Spreading plume of chemicals threatens aquifer

LANL working to stop cancer-causing mixture from advancing to tribal land


For more than a decade, a vast, mile-wide, below-ground plume of cancer-causing chemicals has encroached on the regional aquifer that rests below Los Alamos National Laboratory. The lab has said it is working to contain the contamination and prevent it from entering tribal land or further polluting a water supply relied on by residents from Los Alamos to Albuquerque.

A lab spokesman said he was unable to respond to questions about the plume by deadline but would have a response Monday.

The well in question, labeled CrIN-6 in lab documents, was drilled in early 2017 to serve as an "injection" well. Workers would use it to pump out contaminated water, treat the water and then pump the clean water back underground. A cleanup plan for the plume of contamination says roughly 230 million gallons should be "pumped and treated" each year.

In 2016, John Keiling, director of the state Environment Department's Hazardous Waste Bureau, told the lab to move the new well farther from the plume, and not near the edge or within the center of it, which the lab originally proposed.

"Injection of treated groundwater at this location will likely induce downward and lateral spreading of high concentrations of hexavalent chromium and other contaminants," he wrote.

Allison Majure, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department, also did not respond to questions Friday about the water contamination.

Water sampling from the wells within and surrounding the plume indicate a high number of chemicals and radioactive elements, but the most troubling threat to human health has been the high concentration ofhexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen targeting the liver, skin, eyes and kidneys, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Readings taken by the lab July 16 and 17, and recorded in the public online database Intellus New Mexico, found the CrIN-6 well had levels of chromium ranging from between 247 and 262 micrograms per liter.

There are different kinds of chromium, but hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, is the most toxic.

The state says total chromium cannot exceed 50 migrograms per liter or 50 parts per billion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows 100 micrograms per liter. But a number of scientists and legal advocates say the limit for hexavalent chromium should be much lower. The chemical was the subject of a class-action lawsuit in California that was the inspiration for the 2000 feature film Erin Brockovich.

California's legal limit is 10 parts per billion. And in 2011, the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment set a "health goal," which is not legally enforceable, saying utilities should limit the amount of hexavalent chromium in drinking water to less than 0.02 parts per billion. At that rate, one person out of a million would get cancer over a lifetime, according to a study conducted by the National Toxicology Program.

Roughly 90 percent of New Mexico residents rely on groundwater as drinking water.

The Los Alamos Municipal Water System has 4.45 parts per billion of hexavalent chromium in its water, according to data collected by New Mexico and the EPA, and published in a database by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that has advocated for stricter drinking water standards.

While its level of hexavalent chromium is still significantly below the state limit, Los Alamos has roughly six times more of the substance in its water supply than the national average.

Most of the wells on the outside perimeter of the Los Alamos plume, with the exception of CrIN-6, have a chromium level ranging between 4 and 11 parts per billion. But within the plume, levels are significantly higher. One well inside the plume had more than 1,000 parts per billion of chromium in 2013, and as of July 28, it still had alarmingly high levels, detected at 793 micrograms per liter, according to data pulled by The New Mexican from Intellus New Mexico.

A map published by the lab in May shows the kidney-shaped plume pushing up against the boundary of San Ildefonso Pueblo property, but not encroaching on it. In May, 4.7 parts per billion of chromium were detected in the only sampling well on San Ildefonso land, which is south of the plume.

The plume is the result of negligent waste disposal at the lab dating back to the 1950s. For two decades, ending in 1972, lab workers routinely dumped water from cooling towers down into Sandia Canyon. But because the water was first pumped through the pipes of an old power plant, it was contaminated by significant amounts of hexavalent chromium, which is added to alloy steel to prevent corrosion. An estimated 160,000 pounds of hexavalent chromium was released between 1957 and 1972, the Department of Energy said.

From Sandia Canyon, the water traveled several miles into Mortandad Canyon and seeped into the earth, pooling into an underground plume of contamination discovered by the lab in 2005. Two years later, the lab paid the Environment Department more than $250,000 as a result of the contamination for levels ofchromium detected at eight times the state's groundwater standard.

About 1,000 feet below ground, the plume of hexavalent chromium in the groundwater was measured at a mile long, a half-mile wide, and 100 feet thick as of 2014.

The lab has said it will treat the plume by pumping and treating contaminated water, as well as injecting a molasses mixture into wells, which reacts with the hexavalent chromium, changing it into a less toxic form ofthe element, chromium 3.

This is expected to cost more than $180 million and require ongoing treatment until 2048, according to a 2016 report.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico, which first discovered the high levels of chromium in CrIV-6, called the plume a serious threat to New Mexico's water resource.

"The remediation is turning out to be this decadeslong, or longer process, of investigating exactly where the plume is," said Scott Kovac, director of operations and research for Nuclear Watch. "The geology under Los Alamos is so complicated, anybody that says they know what's happening under there is taking liberties."

Kovac said the high levels of chromium indicate the plume may be growing more rapidly than the lab anticipated and may result in higher costs, as well as a longer time frame, to clean up the widespread pollution.

"It is easy for data to get buried and never see the light of day in the Lab's contamination database," he added in a statement. "LANL should proactively keep the public continuously informed of important new developments."

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.c­om.