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Mopping up at Los Alamos

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Jodi Peterson | May 05, 2011 12:00 AM

Last week, Los Alamos National Labs finally reached a settlement with community groups over their 2008 lawsuit claiming that polluted runoff from the facility violated its federal clean-water permit.

But worries over toxic stormwater discharges at the lab go back decades (PDF report) and came to a head 11 years ago this month, when the Cerro Grande Fire scorched 47,000 acres in northern New Mexico, including several canyons around the Los Alamos National Laboratory that served as WWII- and Cold War-era dumping grounds for heavy metals, high explosives and radioactive materials.

With soil-anchoring trees and vegetation destroyed, officials feared that summer monsoon rains would wash hundreds of tons of contaminated silt into the Rio Grande, threatening drinking water supplies and fish. The feds spent $14 million on erosion control (see our 2000 stories "More trouble waits in the wings" and “Los Alamos races against time”). Nonetheless, followup studies found high levels of hazardous and radioactive waste in runoff reaching the river, and environmental groups filed a lawsuit.

The Albuquerque Journal reports:

The Western Environmental Law Center, based in Taos, agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for access to inspect certain sites at the lab, $200,000 in funding for technical consulting and a portion of legal fees.

The settlement supplements a previous agreement, negotiated with many of the same groups, on a new stormwater discharge permit for the lab that was issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in November.

The settlement and the permit required that Los Alamos National Laboratory install baseline control measures, such as berms and check dams, at more than 400 contaminated sites by May 1. Within three years, the lab must completely capture or eliminate toxic discharge from the 63 highest priority sites; by 2015, it must do the same at the remaining sites.


Jodi Peterson is HCN's Managing Editor.


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