Danny Katzman, right, Technical Programs Manager N3B at a recent New Mexico Environment Department hearing. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Danny Katzman gave his punchline first Tuesday evening at the Nov. 20 Los Alamos County Board of Public Utilities meeting where he gave a presentation on Royal Demolition Explosive (RDX) contamination from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Katzman is the Technical Programs Manager for N3B, the Lab’s legacy waste cleanup contractor.
“RDX has never been detected in the County’s water supply wells. It’s nowhere near the County water supply wells and it’s every intent of the Department of Energy and N3B to ensure that never becomes the case,” Katzman said.
In introducing Katzman, Utilities Manager Tim Glasco said DOE revealed in a meeting with the County Council as part of an overall presentation on groundwater protection and other environmental activities going on at LANL that they were following an RDX contamination vent out at the Lab. He said there was some citizen concern and concern by some County Council members about the extent of that contamination and whether or not it was a threat, specifically to the County’s drinking water wells. Glasco said he met with DOE Environmental Management and N3B and that it became apparent that “it’s a fairly complex situation out there” so he requested that N3B make a presentation to the board.
Katzman said RDX has been a long running project – over 15 years. He said County water supply wells are largely located within the Lab property and that it is of paramount importance for the Lab to think about contaminates and where they are while keeping a keen eye on the relationship of all groundwater contaminates to County water supply wells. He said at the location of the RDX site the regional aquifer for the County the water supply is about 1,300 feet below the ground surface.
“TA-16 where the RDX originates from is in the southwest portion of the Lab. It’s a high-security area that’s very difficult to get into to work because of some of the activities. It’s where a lot of the high explosives work has been conducted since the 50s at the Lab. Starting back in early fifties there was high explosives machining done out there for production purposes so it was a fairly large facility,” he said. “There’s a lot of cooling water that’s used to make sure things stay safe when they’re machining materials and back in the day in the 1950s and 1960s and all the way through the mid-90s, the bi-product water from cooling the machining activities was literally released down into the environment in a canyon adjacent to that facility called Canyon de Valle.”
Katzman said there are recently good records about the amount of RDX, that it wasn’t heavily monitored but that there’s enough information to generally infer the amount of RDX that was released out into the environment.
“That outfall was stopped in 1996. The operation is still active out there but they don’t release the effluent from this into the Canyon. This program has been an active program since the early 90s, even the late 80s and we’ve been investigating soils and groundwater all over the Lab since that time and I’ve been involved in it much of that time myself,” he said.
He said soils are a big part of the program and that it’s not all just about groundwater, that sometimes it’s the soil studies that ultimately lead to groundwater investigation as more is learned about that’s out there.
“The first soil studies found RDX out in the environment as early as the early 90s as part of this program. There are many, many reports out there that speak about this. We work closely with the New Mexico Environment Department exchanging information back and forth as investigations progress and we learn more about nature and extent and continue to document that work ultimately leading to determinations of what remediation is necessary to protect human health and the environment,” Katzman said.
He said early groundwater investigations in the late 90s led to the drilling of wells that are quite complex in the area. plex. One well for example, he said, can take up to four or five months to drill and get data from it and then of course it continues to be monitored. He said even today, springs, surface water and shallow ground continue to show very low concentrations of RDX. He said the RDX Project was broken into two parts to enable management and administration work with the regulator, the New Mexico Environment, to be a little more efficient – surface investigation and cleanup and then the deep groundwater portion of it.
“In 2000 and 2009 significant remediation was done in the outfall area where the RDX was released out into the environment. People found contaminated soils out there. It was very easy to see. There was even concern that the vegetation wasn’t growing in this area so it was a very apparent contamination site and an easy target for what at the time was done as a voluntary corrective action by the contractor at the time,” Katzman said. “Between the two projects, a little over 1,500 cubic yards of soils were remediated out there, essentially an excavation activity where dozers were out there digging up soils. There was lots of sampling along the way to make sure that the extent of contamination was defined and so that the remediation could get its arm around the area of the contamination.”
He said that outfall remediation was essentially the most significant thing that could be done to take RDX out of the environment, manage it and disposition it appropriately to make sure the ongoing source of contamination from surface soils that might affect deep groundwaters was essentially taken out of the picture. He said lots of other work has gone on at the site and that it’s a really complex hydrologic setting.
“There are rock layers below the mesas that are interesting volcanic deposits that may have preferential pathways for water to move through. They’re called surge deposits. We even went to the effort to inject grout into some of those layers to try and block the pathways that water might move through that would be able to move contamination to other areas,” Katzman said.
In 2016 the program wrapped up all its investigations or remediations that basically were necessary to clean up the surface part of the system, he said. In 2016 a long-term monitoring system was built to make sure the cleanup stays adequate for the future and it wrapped up in what regulatorily is called a remedy completion report.
“That report went to the state. They approved it, basically putting a bow if you will on all the investigations and cleanup that was necessary in that kind of shallow surface environment,” Katzman said.
He said one of the things that was recognized all along is that there is still the deep groundwater part, that the releases of all the effluent, the detained RDX over the years, much of it manifested itself in surface soils and the shallow groundwater management sites he had described.
“Some of it managed to work its way through that zone and into deeper groundwater zones and through that 1300 feet of rock layers that I described. So that’s the portion of the project that we’re calling the deep groundwater investigation or deep groundwater cleanup. What that has involved starting with the first wells back in the 1990s has been the installation of a large number of monitoring wells, some of them targeting that perched intermediate zone down around 800 or 900 feet or so and then of course the wells that penetrate all the way into the regional aquifer at 1200-1300 feet,” Katzman said. “These wells basically have two purposes. One is to try and discover if there is something there. They’re monitoring wells but they’re study wells as well. When they first go in, one of the first questions is, is there contamination in this well? Then, we continue to monitor it typically on a quarterly basis to see if there is change in contamination over time. So kind of a two-part objective for these wells is presence or absence of contamination. Then the second part is monitoring it to see how it might be changing over time. And how it might be changing over time is the particularly important aspect of all of this that helps us figure out where it might be moving to or it it’s moving at all and what might need to be done about it because we understand more about the rate that it might be moving into a certain location or not.”
He said are a lot of additional sort of ancillary studies that are done besides putting wells in.
“We do tracer studies where we put particularly benign chemicals into certain zones and watch how they might move to other zones to we can understand the connection between different areas of ground water. We do aquifer tests, which is just pumping of wells to see if we can see pressure responses in other wells. All that helps build a framework for how the system works in a particular area because the last thing you want to do is remediate an area that you don’t understand. It’s a lot of money to do remediations in complex hydrologic settings and if you don’t understand how the water is talking to other parts of groundwater zones you can find yourself wasting a lot of time,” Katzman said.
He showed maps and drawings indicating the extent of contamination found by drilling wells in the area and the approximation of the extent of where the perched groundwater sits. adding that RDX isn’t everywhere there’s perched groundwater. He explained that the regional aquifer becomes contaminated by waters that are contaminated moving vertically mixing with huge amounts of water that are coming off the mountain front both in the perched groundwater layer as well as in the regional aquifer.
“There was discussion in the October Council meeting about a well that is contaminated above the New Mexico tap water screening level. That’s the level of 7.02 ppb (parts per billion) that represents a number that you compare your data with to determine if you’re above it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that remediation is necessary. It means you go and investigate further to figure out whether or not there’s actually a complete pathway between an area of contamination and an area where someone might become exposed to that contamination,” Katzman said.
He said Well R-68 has a concentration above the 7.02 ppb.
“I think there might have been some confusion (at the Council meeting) that we’ve just discovered the RDX with the drilling and sampling of Well R-68. That’s not the case. R-68 is a new well. We only put it in about a year and a half to two years ago, so we’ve been tracking the RDX concentrations in that well. They started out right around 7 ppb and they’ve kind of leveled off kind of at around 15 to 17 ppb RDX. There’s a large number of wells around that that include RDX detections but they’re below the 7.02 ppb” Katzman said. “We’re actually just completing a well just in the last couple of days called R-69 and just collecting the very first samples out of that well. We have a method for getting a quick look at if there’s already RDX there. In fact it appears that there’s RDX in that location as well. We’re not surprised. We drilled that well to help us actually understand the extent of the area that might be above 7.02 ppb. Our early indications indicate that it is also above 7.02 ppb but probably not by a whole lot. We’re still waiting to see final results and will certainly share those with the board probably in a month when we get final confirmation samples.”
He highlighted the three closest County water supply wells.
“They’re about three miles away from the area we are actively investigating and actively working to determine whether or not remediation is going to be necessary to ensure that nobody is exposed to the RDX contamination. We supplement the County’s sampling in these water supply wells which is already required by the Utility. And we’ve been sampling it at some frequency since 1998. Those wells have never shown a detection for RDX. It’s a great way to make sure, regardless of what else we think about our conceptual model, that we’re doing the most direct sampling directly in the County water supply wells,” Katzman said.
“The current activities that we’re very actively involved in are basically pulling all this information from what is now almost 20 years of investigations out in that area into a substantial comprehensive report that’s going to be delivered to our regulator in August 2019. It’s going to be the report that pulls every bit of the information together. It’s going to have a transport model in it which will do our best to estimate how RDX contamination in the environment might change in the future. If we were to go and look at the situation today and assume that today was never going to change, the likelihood would be that we would not implement a remediation for such a small area in the aquifer when the place that someone might become exposed to it is three miles away,” he said. “But we don’t know that it’s going to stay that way so DOE and N3B are working on a significant report in August 2019 that’s actually going to forward look using models to do that, to estimate how the RDX might change over time.”
He said if it’s going to even stay very small or even shrink, the recommendation might simply be to simply put in long-term monitoring to ensure it stays that way and have triggers on what might be done in the event that it’s changing.
“But if the model also shows the high potential for significant growth of the footprint of contamination in the aquifer, then some kind of remedy will be employed to make sure and prevent that from happening in the first place and then of course lots of monitoring to ensure whatever action is taken is sufficient and protective. That’s where we’re at right now,” Katzman said.
Katzman said it was a little unfortunate, that he understands there has been a lot of hubbub around the community.
“I’ve a lot of colleagues, myself included, who live here in town who’ve been hearing about the RDX thing ever since the October Council meeting. First reaction to that is, ‘Gee, how come you don’t know that it’s all okay’. Next reaction is maybe the information’s not out there in the best way possible to make sure everyone understands it. So, we really see this as a great opportunity and one of many that will be forthcoming in terms of getting the RDX story out there, getting all the facts, giving people an opportunity to ask questions about it and make sure that everybody in the community understands that presently the water supply is completely protected and that we’re very engaged as we speak right now to make sure that it stays that way,“ he concluded.
County Councilor Antonio Maggiore, who attended the meeting, said he was speaking again predominantly as a concerned private citizen on the issue. He said he appreciates Katzman’s presentation but found it lacking details.
“I hope when it comes before us in Council it will have a little more information especially how quickly RDX moves in water in relation to the chromium plume since it seems to already be several hundred feet lower than the chromium plume. I appreciate that they are monitoring it and I am thankful for that. We seem to have a cleanup plan for the chromium plume which to the best of my understanding from Council presentations is only in the perched aquifer and I just find it troubling that something that is now openly being admitted especially after numerous enquiries from myself on Council regarding RDX in the regional aquifer is finally really being openly talked about. I think a lot of people in the community know how frustrated I am with this and I expect a better presentation when it comes before Council,” he said.