for environmental remediation, who works with Los Alamos National Security, LLC, as a contractor for DOE EM, described the plume as having a shape like a pancake, about 75 feet below the water table and about a mile by a half mile in size. The southern edge of the chromium plume is said to be tapering off as it approaches the boundary.
“The monitoring well we actually have on pueblo land shows zero (chromium)” Robinson said. “The wells we have just inside the boundary show 70 to 100 [parts per billion.” The allowable regulatory level is 50 parts per billion.”
The centroid of the plume, by comparison, is said to have a concentration around 800 parts per billion.
The clean-up project team is committed to close communication with the pueblo.
“Just this last week Gov. Mountain and former Gov. Aguilar came up to our office to talk about the chromium project,” Rhodes said. “We have another meeting scheduled with the public members of the pueblo of San Ildefonso.” A meeting with the tribal council is scheduled before the end of the month.”
Roberts said NMED also has a government to government relationship with San Ildefonso. “San Ildefonso is well informed with what’s going on with the chromium project right now.” she said.
The New Mexico Environment Department’s idea for an annual meeting on the cleanup of legacy waste was greeted enthusiastically by stakeholders and the public when it was suggested last year as part of the regulator’s public communication and participation process.