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A disappointing story on Los Alamos

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I write in response to your cover story on Los Alamos National Laboratory’s waste-cleanup practices (HCN, 11/24/03: New Mexico goes head-to-head with a nuclear juggernaut). I was most interested in how you would approach the subject, being a subscriber to HCN and a great fan for roughly a decade, a conservation activist in northern New Mexico, and a research scientist at the laboratory. (These comments are my own opinions, of course, not official positions of the laboratory.)

I am crushingly disappointed at the results. LANL indeed has some serious environmental problems and should devote con- siderable resources to fixing them. There have been major goofs that demand restorative action. But that is precisely why LANL is the largest environmental science organization in the Southwestern United States. Your blanket dismissal of a program that spends $45 million per year is little more than journalistic smugness.

There are three fundamental failures in HCN’s analysis. The first is that you failed to consider whether the levels of contaminants detected in soil, groundwater, and air are large enough to be threats to human health or wildlife. Had you asked, you would have found that there are no imminent threats to New Mexico communities at all, if one uses as a standard the EPA exposure limits.

The second fundamental flaw in your analysis was an apparent presumption that everything stated by Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) was unimpeachably correct, and that any conflict with lab statements must automatically be resolved in favor of the critics. Every assertion in this business must be scrutinized, not just those from the institution you view as the bad guys.

The statement that contamination is “poised to move from Rio Grande toward Buckman Wells” is an extremely problematic statement. Only one canyon (Los Alamos/Pueblo) empties into the Rio Grande above the Buckman Wells. The contaminants in Los Alamos canyon have been extensively documented, and the future likelihood of impairing drinking water is remote indeed. NMED staff may choose to disagree, of course, but they have yet to provide a scientifically convincing argument to the contrary.

Finally, you ignored the historical aspect of contamination problems. An unwary reader of your article might conclude that LANL continued to pollute its environment until very recently.

I hope you will consider follow-up work here to inform your readership the way they deserve and have come to expect of you.

Bernard Foy
Santa Fe, New Mexico

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