BY MAIRE O’NEILL
An announcement by Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess at Tuesday evening’s virtual meeting of the Council that a request has been made to Los Alamos National Laboratory for presentations to Council on DP Road and follow-up on LANL site planning activities that were relayed to Council last year drew a strong reaction from Councilor Antonio Maggiore.
Burgess noted that there had been a couple of conversations among Council leadership on the proposed presentations but that he did not have exact dates but is hoping to be able to schedule something during the month of October for at least one of the two topics with a follow-up as soon as possible with the other.
“I just wanted to make all of Council aware because I know there are some specific questions you may have to ask and I think the Department of Energy or their subcontractors are probably going to be the best ones to directly answer many of those questions. We’ll try to get that scheduled as soon as possible,” he said.
Maggiore first asked Burgess to address the discrepancy between what was presented by DOE at the Northern New Mexico Citizen’s Advisory Board and what was presented to the County’s Planning and Zoning staff by DOE. Burgess responded that he was not familiar with the CAB presentation so he would have difficulty comparing the two, but that he could answer a more direct question if Maggiore had one.
“The CAB presentation had several pages of documentation, maps, site analysis. The presentation that was made before Planning & Zoning was maybe one or two summary paragraphs and far less thorough and I’m wondering how that is remotely acceptable when we’re considering approving housing on a potentially contaminated site, despite the DOE’s best assurances. But quite frankly, their assurances are starting to mean less and less to me,” Maggiore said.
Burgess said probably the only answer he could provide given his understanding was that the CAB presentation was an agendized specific presentation by DOE whereas the Planning & Zoning presentation had a different focus.
“I believe the day before the (P&Z) meeting we had a request by one of the commissioners to have a DOE representative there, which we achieved, but we did not have any specific request for a presentation at that meeting and I understood the focus and the conversation was different for those two meetings,” he said.
Maggiore said he understands the focus being different for the two meetings.
“My concern is the level of preparation and lack of access to the similar information was completely dissimilar between the two meetings. That to me is very frustrating. If the DOE is so compartmentalized that they can present a plan of action to the Citizens Advisory Board specifically on DP Road – if they can present a plan of action moving forward on DP Road but they can’t present the same thing to our Planning and Zoning not six hours later, that is really, really problematic. And we need to get DOE, NNSA, Triad and (Environmental Management) in front of us as soon as possible because this is unacceptable,” he said
“The focus of that meeting I will try to discuss with them with respect to when they do come before Council if that is the standard you’d like to see, that’s something I can mention to them. Hopefully they will be with us within the next month,” Burgess responded.
“Frankly Harry, we talk about is that the standard I’d like to see. That’s the standard that should have been the bare minimum from the moment I stepped into office and the fact that it has never been, despite pushing for it numerous times. We have to beg and plead to get DOE, Triad, NNSA, anyone to present before us. We are their fundamental partner and they do not treat us as such. It is unacceptable,” Maggiore said.
Later in the meeting, Maggiore asked Council Chair Sara Scott when the LANL presentations would be brought before Council.
“We’ve made the request and we’re looking to have them in the October timeframe. As Mr. Burgess has noted, we are looking for a County briefing to the County and to Council on the status of the assessment and remediation efforts on DP Road, as I just said, in October, and the other item, the site plan that we’ll look to have in the coming month or months,” Scott replied.
Later still, Maggiore commented that he may have said some things that came across as controversial during the meeting.
“As we run up to an election season, I want the public to consider how important it is to have people that are willing to say controversial things. That includes people who are not beholden to their employers or who may feel so intimidated by their employers that they don’t voice their opinion when that is specifically the job that they were elected to do,” he said.
P&Z Commissioner Neal Martin addressed Council under public comment noting that he was representing his personal views on the site plan for “The Bluffs” housing development which was approved 4-2 by the commission last week. Martin and Commissioner Sean Williams were the dissenting votes.
Martin noted questions he and other commissioners had about the risk of radiological contamination being present in the parcel.
“Given the lack of historical documentation for any of this waste, how can we be confident that the radiological waste disposal was confined to the west end of the contaminated parcel, and did not extend into the east end of the parcel next door? Or more generally, why is the County confident in DOE’s certifications about the safety of this parcel given the very recent and dramatic failure of those certifications to provide an accurate assessment of the adjoining parcel?” he said.
Martin said unfortunately the County had no answers to these and other basic questions.
“At this hearing, the County staff represented to the public that these and other questions regarding the risk of radiological contamination were extraneous. Insofar as radiological contamination was concerned, the County held that it did not matter even if the parcel with low-income housing is contaminated, because the County has been indemnified by the Federal Government and ultimately will bear no liability for its actions in this case,” he said.
Martin said he was making his comments to Council to challenge the “excessively narrow concept of risk” that County staff used to justify ignoring the issue of radiological contamination before the commission.
“Suffice it to say that if radiological contamination is discovered on the premises of a low-income housing development, the consequences will be far-reaching. The optics of such an incident would be absolutely atrocious and would do considerable damage to the reputation of the community among its residents, our neighbors, and the American public,” he said. “The costs of such reputational damage would be borne not just by the County government, but also our tourism industry, our small businesses, and ordinary people who work at the Lab who trade on our reputation to safeguard this nation to bring funding and employment to our community.”
Martin said while the liability shield offered by the federal government can be considered an asset in a strictly financial sense in the event that somebody, or somebody’s child, or somebody’s grandchild were to suffer serious health problems due to exposure to radiological contamination, it is an act of gross callousness to use that liability shield as a justification for entirely disregarding considerations of the health and safety of the low-income residents of this development.
“But that, in essence, is what happened at the P&Z commission meeting last Wednesday,” he said. “DOE can indemnify the County against lawsuits, but it cannot indemnify us against the consequences of our own decisions. The County has a responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens and they have a responsibility to communicate to the public why they believe that this development is safe and free of radiological contamination. The County affirmatively abdicated that responsibility at the previous meeting and I encourage the Council to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. I encourage the Council to reject the narrow conception of risk embraced by County staff and to establish a more complete and realistic risk-assessment that takes into account our reputation, our values, and our responsibility to the people of this community.”
(See previous story on P&Z meeting : https://losalamosreporter.com/2020/09/29/site-plan-approved-for-dp-road-low-income-senior-housing-project-despite-concerns-of-two-planning-zoning-commissioners/