Los Alamos National Lab Must Keep Toxic Runoff Out of the Rio Grande

SANTA FE, New Mexico, April 29, 2011 (ENS) – Los Alamos National Laboratory must capture and eliminate toxic runoff from over 400 waste dump sites that discharge pollutants to the Rio Grande, a source of drinking water for Santa Fe, under a settlement agreement reached Thursday with community groups.

The negotiated settlement resolves a three year legal dispute over contaminated stormwater runoff from the lab, which is charged with ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. The lab conducts engineering science, plutonium science and technology, component manufacturing, and nuclear waste management.

Thursday’s settlement came after two years of negotiations among community groups; Los Alamos National Security, the for-profit consortium that manages the lab; and three federal agencies: the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agreement resolves a Clean Water Act citizen lawsuit filed against the lab in March 2008 by a coalition of eight community organizations and two individuals. The coalition was represented in this action by the Western Environmental Law Center in Taos, New Mexico.

The lawsuit alleged that LANL violated its EPA Clean Water Act permit, and allowed stormwater bearing contaminants from more than 100 Cold War era environmental sites to run off at levels above standards – charges LANL denies.

A tube at the bottom of this LANL stormwater gauge collects samples and measures flow. (Photo courtesy LANL)

The settlement supplements a previous agreement, negotiated by many of the same groups, on a new Clean Water Act stormwater discharge permit for Los Alamos National Laboratory that was issued by the EPA on November 1, 2010.

“These permits and agreements are a major step forward in the lab’s commitment to protecting people and the environment,” said Chris Cantwell, LANL’s associate director for environment, safety, health, and quality. “We are pleased that the parties were able to amicably settle the lawsuit, and are confident that LANL’s new Clean Water Act permit, one of the most stringent in the nation, will help protect people and the environment.”

Stormwater is rainwater or snow melt that does not soak into the ground but runs off into rivers and streams, carrying toxic substances along in the flow. The stormwater permit requires LANL to install pollution control measures, increase monitoring, and clean up numerous hazardous waste dump sites scattered across the sprawling property.

The settlement agreement addresses issues not specifically dealt with by the stormwater permit.

“This historic victory and the recent stormwater permit will give the public strong tools for participating in the cleanup process at LANL,” said Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, which has been monitoring the lab for over 20 years.

“We’re looking forward to ensuring that the lab and the regulatory agencies implement the permit so that the Rio Grande and downstream communities will be protected from contamination running downhill from LANL,” said Arends.

The stormwater permit requires the lab to install control measures at all sites by May 1, and eliminate toxic discharges from 63 “high priority sites” within three years, by November 2013.

Stormwater discharges from the remaining sites must be captured or eliminated by November 2015.

“It was just inexcusable that LANL had failed for so long to clean up their toxic mess, which affects nearby Pueblo Nations and small towns and cities along the Rio Grande,” said Kathy Sanchez, director of Tewa Women United, one of the complainant groups. “All of us are connected by water.”

Under the settlement, the community groups and their experts and technical advisors will have access to the waste dump sites, have technical meetings with LANL, and have the opportunity to carefully review and comment on all decisions being made under the new permit.

The agreement provides funding for the community groups to hire experts and obtain technical support to facilitate their participation in the permitting process.

“This is a huge victory for clean water and the protection of people’s health,” said Brian Shields, executive director of Amigos Bravos, one of the complainant groups. “The settlement agreement is an example of what can be achieved through perseverance, independent analysis, and tremendous support from the community.”

Some of the community groups have been studying LANL’s toxic legacy for years, but the Cerro Grande fire in May 2000 compelled Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Amigos Bravos to conduct a two-year study of the lab’s historic discharges.

The two groups joined with community organizations in Santa Clara Pueblo and the Embudo Valley, along with New Mexico’s acequias to form Communities for Clean Water, whose mission is to protect the region’s waters for drinking, recreation, cultural practices, wildlife, and production of healthy food.

Acequias are the historic communal irrigation systems that support the culture and livelihood of thousands of families in New Mexico.

“It’s a new day,” said Matthew Bishop, the attorney who represented the community groups and individuals. “When we first looked at the dump sites and stormwater issues at the lab back in 2003, there was no site-specific monitoring, very few pollution control measures in place, and no meaningful corrective action occurring. With the new individual stormwater permit and negotiated settlement, we should see significant improvements to water quality in the Rio Grande.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.