Hazwaste Handling Pits New Mexico Against Los Alamos Lab
SANTA FE, New Mexico, February 20, 2004 (ENS) - The state of New Mexico, headed by Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat who served as Energy Secretary in the Clinton administration, is locked in a battle over hazardous waste cleanup with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, part of the Energy Department that Richardson oversaw just a few years ago.
Located 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, the sprawling laboratory covers nearly 40 square miles with 47 technical areas, more than 2,100 individual facilities, and an annual budget of more than $2 billion.
Los Alamos is involved in nuclear science and technology, advanced materials and computing, anthrax identification, counter terrorism, climate and fuel cell research. The lab has stewardship over the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile.
In 2003, the lab proudly says, Los Alamos scientists restored U.S. ability to make nuclear weapons through production of the first nuclear weapons pit in 14 years, designed for the W88 warhead aboard the Trident II D5 submarine launched ballistic missile.
Also in 2003, the lab dedicated its High Power Detonator Facility to manufacture detonators for the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
Los Alamos scientists have developed the first practical superconducting tapes that the lab says will lead to more efficient electric power distribution systems, motors and other electrical devices.
But the lab's handling of hazardous materials has fallen far short of state standards, and since the first of the year, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has imposed a total of $2.5 million in fines for violations of state hazardous waste laws.
What NMED really wants is a “fence-to-fence” cleanup order for the vast lab, but Los Alamos officials say the state is overstepping its jurisdiction. The state asserts that the hazardous and radioactive contamination is "an imminent and substantial endangerment" and a legally enforceable order is the only way to ensure that the facility is cleaned up in a timely and complete manner.
But the state does not have such a comprehensive cleanup order, so for the time being state officials are issuing compliance orders and imposing fines for individual violations of state hazardous waste regulations.
On February 13, NMED issued Los Alamos a compliance order for numerous violations, imposing a total civil penalty of $1.4 million. The order was issued to DOE and the University of California, which operates the lab under contract with the Energy Department.
The violations were uncovered during a comprehensive April 2003 NMED inspection of the huge lab.
This is the 14th compliance order the New Mexico Environment Department has issued to the federal lab since 1993 for hazardous waste violations uncovered during inspections. The number and severity of the violations has prompted the state to classify Las Alamos Lab as a "significant non-complier," and to impose a 25 percent penalty surcharge for each violation based on this classification.
On February 4, NMED issued a compliance order to Los Alamos for violations of state hazardous waste management regulations and imposed a total civil penalty of $854,087. These violations were uncovered during what NMED calls a “wall to wall” inspection of the lab in 2001.
On January 16, NMED fined the Los Alamos lab $282,033 to resolve 32 violations, 12 of which the lab admitted, found during an unannounced inspection carried out in 1998.
“This is not the sort of record the DOE should be proud of,” said NMED Secretary Ron Curry. “This string of violations year after year puts the lab in some very bad company, rubbing elbows with some of the state’s worst offenders of environmental law.”
The 21 violations listed in the compliance order issued February 13 include:
Violations found earlier were similar.
“An abysmal record like this shows why independent environmental oversight of DOE operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory is so important,” said Curry. “It is these sorts of bad environmental practices in the past that have made a comprehensive clean up order necessary."
The state Hazardous Waste Act authorizes the assessment of civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day for each violation. All penalties paid will go the State of New Mexico Hazardous Waste Emergency Fund where they will be available for emergency environmental cleanups.
Within 45 days of receiving the compliance order, the lab must provide proof to the state that the violations have been corrected. If this deadline is missed, NMED may assess additional civil penalties of up to $25,000 for each day of continued noncompliance.
Los Alamos has 30 days to request a hearing or a settlement conference on the terms of the order.
The fight between the lab and the state extends to the quality of water surrounding the lab site. In January 2003, NMED said water samples collected by its inspectors contained the highest levels of radioactive plutonium-239 in storm water runoff ever measured leaving lab property since the 2000 Cerro Grande fire that burned close to structures housing nuclear materials.
Los Alamos is using the state courts to block the establishment of state water quality standards for toxic pollutants. Last November, NMED received notification that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved the state’s human health based surface water quality standards. But Los Alamos is attempting to fight these standards in state court.
The EPA’s approval covers human health based standards for more than 100 toxic pollutants. This includes 15 persistent toxic pollutants such as PCBs, dioxins, DDT and certain metals. By establishing human health based surface water standards for these pollutants Curry says the Environment Department will be able to better protect fisheries all over the state of New Mexico.
The lab's court action, The Regents of the University of California v. New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission, is now pending before the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
“By trying to restrict the state from using water standards based upon potential human health impacts, LANL is again showing its lack of environmental leadership,” said Curry in November. “Protecting people’s health and limiting their exposure to toxic substances is at the core of what NMED does and these standards help us do that job effectively.”
The EPA’s approval of state water standards does not end the court battle, said Curry, but it does establish the federal government’s position that these standards are in agreement with the federal Clean Water Act.
The state-lab conflict appears to stem from an NMED order issued on May 2, 2002 requiring a comprehensive investigation and cleanup of contaminated sites at the lab. The draft order addresses "all significant environmental cleanup issues at LANL, including hundreds of contaminated sites, landfills, and surface and ground water." It marked the first time the state had set strict schedules and priorities for environmental cleanup work at Los Alamos.
The state order said that contamination from the nuclear legacy at Los Alamos represents an “imminent and substantial endangerment," to the people of New Mexico.
“Today signals the end of the way we have typically regulated New Mexico’s federal facilities,” said then NMED Secretary Peter Maggiore. “We have found that New Mexico’s federal facilities have fallen far behind those in other states when it comes to environmental funding. The draft order we issued today requires LANL to accelerate its cleanup activities and direct more funding to environmental efforts than we’ve seen in the past."
But Los Alamos officials resisted this exercise of state authority over lab operations. The laboratory’s response "strongly reaffirms its overall institutional commitment to environmental stewardship," but challenges the draft order’s statement that legacy contamination is an “imminent and substantial endangerment,” and objects to NMED's "attempt to regulate radionuclides and other substances that are regulated by other agencies."
“NMED, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency recently signed a letter of intent that would complete cleanup of legacy contamination and waste 15 years ahead of schedule,” said Jim Holt, associate director for operations back in May 2002.
“That letter and the related Performance Management Plan gets us back on track to what we feel is most important," said Holt, "environmental restoration and continued environmental monitoring that will result in the greatest reduction of potential risk.”
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