BY MAIRE O’NEILL
More than 100 people tuned in to a virtual community engagement meeting hosted by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Thursday evening where the proposed venting of four flanged tritium waste containers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, contain at Middle DP Road and the 2016 Consent Order were the main topics addressed.
Stephanie Stringer, NMED Resource Protection Division Director, discussed a temporary authorization request from LANL for the venting of four flanged tritium waste containers currently stored at LANL. She said the containers were packaged at LANL’s Weapon Engineering Tritium Facility in 1996 and 1997 and were moved to Technical Area 54 in 2007.
Stringer said radiolysis of tritiated water in the containers over time has potentially resulted in hazardous concentrations of flammable hydrogen and oxygen mixture in the headspace of the FTWCs. She said the containers where they’re stored right now do not meet the Department of Transportation requirements and cannot be moved without releasing that pressure or treating the waste containers, so they need to be vented prior to transport, treatment and final disposal.
The Environmental Protection Agency oversees and has approved the radiological air emissions of the venting. Stringer said NMED’s authority comes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Hazardous Waste Act and the Hazardous Waste Permit and Regulations.
“Our approval is basically to allow for the treatment of the mixed waste in the containers to get it ready for transport, and that is the venting of the containers essentially. It’s just a weird overlapping jurisdiction that is important to note. We, as NMED, are not approving for tritium to be vented in the most basic sense -we’re approving the treatment of the hazardous waste container to be made ready to transport, which is a distinction that’s worth pointing out,” she said.
DOE self-regulates the management of radionuclides and EPA regulates the air emissions, Stringer said. RCRA allows for the temporary authorization for one-time or short-time activity for which a full-time modification is inappropriate.
“This action is eligible for a temporary authorization consideration by NMED, so the request is seeking permission from us for that one-time treatment. After this completed if approved, the hazardous waste will be shipped off-site for final disposal,” she said.
“We ultimately are between a rock and a hard place because ultimately we want LANL to dispose all of their mixed waste on the hill, so by approving the temporary authorization, that would allow for final disposition of this waste. Not approving it just means that it just sits there in storage for an unknown period of time until the waste is addressed or prepared for final disposal. So there’s a lot going into this important decision that we’re considering for this temporary authorization,” Stinger said.
If approved the venting of the four identified containers would be required to be completed within 180 days. Stringer said NMED is making sure that they are making the best decision for the community and the environment while taking into account any alternatives DOE may have for disposal and the safest alternative. She said NMED wants to make sure they would not create a safety concern that there could be an uncontrolled release of tritium because of the pressure becoming too high and something happening to the waste container if left where they are.
“It’s a hard decision. It’s an important one, and we’re currently listening to all of the questions being posed by the community to NNSA through the various community engagements that they’ve been doing and the comments that we’ve been receiving as a Department in response to the announcement that the venting was supposed to happen in September. But as of now NMED has not rendered a final decision and DOE cannot proceed until they get our approval on this temporary authorization request,” Stringer said.
She later noted that she does not have an anticipated date for the decision.
Stringer went on to explain the background of Middle DP Road in Los Alamos and what has been going on since February when radiologically contaminated material was first found on a site where sewer infrastructure work was being performed by a contractor to Los Alamos County. She noted that the area encompassed previously managed parcels known as Material Disposal Area B, which was LANL’s first disposal are used in the mid-1940s for chemical and radiological waste. She said the MDA was remediated from 2009 to 2011 and deemed clean enough to be transferred from DOE to Los Alamos County.
Stringer said there has been a fair amount of sampling conducted at the site but that NMED needs a comprehensive assessment of the site and is looking for LANL to do what is called a Preliminary Screening Plan. She noted that DOE provides NMED with weekly updates. The trenches for the infrastructure work were backfilled with clean material, the site has been secured with fencing and signage, and DOE has a storm water management plan that they put in place to prevent the contamination from going offsite, she said. DOE and NMED have been monitoring air quality data and NMED will be looking at the data obtained.
Again in the DP Road situation, Stringer pointed out that NMED only oversees hazardous components and not the radiological components and that it is not known if the waste discovered at the site will reach a threshold where NMED will have jurisdictional authority.
“We’re working with DOE to get this Preliminary Screening Plan approved and implemented so that we can move on to the next step in the process. Should the results come back as below residential screening levels NMED will not have jurisdiction over the site. Hazardous substances are what NMED is looking at,” Stringer said.
Stringer went on to explain the purpose of the Consent Order was signed by DOE and NMED in June 2016 under which most of the corrective actions for hazardous waste or constituents are conducted. She noted that the Consent Order is an enforceable document and is currently the sole mechanism for enforcing corrective action activities with minor exceptions. She noted that under the Consent Order annual planning process, DOE submitted their proposal August 7.
“We considered this proposed plan quite deficient. We were pretty straight-forward on that. We expected many more milestones and many more targets to be approved in the proposal and so we’re currently working through the annual planning process to get a final revised Appendix B completed,” Stringer.
She noted that NMED and DOE have met a number of times to try to resolve the deficiencies but on Oct. 1, NMED invoked the dispute resolution provision which triggers a more formal process for going through the issues.
“We wanted to see a more robust plan and we were clear about that and when it wasn’t coming to fruition as quickly as we liked and we had issues to be resolved that needed to be discussed at a higher level, we followed the Consent Order process for doing that which is the dispute resolution process,” Stringer said.
The DOE proposal can be found at www.env.nm.gov/hazardous-waste/lanl/
Nuclear Watch executive director Jay Coghlan commented that the 2016 Consent Order has none of the enforceability of the 2005 Consent Order and is only enforceable for the next year’s milestones which are now a source of disagreement between NMED and DOE.
“That is a direct outcome of the NMED preemptively surrendering its authority to the DOE by allowing the DOE budget to drive the cleanup schedule. This is a natural outcome of that, most vividly displayed by the fact that the DOE proposes to cut cleanup almost by half for 2021. In my view, that Consent Order should be jettisoned entirely,” Coghlan said. “I know that y’all at NMED are resistant to this because essentially you feel like you have to negotiate with DOE to do so, which is true, but I will point out that the 2005 Consent Order arose to begin with because the state had the political will to compel DOE to get into it. And the state can do that again. So you’re just seeing a direct outcome of surrendering authority to DOE which never should have happened.”
Coghlan also referred to DOE comments at recent presentations on the tritium that the tritium containers would be moved to “keep their so-called cleanup schedule for Area G”.
“There is no such schedule that I know of or at least as approved of by NMED and I find it really ironic that the Laboratory proposes to vent up to 100,000 curies of tritium just in order to move some containers that have some lead in them that are stored above ground and LANL itself states that the containers are safe if they’re stationary. It’s if they’re moved, that there is an explosive potential. So just don’t move them, which coincides to naturally letting the tritium decay away. For example in 25 years the residual amount of tritium would be a quarter of what it is now. There’s no need to risk the health of the public with the massive release of tritium just to remove four containers that have some lead,” Coghlan said.
Charlie de Saillan, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, also addressed issues with the 2016 Consent Order which he called “a travesty” and “a sweetheart deal” between NMED and DOE.
“It was done under the previous administration but it’s not the slightest surprise to me that things are all falling apart now, that you’re having a hard time getting DOE to do what they’re supposed to do. The Environment Department gave up all the leverage it had through penalties, even through stipulated penalties. It gave it all up. It gave up the schedule and now you’re negotiating the schedule on a yearly basis based on DOE’s budget for that year,” de Saillan said. “It’s a disaster. Of course that’s not going to work. I really encourage you again and you’ve heard me say this before. You need to find a way to get back to the old 2005 Consent Order under which LANL was actually doing something.”
Stringer responded that she is doing her best to get as much out of the current Consent Order as she can “until an alternative is implemented”.
In response to questions about the Middle DP Road issues, Stringer said she thinks the contamination incident is making both NMED and DOE assess how they close out a site or certify it as being clean.
“Certainly at NMED we’re looking to see if there is anything we should have or could do differently when we are certifying a site as being cleaned up. I think just the location of numerous different parcels coming into play in this specific location is a complicating component of that but I do want to make sure that any future closure certifications or declarations of having been cleaned up are robust so we’re going to analyze that on NMED’s side,” she said.
Asked about alternative abatement standards for RDX contamination at LANL, Springer said none of that is being actively pursued at this point. Neelam Dhawan NMED’s Permitting Manager for LANL, said NMED does not feel the extent of chromium or RDX plumes has been defined and that the first goal before NMED even starts thinking about remediation is to get additional wells in and characterize the plumes completely.
Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety told Stringer she is concerned that she is “listening a lot to the DOE, to NNSA and the contractors”.
“Many of us have been involved in these issues for decades and I wish you would consult with us as well. Specifically for MDA-B, this contamination was not unknown in the late 2000s. We asked for a larger area to be cleaned up – the public did. Those apartments and housing were proposed then and the people said you can’t build that and have people living there during the time that MDA was being cleaned up. The people know what happened during that time. I wish you would consult with us,” Arends said.
She also asked that NMED advocate for the release of the three DOE readiness reviews for the tritium venting project be made available to the public.
Arends also addressed the 2016 Consent Order.
“I think NMED needs to look more closely at how they’re being played by this $100 million cut (for waste cleanup) at this point in time when there’s an extra billion dollars that’s being funded for LANL. It’s time for the Environment Department to stand up and protect us. If there’s a billion dollars for nuclear weapons and new threats and new risks, they need to clean up their mess. It’s impacting the water, the air and the soil and we rely on the Environment Department to do that for us,” she said. “I would ask you, please look to the people for some answers about what’s going on. We have dealt with the DOE, with these federal agencies, these contractors for decades. We understand their playbook. We’ve seen it before and we would like to inform the Department about what’s going on and you have a reliable staff who are also familiar with the way they play and they don’t play fair. We need to insist, require that DOE play fair in order to protect us with the minimum amount of requirements that are available to us at this point in time.”
Most of the public comments made during the meeting were made by representatives of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. Notice of the meeting was advertised in Albuquerque and Santa Fe beginning Oct. 30, however no notices were sent to Los Alamos media until two days before the meeting after the Los Alamos Reporter expressed concern to NMED. According to NMED, notices were sent to “800 stakeholders” but the meeting was not publicized specifically to the community at large. Los Alamos County officials were in attendance but did not speak during the meeting.