Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
It has been 17 years since massive amounts of the dangerous hexavalent chromium dumped by Los Alamos National Laboratory were discovered and still there’s controversy regarding cleanup efforts by the lab and Los Alamos County.
Hexavalent chromium is an important ingredient in manufacturing stainless steel and is known to cause cancer in humans. There’s fear that the chromium plume could migrate and endanger the drinking water supply.
In June, the federal Department of Energy and Los Alamos County applied to the Office of the State Engineer for a transfer of water rights that would allow LANL to use a large amount of water – 679 acre-feet per year – to help remediate the chromium contamination.
Philo Shelton, utilities director for Los Alamos County, said the water would be treated to create a clean water barrier in order to protect the county’s wells from becoming contaminated.
“It’s migrating toward our drinking water well,” Shelton said.
However, many have raised concerns about the application.
Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said the application leaves out such important details as a pumping schedule and how much water would be returned after it’s been treated.
A copy of the application obtained by the Journal shows that multiple questions went unanswered and that someone had handwritten some answers, although it’s unclear who. There’s also no timeline as to how long the project will last or when it is expected to end.
“It’s just really sloppy work,” Arends said.
Her organization then tipped off officials in Santa Fe County to the issue, many of whom shared Arends’ concerns.
Santa Fe County commissioners, in conjunction with the Buckman Direct Diversion, recently approved a formal protest against the application, stating that important information was absent and needed to be added.
Kyle Harwood, a water attorney representing Buckman, said it’s unusual for an application to have left out such important information.
“The fact that their application essentially didn’t describe half of their operation left us with a lot of concerns,” Harwood said.
That half refers to how much of the 679 acre-feet of water diverted every year will be pumped back into the system. Buckman Facilities Manager Rick Carpenter said they need to know how much water will be returned since that could affect water flows in the Rio Grande.
A prolonged drought has already led to abnormally low flows in the Rio Grande, a fact Carpenter said contributed to the decision to file the protest.
“If the system is already stressed on its own and there’s a potential to stress it even further, then that plays into whether you want to file a protest or not,” he said.
That amount of water – more than 221 million gallons per year – is equal to about 8% of all the water Santa Fe uses each year, Carpenter said.
He said errors in these types of applications do occur, especially when done in a hurry, but that the information still needs to be provided.
“If I had submitted an application that was as incomplete as this, I think I would have anticipated that someone would have protested,” he said.
Harwood said he met with representatives from LANL regarding the issue and that they did not deny the application was incomplete.
“We agreed to agree that the permit did not describe their operations,” he said.
The Department of Energy declined an interview for this article, issuing a written statement that it was reviewing the protest and reiterating the necessity of diverting the water.
“DOE is concerned that failure to obtain modifications within the existing water right could threaten the successfully operating interim measure,” a spokesperson wrote.
Shelton said the project has already started on a temporary basis and the application would make it permanent, if approved.
Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen believes the shortcomings of LANL’s application are indicative of how the lab has behaved since the contamination was first discovered.
“They do things up there without giving proper notification all the time,” she said.
It was 2003 when LANL discovered thousands of pounds of hexavalent chromium buried in Sandia Canyon; it had been dumped in the location almost 20 years previously.
The chromium plume in Los Alamos County is estimated to be a mile long and thousands of feet deep, according to the New Mexico Environment Department.
The Department of Energy’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 includes a 45% cut in LANL’s funding for the cleanup. The budget states cleanup of chromium will continue, although it’s unclear how the cuts might affect this effort.
Shelton said the county’s main goal is to protect its water supply from any contamination by the plume. He added that remediation of the plume will still take years to complete.
“I don’t think they want us to have a contaminated drinking well,” he said, referring to Santa Fe County’s protest.
Those with Santa Fe County and Buckman Direct Diversion said they do not oppose the remediation – they just want to know what effects it could have.
“If the application was modified to show the timing and the volumes of water that are returned to the aquifer, I believe the board’s concerns would be largely addressed,” Harwood said.
Now it’s up to the Office of the State Engineer to determine whether LANL’s application is adequate and if the protest has merit.