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Sandia needs to clean up toxic dump

What should Albuquerque expect from the Sandia National Laboratories’ Mixed Waste Landfill when one considers the Carlsbad Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s release of radioactive contamination? Planned for decades, WIPP is a $6 billion engineered facility in a salt mine placed one-half mile below the earth’s surface.

The Department of Energy assured the public WIPP was safe for 10,000 years. Then, in February, a salt truck caught on fire. After only 15 years of operation, WIPP twice belched plutonium, americium and heavy metals – contaminating workers, the public and the environment.

In sharp contrast to WIPP, Sandia’s Mixed Waste Landfill is not an engineered facility and is realistically a mixed waste dump. Solvents and other chemicals were mixed haphazardly with radioactive wastes during the dump’s operation from 1959 to 1988 resulting from nuclear weapons activities. At other Sandia sites, the same types of chemicals disposed of in the landfill have contaminated the aquifer. This dump is leaching more than 100 toxic chemicals and radionuclides toward Albuquerque’s drinking water aquifers every day.

Wastes in this lethal dump are in unlined pits and trenches under a compacted dirt cover installed in 2009. Scientists say the dirt cover can be easily breached by plants, insects, water – and humans. A 2006 TechLaw Inc. report to the New Mexico Environment Department, suggested the dirt cover will not remain intact, lacks adequate monitoring for moisture, and has no impermeable liner.

The Environment Department bragged in a 2005 press release that its own 2005 Final Order to require Sandia report every five years on the feasibility of excavating the landfill would protect the public – and then ignores it. In fact, attorney Robert McNeill is currently suing the department on behalf of Citizen Action in the Court of Appeals because of its failure to enforce its final order.

The Albuquerque Water Protection Advisory Board stated the report is four years overdue, recommended evaluating excavation of the landfill wastes this year, and placed the dump on the top 10 list of clean-up priorities along with the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel contamination of the city water supply.

Sandia’s toxic dump has 119 barrels of waste laced with plutonium-238 and -239, americium-241, tritium, as well as tens of thousands of pounds of depleted uranium, lead, beryllium, PCBs and chlorinated solvents.

The types and amounts of wastes were poorly inventoried and many years of records were destroyed. Simply stated, Sandia does not even know exactly what is in its mixed waste dump.

For decades, storm water washed into its unlined pits and trenches and 270,000 gallons of nuclear reactor wastewater were dumped into one trench. A uranium chip fire in one trench had to be put out with 5,000 gallons of water.

Administrative records, including a 2010 Environmental Protection Agency Inspector General report and reports by hydrogeologist Robert Gilkeson, show the Mixed Waste Landfill groundwater monitoring network remains defective.

Contamination and accidents happen when regulations and maintenance procedures are ignored. The WIPP truck fire was preventable. In Sandia’s situation, the Department of Energy’s and the state Environment Department’s failed oversight contribute to radioactive and chemical contamination beneath this unsafe dump.

Sandia Labs, managed by Lockheed Martin, receives over $2 billion a year for its operations in Albuquerque. Sandia President Paul Hommert and the DOE need to contribute to – and not threaten – Albuquerque’s public health and safety by excavating their toxic dump and disposing of the waste safely. As the dump’s wastes continue to seep into the ground, cleanup will become much more expensive and difficult.

Sandia National Laboratories’ claim to protect our national security rings hollow when it refuses to clean up its toxic mixed waste dump threatening the Albuquerque water supply. We deserve better from the lab, the Environment Department, the DOE and the EPA.

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