Los Alamos races against time

Summer monsoons could wash laboratory waste into the San Ildefonso Pueblo and the Rio Grande


LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - Inside the United Church of Los Alamos, the mood was upbeat the night of June 2, three weeks after the Cerro Grande fire had roared through town and burned more than 230 homes (HCN, 6/5/00: The West's hottest question: How to burn what's bound to burn). Members of a federal team told story after story of their efforts to forestall another kind of disaster.

Working with Los Alamos National Laboratory officials, more than 1,000 people, directed by the Burned Area Erosion Rehabilitation team, had raked the hillsides above town to break up the hard soil and melted pine resins. Airplanes sprayed grass seed onto 20,000 acres of the Jemez Mountains. Workers rolled logs against trees and across canyons, and laid long, sausage-like plastic tubes full of straw into shallow swales.

The $14 million effort was aimed at halting hundreds of tons of silt that could race down the hillsides during a summertime flood. A flood would wash into the finger-like canyons that radiate eastward from the 43-square mile mesa-top lab. During the Cold War, those canyons served as the lab's dumping grounds, and they still contain heavy metals, high explosives and other poisons. Contaminated soil washing out of the canyons would speed through the San Ildefonso Pueblo and toward the Rio Grande.

At the BAER meeting, team members praised volunteers and prisoners who had been drafted into battle. Espanola District Ranger John Miera promised the crowd that the trees would be restored. "I'm committed to this. I'm from Los Alamos," he said. "It's going to take a long time, but they are going to grow back."

But that same afternoon, mother nature fired a warning shot across Los Alamos' bow. Hail and a half-inch of rain pelted the mesa tops and hillsides above the town of 11,000 people. No mud slid that night, but in interviews later, BAER team members expressed doubts about their ability to stop floods and slides.

If the summer monsoons arrive as usual on July 4, the newly planted seeds will have time to germinate, said BAER spokesman Tom Lavagnino. If the rains arrive earlier, the seed will become "mouse food."

Even with a healthy crop of grass, said Greg Lewis, director of water and wastewater for the New Mexico Environment Department, if a big summer storm strikes the watershed, "We are not going to be able to stop it."

Forcing the issue

The threat of massive floods could energize efforts to clean up contaminated canyon bottoms and dumps.

The lab has up to 2,000 "potential release sites," ranging from small pools of spilled oil or other contaminants to major landfills and contaminated canyons. A 1998 Los Alamos lab study found high levels of three radionuclides - cesium-137, plutonium-238 and americium-241 - in Los Alamos Canyon, where workers dumped untreated liquid radioactive waste during the Manhattan Project during World War II and for some years afterward.

About 250 contaminated sites burned in the Cerro Grande fire, including a landfill that is smoldering more than a month later. The landfill contains explosives, barium, beryllium and other heavy metals, forcing lab officials to use a remote-controlled backhoe to dig up the burning trees and stumps.

Lab and state officials have spent a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to figure out what to do with the dumps. So far, they haven't even been able to agree on the right information to plug into a computerized risk-assessment model, let alone agree on the risks themselves, says State Environment Department official John Parker.

The federal Energy Department has been critical of the slow progress. In 1998, the department's inspector general reported that of $381 million that the lab spent on environmental restoration from 1991 to 1997, only 21 percent was spent on cleanup and decommissioning studies. The rest was spent on assessment and program management.

Slow progress also concerns the residents of the San Ildefonso Pueblo. "In the whole area that burned, from south side to north side, 45 percent of the arroyos drain into San Ildefonso," says pueblo Governor Perry Martinez. Besides the contamination, "we have concerns about the erosion of cultural sites" on the Pajarito Plateau, he says. "We still use the areas to pay our respects."

Is dilution the solution?

In the past few weeks, lab officials have been studying the possibility of digging up 2,700 10-ton truckloads of the contaminated soil, and moving it to mesa tops high above the canyons. But as of mid-June, they hadn't decided whether to haul it out or leave it alone.

Digging up the canyons would be a major mining operation, using bulldozers, backhoes and dump trucks, explains Lee McAtee, the lab's environment, safety and health director. "You would have to cut a road into the canyon and knock down trees," he says. "You could be creating a worse problem than you are solving."

McAtee contends that the contamination poses no public health threat, even if it were to reach the Rio Grande. He says the thousands of tons of soil that would enter the canyons from above in a flood would dilute the pollution to safe levels.

Even so, "our objective is to minimize contamination off-site," he said. "Our motivation is environmental stewardship." Lab officials told the Santa Fe New Mexican they would spend at least $300 million on clean up and erosion control.

State officials argue that there isn't enough information about what's in these canyons to determine the risk. "We want to see the lab do whatever it can to stabilize or dig up contaminated areas that might be susceptible to erosion or subsequent debris flows from the watershed, risk or no risk," said James Bearzi, the Environment Department's radioactive-hazardous materials bureau chief.

Santa Fe activist Greg Mello, who heads the Los Alamos Study Group, favors digging some of the contaminated sediments from the canyons. If the lab "dithers" any longer on the cleanup, he contends, "the water will come and make their decisions for them, just like the fire did."


The author reports for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

This story was funded with a grant from the McCune Foundation.


  • Jim Danneskiold or Dave Lyons with Los Alamos National Laboratory, 505/667-7000;

    • Pete Maggiore, director of the New Mexico Environment Department, 505/827-2855;

      • Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, 505/982-7747.

      Copyright © 2000 HCN and Tony Davis

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