BY MAIRE O’NEILL
It looks like Los Alamos County is still trying to iron out the details of the transfer of some 800 acres of property by the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that was planned in a 2002 agreement between the two entities. Although not on the agenda for Tuesday evening’s virtual Los Alamos County Council meeting, County Manager Harry Burgess spoke about the issue under his report.
Burgess noted that the late Sen. Pete Domenici had gotten legislation through Congress in 1997 that provided for the transfer of a number of different parcels of land to the County.
“Rendija Canyon is one of those parcels and since that law was passed we have been trying to effect such a transfer. Back in 2002, the County entered into an agreement with NNSA regarding the cleanup and transfer of the land. It laid out the guidelines because the Domenici law did not have any specificity. It talked about Rendija and it being cleaned up to residential level for transfer. There were other provisions but that was the most salient point,” he said.
Since that time, Burgess said many different parcels also included in that legislation have been transferred to the County.
“Rendija was one of the bigger ones and one of the more problematic ones so it has lagged. One of the first issues that came up was the presence of the Sportsmen’s Club and in the early 2000s there were conversations with NNSA about concerns about abating the lead associated with that activity out there. At the time it was decided that NNSA would not transfer the Sportsmen’s Club property but instead it would reserve that and retain that liability for any pollution,” he said.
Burgess said that since he has been with the County, there have been many conversations about the property.
“There have been concerns about a former artillery area that was in Rendija Canyon to the point where in 2013-2015 NNSA did a survey of Rendija. They surveyed the entire 800 acres to be transferred with I’ll say metal detectors but I’m sure it was more fancy than that. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did the survey and they came back to NNSA and suggested a deed restriction that would not allow for any digging on the property unless there was a certified UXO (unexploded ordnance) technician present,” he said.
Burgess said the County has never appreciated that restriction and that it obviously would not work for residential uses.
“Just to put a sign in the ground for the various trails out there, would require us to hire a UXO technician and I’ve never been comfortable with that idea. I’d say lately we’ve become even less comfortable with that idea given our other experience with buried treasure, so to date we haven’t accepted that parcel,” he said.
Burgess said recently NNSA has attempted to basically bring a lot of the historical items that they inherited to some sort of conclusion.
“The NNSA did send us a letter asking us for our disposition on the transfer of land under the current scenario. That basically gives me the opportunity to put what I’ve been saying to them for years into a written form. In fact our legal counsel in Washington, DC, Seth Kirshenberg, is working on that draft right now and we will be following with a conversation with NNSA about that. I meet with them monthly so I anticipate that will be a subject at one of our future meetings. They’ve requested a response within 30 days and I see no problem for us to meet that deadline,” Burgess said.
Councilor Pete Sheehey asked if the County is just looking at the land for use as open space. Burgess said the County originally got an agreement for residential use.
“In 2006, the community and Council was discussing Rendija and there were some concerns about having residences down there both from the point of view, as I understand it, of having the Sportsmen’s Club there, but also some of those on Barranca Mesa appreciated their views and didn’t want other houses in that canyon,” he said. “For whatever reasons, ultimately the Council at the time made the decision that they would go forward anticipating recreational uses only. That was never contractually altered. That has been stated to me by NNSA however we still have the black and white of the language of the agreement.”
Burgess noted that since that time there have been various conversations. He said he can understand some concerns about the artillery range per se, and that there’s even a map that shows the confines of that range indicating that it was limited to roughly 40 acres out of the 800 that are due to be transferred.
“Back in 2013, NNSA asked me, okay, if we’re not going to do the entire parcel, where would you like to have the restriction applied and I drew a box around that particular artillery range and asked that that be the only area they apply it to. For whatever reason, (I don’t have full understanding of the request) the NNSA has gone back to the Army Corps of Engineers numerous times to ask whether or not they could restrict that area to something less than the full property and the answer has always been that based on their survey, they aren’t comfortable extending it or reducing it at all,” he said. “I think the big problem is that they surveyed to three inches of depth along the entire 800 acres so they don’t have any clarity in one area over another as to presence of anything in the subsurface beyond the three inches.”
Burgess said the County has tried a number of different approaches to consider a way that the property could be transferred.
“I know NNSA doesn’t want to continue to manage it. We obviously have citizens using it as well as we have utilities running through that area, but we just haven’t come to a means to actually allow for us to feel comfortable in taking that property,” he said.
Councilor Sheehey noted that apart from the chance that there’s unexploded ordnance on the land, he would take it that it’s a floodplain and a fire channel. He said there have been some rumors about a big push to put the land to residential use.
“It sounds like from a practical standpoint that is pretty remote. Just getting the permitting and the agreement with NNSA could take years and after that I think there’s a lot better prospects for expansion of residential property than Rendija Canyon,” Sheehey said.
Burgess said given everything he had described, obviously the County doesn’t own that property at present.
“I can tell you despite any rumors you’ve heard, I have not had a single conversation about it turning into residential use,” he said.
Councilor James Robinson said recreation use for the land is perfectly fine.
“I don’t think it’s a place people are going to want to live considering how you have to get to it,” he said, adding that the formal agreement required cleanup to residential standards.
“I know we have run into ‘hidden treasures’ on some of our other properties, however, those are certified to a couple of feet deep and we found stuff deeper. I’m just trying to figure out how we tell the tale to those that be that you can’t build a house or even put anything on there but you risk a kid going out there with just a shovel and having fun making a sand castle or something at three inches. Three inches – it doesn’t seem like they held up their end of the bargain by not surveying at least deep enough to lay footings for a house which is a lot deeper than three inches,” Robinson said.
Burgess said his understanding is that the equipment had clarity between three inches and three feet. The same individual carrying the same piece of equipment across the same property could have turned that machine up to three feet in depth but the paradigm that they pursued was three inches, he said.
Council Vice Chair Randy Ryti said his understanding was that all of the Domenici era land was meant for residential transfer which indicates to what level it has been characterized and cleaned up.
“In this case, they did a very shallow survey to see what was there but if it was through the state. The state looks at 10 feet as residential, and it may not apply as a state issue with unexploded ordnance but that’s just a comparison. In general the state would be looking at the top 10 feet,” Ryti said, to which Councilor Antonio Maggiore responded, “It sure would be nice if our federal government cared as much about us”