SANTA FE, N.M. — Controversy has followed Northern New Mexico’s Regional Coalition of LANL Communities over the last several weeks.
The group, founded in 2011, hadn’t received much attention until February, when executive director Andrea Romero came under fire for travel reimbursements that included payments for alcoholic beverages at meals, and baseball tickets. That led to an announcement by the State Auditor’s Office of a special audit of the coalition, whose small budget comes from the U.S. Department of Energy and local governments.
Also, the financial issues led to legal questions about the validity of the coalition’s foundational agreements with its member cities, counties and pueblos, effectively bringing coalition operations to a halt. Romero’s contract expired March 1.
Coalition supporters say the organization is needed to provide a crucial local voice about cleanup of the decades of so-called legacy radioactive and other kinds of hazardous waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The now-controversial spending for a fancy meal with $70 bottles of wine at a Washington, D.C., restaurant and for schmoozing with federal officials at a Washington Nationals baseball game was part of that effort.
But lab critics maintain the coalition is an enabler of ineffective “cleanup on the cheap” policies that won’t make the lab area’s environment safe, and that it in effect serves as a tool of DOE, of which LANL is part.
“I believe had we not existed as a coalition, we would not have a baseline that exists today on the (amount) of legacy waste and the time to get it cleaned up, we wouldn’t have the direct conversations that happened between the DOE and ourselves,” said Javier Gonzales, whose four-year term as Santa Fe mayor and tenure as coalition chair ended Monday.
New Mexico’s congressional delegation supports the coalition.
Vanessa Valdivia, of Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich’s staff, said the senator thinks “input from all stakeholders in the community is vital” in meeting the federal commitment to clean up lab waste.
But Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico says the Regional Coalition is “complicit in promoting fake cleanup.”
Greg Mello, executive director of Los Alamos Study Group said the coalition primarily benefits contractors rather than the northern New Mexico community at large because it advocates for a larger lab budget, advocacy that he said shouldn’t be financed with taxpayer dollars.
“It provides a vehicle where local government is actually putting money into supporting LANL,” said Mello, calling that a form of “legalized corruption.”
The coalition operates on a $200,000 annual budget, receiving $100,000 from the DOE, $60,000 from Los Alamos County and the rest from other local governments. The city and county of Santa Fe each contribute $10,000.
According to its mission statement, the coalition was designed to act as “one voice” for local communities to inform decision-makers in Washington about what the lab needs for cleanup funding, which in turn would create local jobs. David Coss, who was Santa Fe mayor when the coalition was founded, said it was created out of a concern for a federal funding “seesaw” LANL was riding in the aftermath of the recession.
For example, between 2007 and 2011, LANL’s cleanup budgets ranged from about $140 million to more than $220 million, then back down to about $190 million.
The coalition also advocates for a lab commitment to help nearby communities by supporting economic development, education programs and other efforts.
For the first seven years of its contract starting in 2006, current lab manager Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS) was obligated to provide about $3 million toward its “Community Commitment Plan.” The plan has included donations and employees volunteering for local charities and schools as well as grants to small businesses. One grant recipient was now-former coalition director Romero’s ostrich farm, another issue of controversy in recent weeks.
With the local funding no longer required, Romero said, the coalition has pushed to keep it going. LANS’ annual commitment is now closer to $2.5 million.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s $2.2 billion contract with LANS runs out in September. Before then, a new managing contractor will be chosen. The coalition called for a mandated “community commitment” investment as part of the new management contract. Although no such mandate made it into the contract requirements, Romero said DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration did decide that the winning applicant must submit a community commitment plan.
Pros and cons
Gonzales said he “feels very good about the work that has been done” by the coalition.
He said one of its notable accomplishments was pushing DOE for a “lifecycle cost estimate” for legacy waste cleanup at the lab. The document lists a baseline cost between $2.9 and $3.8 million. The coalition began asking for the numbers in 2015 and received them in late 2016, the mayor said. He added that the group needed the document to more effectively lobby for cleanup dollars.
Romero said the group started making requests in FY2016, during which cleanup received $181.6 million. In FY17, with the lifecycle estimate in hand, the group lobbied for $199 million and about $191 million was allocated.
But leaders of lab watchdog groups doubt the need for the coalition’s existence and its effectiveness. Mello, of Los Alamos Study Group, said he doesn’t believe the coalition has done anything for the lab’s annual cleanup budget that the state’s congressional delegation has or could not do on its own, particularly with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall holding an important slot on the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee.
It would be difficult to “tease out” any impact the coalition has had among other factors, such as the clout of members of Congress and mounting pressure for dealing with problems such as a chromium plume in the aquifer beneath Los Alamos, Mello said.
Coghlan, of NukeWatch, said the lifecycle spending plan the coalition is proud of has in fact “doomed” cleanup funding to remain flat to accommodate the plan’s timeline. He criticized the Regional Coalition for accepting it.
The DOE’s cleanup lifecycle estimates average out to around $190 million per year, a figure Coghlan describes as “cleanup on the cheap.” He estimated the lab really needs closer to $250 million a year.
“My main beef is that (the coalition) is not taking a strong stance for comprehensive cleanup” that would remove the legacy waste instead of leaving much of it buried, said Coghlan.
He said the fact that the coalition is largely funded by the DOE and also receives funding from Los Alamos County, which benefits from the lab through gross receipts taxes, means the coalition can be influenced to go along with whatever plans the DOE wants.
Coss said local officials should be engaged with the lab because of its large economic impact on the area. He said he also believe’s it’s important for the city to chip in its own money for the Regional Coalition budget so it will have some independence from the DOE.
“We don’t spend any time lobbying for the mission of Los Alamos,” said Gonzales, Coss’ successor as mayor. “That is clearly what our senators and congressmen can do. We are there to meet with directed appropriators and speak with them from a local perspective of why they need to continue to (allocate funding) for local cleanup.”
“If local communities aren’t saying it directly to appropriators, they’re not hearing it,” Gonzales said.