LANL waste cleanup agreement criticized

By Scott Wyland
swyland@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 1/15/20

LOS ALAMOS - While some people coolly suggested a list of procedural changes, others vented Thursday (Jan. 9) about a waste cleanup agreement they say cuts out the public and gives the U.S. Energy Department too much power to call the shots.

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LANL waste cleanup agreement criticized

Posted

LOS ALAMOS - While some people coolly suggested a list of procedural changes, others vented Thursday (Jan. 9) about a waste cleanup agreement they say cuts out the public and gives the U.S. Energy Department too much power to call the shots. The state Environment Department offered the public a chance to critique its 2016 agreement with the Energy Department - known as a consent order - for cleaning up the massive waste generated at Los Alamos National Laboratory before 1999.

Most of the dozen people who spoke at Thursday's meeting at the University of New Mexico's Los Alamos campus criticized the consent order as being too favorable to the lab. Only a few said they supported the changes it brought.

"It was a violation of public process," said Joni Arends, executive director of the watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. "And it's such an injustice, not only to the people but to the environment, to the water, to the air, to the soil."

Residents have until the end of February to submit their opinions to the Environment Department about the consent order it crafted under former Gov. Susana Martinez to replace a more stringent 2005 order. It's part of a campaign by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration to increase transparency and get feedback from the public about environmental oversight.

No decision has been made to revise the consent order, but the Environment Department will consider the public's opinions about how it should be changed, said Stephanie Stringer, director of the agency's Resource Protection Division.

The 2016 order replaced hard deadlines and prescribed penalties for missing them with more flexible goals called milestones, which seldom result in fines and can be renegotiated. Several people said the firm deadlines should be restored, including a final deadline for the entire cleanup.

"Currently, DOE has annual milestones for its [cleanup] campaigns, which are more driven by budget requests than long-term cleanup considerations," said Beth Beloff, executive director of Coalition of Sustainable Communities NM.

The cleanup projects instead should be prioritized based on the risks that the hazardous waste poses to the environment and public health, Beloff said.

A Los Alamos environmental engineer expressed support for the changes made in 2016, saying the old consent order set arbitrary deadlines without consulting those doing the cleanup work.

"The work takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of thought and planning to do it deliberately ... to make sure you have the right outcomes," John Tauxe said.

Several people said the former consent order involved the public much more than the 2016 order, which reduced public participation from the outset.

"I don't think anyone would pretend that the 2005 consent order was a perfect document that solved all the ills of the world," said James Bearzi, a consultant for the Buckman Direct Diversion Board. "It was a compromised document that everyone could live with. But there was a lot of community outreach. And none of that happened with the 2016 consent order.

Bearzi said the board was concerned about contaminated runoff from the lab's legacy waste draining into the river, making it imperative that it be monitored closely and cleaned up as quickly as possible.

"The 2016 consent order should be jettisoned in its entirety," said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. "And the fundamental principle is the state should be in the driver's seat and not DOE."

To back up his argument, Coghlan read some of the order's guidelines, such as letting the federal agency set its own cleanup targets according to its budgetary constraints.

The Environment Department must use the current consent order but has done its best in the past year to step up cleanup efforts, especially given the severely reduced staff it inherited, Stringer said.

"We are taking an aggressive approach to evaluate every decision we are making," Stringer said.

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