SANTA FE, N.M. — Water conservation organization Amigos Bravos and the Western Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court against the Environmental Protection Agency over water pollution downstream from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The groups are asking the EPA to issue a permit that would specifically regulate urban stormwater runoff from developed areas at LANL, the Los Alamos Townsite and the community of White Rock.
Excess levels of mercury, silver, copper, zinc, nickel, polychlorinated biphenyls and gross alpha radiation are entering local waterways through runoff, according to the lawsuit and sampling data from the New Mexico Environment Department.
“We’re not asking for things that are unheard-of,” said Amigos Bravos project director Rachel Conn. “An MS4 permit could, hopefully, control the pollution before it gets into the watershed.”
Conn compared tributaries in Los Alamos County to fingers that feed into the Rio Grande. The laboratory and the town developed on the edge of those tributaries, so any pollution in that watershed eventually drains into the river.
“These pollution sites are upstream of drinking water sources for several other towns,” said Andrew Hawley, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Some will turn off their intakes during heavy rains because they’re worried about these pollutants.”
The groups first petitioned the EPA to issue a permit in 2014. In 2015, the agency published a preliminary determination that the petition should be granted because polluted urban runoff was having significant impacts on river habitat and biology. But Monday’s lawsuit argues the agency has failed to make any progress on a permit.
Amigos Bravos sued LANL a decade ago for violating stormwater discharge rules at its industrial sites. That action led the EPA to issue a specific permit that Conn said is aggressive in regulating pollution at those sites.
“LANL has its own discharge permit, so that runoff is regulated,” Hawley said. “It’s the other developed areas within Los Alamos County that are of concern. When it rains, the rainwater takes pollutants from parking lots, roads and driveways. It’s gathered in stormwater and travels to surface water.”
A Clean Water Act report from the New Mexico Environment Department in November 2018 lists stormwater runoff “associated with legacy contaminants from the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos National Laboratory” as a concern on the Pajarito Plateau.
The report says polluted stormwater is “a serious issue facing communities across New Mexico.”
A LANL database confirms the reports of heavy metals, chemicals and gross alpha radiation in Los Alamos County water that exceed state standards.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.