Los Alamos Reporter Visits With LANL Air And Water Quality Monitoring Staff

IMG_5073 (2).jpgThis Low Impact Development (LID) infiltration basin for parking lot runoff captures and detains runoff from an adjacent asphalt area. Photo Courtesy LANL

IMG_5072 (2).jpgThe main area of a Low Impact Development (LID) structure where the center pond is a media filter basin designed to collect and remove heavy metals and organic pollutants from storm water runoff prior to release into a larger storm water conveyance system. Native plants have been added to support evapotranspiration. Photo Courtesy LANL

IMG_5070 (2)An inlet to the Low Impact Development (LID) structure which has a forebay to capture sediment and a small detention basin at its head. Photo Courtesy LANL


Inside one of the LANL air monitoring stations in the Los Alamos Medical Center parking lot. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com

IMG_1794 (1).jpgDavid Fuehne, technical program leader for radionuclide emissions at Los Alamos National Laboratory, explains to the Los Alamos Reporter what how data is obtained by air monitoring stations throughout the area. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com


Living with a national laboratory in the neighborhood, the safety and health of the people and the environment probably crosses one’s mind a little more often than it might if one were living elsewhere. On a recent visit to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Los Alamos Reporter was surprised to learn that more than 700 staff members are involved in the Lab’s 140 environmental safety and health programs – making it comparable to a state program as large as that run by the state of California. 

The morning began with a tour of some of the Lab’s offsite AIRNET air monitoring equipment close to Los Alamos Medical Center with David Fuehne, technical program leader for radionuclide emissions. In terms of pollution, Fuehne and his team are looking for particulate radionuclides like uranium or plutonium. They also look for tritium in the air. They collect the filter from the air monitoring stations for particulates and the silica gel for tritium vapor. If there’s any radioactive tritium, it’s usually in water and the silica gel absorbs the moisture out of the air, Fuehne said. He said the dust in the air may contain trace amounts of uranium or plutonium but that they don’t really see a lot. 

“Our goal is to identify and quantify air emissions releases from LANL operations to figure out if there are any impacts from these operations,” Fuehne said.

The stations are on a robust program for maintenance and calibration and are on a daily call-in back to the shop to make sure they are up and running. The EPA up-time requirement is 90 percent of the year for any one station and 95 percent for the whole network. Last year the LANL program was at 98 percent for the whole network. Fuehne said.

The Lab releases less than 1 percent of the federally allowable limits of radionuclides to the atmosphere each year. Environmental Protection Agency limits are 10 millirems per year and by comparison, New Mexicans receive 360 to 400 millirems a year just from background radiation, a chest X-ray is 10 millirems, a mammogram is 40 millirems and a standard CT scan is 1,000 milirems.

Fuehne said the Lab is well below the federal limits for radionuclide emissions which he said have been substantially reduced because the Lab is always seeking better ways to meet mission requirements. LANL monitors 27 major sources of emissions at the Lab with sampling and there are 80 minor sources that Lab staff keeps tabs on administratively. 

Fuehne’s program is not directly affiliated with any one program or facility at the Lab which Fuehne said gives them a little independence to oversee what’s going on and make their compliance decisions without having anyone pushing down on them to make a decision one way or another. 

He said the program has two focus areas – the stack emissions sources which are the operating facilities at the Lab that generate the radionuclide emissions – and the ambient air emissions which are out in the public around the perimeter of the Lab. Air samples are taken from building exhaust units, called stacks, and are then analyzed for particulate matter, tritium, and radioactive gases and vapors. Stack monitoring is also used to measure emissions that cannot be measured by AIRNET stations.

AIRNET regional background stations are located in Espanola, El Rancho and Santa Fe West with additional stations at San Ildefonso, Jemez and Santa Clara Pueblos. 

“We’re trying to measure both the source of the emissions and receptor which is where the impacts occur,” Fuehne said.

Fuehne’s team also partners with the meteorological program at the Lab and the dose assessment program to determine impacts to the public from LANL operations. 

In addition to the regular air sampler, the program has high flow rate, high volume stations with generators and a bigger filter which can be used if there’s an emergency. These units can be activated immediately and deployed to new locations. Results from samples obtained by these units can be obtained within two days but they involve a lot more resources, Fuehne said.

Fuehne said his team has a very low turnover rate which he says is really good for their customers at the Lab. On the rad side, he said they don’t routinely work with the New Mexico Environment Department, that it’s strictly with the EPA regulator in Dallas, Texas. 

“We talk to him every week and have worked with him for 20 years so we have a good rapport,” he said. “The NMED Oversight Bureau has co-located stations with LANL. They look at their data and we look at ours. We don’t have a formalized comparison process but if they see something weird they let us know,” Fuehne said.

The Reporter spent the remainder of her visit with Terrill Lemke, who runs the Lab’s water quality and stormwater compliance programs, and Jennifer Griffin, who is the lead for all the sanitary and industrial wastewater outfalls. The Lab has had an EPA-approved NPDES Industrial and Sanitary Waste Permit since 1978. Griffin said the Lab has eliminated approximately 130 outfall discharges since the original permit was issued and the program is always seeking ways to remove additional outfalls, reduce discharges to the remaining outfalls and/or recycle water to support other laboratory operations.

At this time, LANL has 11 permitted industrial outfalls, six of which routinely discharge. Five of the six discharge intermittently to support operations as needed. The sixth  consolidates three outfalls to support the recycle of water to the supercomputing facility cooling towers.

“We routinely perform weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual monitoring of all outfalls where water is discharged from Lab operations. Monitoring results are submitted to the EPA and NMED on a monthly basis, and the two agencies inspect the Lab on routine basis for permit compliance,” Griffin said. “NMED maintains its own monitoring system alongside ours to ensure that the data we submit are accurate.” 

She said monitoring generally includes temperature, pH, residual chlorine, organics, PCBs and metals. The limits in the permit are based on New Mexico Water Quality Stream Standards. 

Griffin said the Lab is doing further reduction of discharge by either eliminating the outfalls, limiting the flows to the outfalls by changes in operations, improvements in equipment or by consolidating those effluents and recycling them throughout the Laboratory for use in the supercomputing facility cooling towers.

“At this point, we are recycling an average of 148,000 gallons of water every day with a maximum of 234,000 gallons in the summer. We are always looking for a new approach to try and reduce water and in general, if you were to look at the permit values you would see that the effluent volumes we are discharging are dropping and that’s generally due to the improvement in the equipment that we’re using. The ability to recycle effluent and the number of cycles at the towers has increased significantly so they’re becoming more efficient,” she said.

Storm water discharges at LANL are handled under various permits. Stormwater discharges associated with LANL construction activity that disturbs greater than one acre are subject to the EPA regulated National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Construction General Permit which specifies requirements for control measures for storm water management, sediment and erosion control and pollution prevention; requires regular site inspections; and specifies required documentation and reporting.

During the last three calendar years, LANL certified inspectors have conducted an average of 618 inspections a year. 

“The inspections are conducted weekly and following precipitation events of more than a quarter-inch on an average of 25 construction sites to assure compliance. Our staff also take care of the documentation and design control measures,” Lemke said.  

Under a different permit, LANL manages stormwater discharges from specified industrial activities at eight regulated facilities. This includes 71 stormwater outfalls with 24 automated storm water samplers. 

“An additional 67 regulated facilities are maintained in no exposure condition where facility activities and potential pollutant sources are managed so that they’re not exposed to precipitation or runoff reducing the EPA requirements to be implemented at each of these facilities,” Lemke said. 

The stormwater program also manages any federal project that disturbs water that is over 5,000 square feet and alter the surface hydrology. Low impact development controls are implemented to manage site run-off to pre-development temperature, rate, volume and duration of flow. 

“These controls include vegetated swales, infiltration basins, sand filters, permeable pavement, vegetated strips and cisterns and are designed to control runoff through infiltration, evapotranspiration or harvest and reuse,” Lemke said. 

Lemke said the state of New Mexico puts out a report biannually that evaluates and classifies streams.

“It might be a fishery, or livestock watering or recreational use and based on those then that affects the constituents and the levels and what they’re going to look for. We have an executive order under the Energy Independence and Security Act – one paragraph that relates to stormwater that says if we disturb more than 5,000 square feet or a 10th of an acre, we have to restore the hydrology to pre-development conditions. So, they had to factor into their design to pretend that was grass and trees – no laboratory here – what runoff do you get and they have to mimic that plus construction,” he said. “You have to do that with low impact development features that are designed to promote infiltration and evapotranspiration or you can collect in a cistern and reuse it for landscaping irrigation. So it gets past collecting it and dumping it in the nearest storm drain which is what the Laboratory has done for decades because the topography works spectacularly for that.”

The Lab is in the process of developing a stormwater management plan for the head of Sandia Canyon where a lot of Technical Area 3 drains to. The plan talks about how to do snow removal, repaving and housekeeping that would impact the water quality in those canyons. 

“We are committed to protecting the environment because it’s the right thing to do and we live here with our families, our neighbors and our coworkers. Our staff is devoted to what they do every day. Most of our experts have dedicated their lives and their careers to this work. We believe in the Lab’s mission and we’re constantly seeking ways to improve our operations to minimize our impact on the environment of Northern New Mexico”, Lemke said.