BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to have County Manager Harry Burgess submit a request for federal earmark for $15.3 million to fund cleanup of legacy waste materials from Los Alamos National Laboratory found on DP Road property.
The agenda packet for the meeting noted that Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez notified communities within her district that federal earmarks will be considered during this year’s legislative session and had asked that any interested parties submit funding requests for her submission to the process. Burgess said Tuesday evening that the County was contacted by Rep. Leger Fernandez’s office and that he and Council Chair Randall Ryti met with her. The agenda packet noted that the proposed earmark request or DP Road cleanup is considered “appropriate for the renewed opportunity”.
Burgess said based on the Federal Priorities he visited with the County’s representative in Washington, DC, Seth Kirshenberg and they came up with the earmark request due to some conversations they have been having with the Department of Energy Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office.
“Their current budget which we have supported and have actually supported for increases in years past, has, per their guidance, been scheduled in a way that it is to be utilized to directly address the Consent Order. That being said, those items on the Consent Order – DOE has worked with the governor and the New Mexico Environment to prioritize what activities the EM-LA will be pursuing in the next year,” Burgess said.
He said the conversations with EM-LA regarding DP Road have been focused on the question of what happens after a path forward is discovered.
“They are going through their Preliminary Screening Plan right now. Subsequent to that, they anticipate having a plan for any necessary cleanup. But that cleanup, once the plan has been executed and they’re determined what they need to do, presently is unfunded because their current budget is dedicated line item by line item to specific Consent Order items,” Burgess said. “We’re trying to get ahead of the game essentially and support environmental management to make a request for $15 million which is an estimate, no doubt, based on conversations we have had with EM-LA.”
Burgess said the application specifically requests $15.3 million for the cleanup on DP Road.
“Should it be approved, we would then be in a position that once EM-LA gets through their Preliminary Screening Plan, they would have that money. This is not money to come to the County; we’re asking for that money to be available for EM-LA so that they can pursue that that particular cleanup,” he said.
Burgess said normally with his authority, anything under $200,000 when applying for grants would typically not come before Council, but that this application is obviously in excess of that amount and it is not a practice that has been brought to Council in recent years typically because the earmark process has not been used at the federal level for at least 10 years.
After making the motion, Councilor Sean Williams, who is the co-owner of a business on DP Road, said DP Road is very close to his heart and that it pains him “to see it so dirty”.
“So I think it would be really good for the federal government to step up and do something about it, so putting in an earmark for funding for this is a fantastic idea,” he said.
Councilor David Reagor, who seconded the motion, said he thought the issue of DP Road was resolved years ago but that apparently the County has to look at the same issue again, which is why he supports the request
Councilor Denise Derkacs said he just wanted to agree with others.
“I want to support this request. I think this is an opportunity that we weren’t expecting and if they find more materials when they do more assessments down there, it will definitely be good to have this money on hand so that we can expedite the cleanup,” she said.
Councilor Sara Scott said she supported the motion.
“I think that it’s good to ask for these funds through this mechanism, however, I would like to be absolutely clear that we may or may not get these funds, but what is absolutely clear is that DOE and EM need to get this cleaned up and they need to find the funds to do it. We’re working to help support that with this request. We are working to support that through our federal legislative priorities as part of a partnership with them to try and get this done,” she said. “ I want to make it clear that it in no way to me says that the responsibility is not still there completely for the federal government, DOE and EM to make this happen should these funds not come through. I’m happy to help but want to be super clear at least about my position on that.”
Councilor James Robinson said he echoed Scott’s comments.
“I fully support this because I want to get this land cleaned up as quickly as possible, and any way we can try and help get more money to get it done quickly, I will fully support, but also recognizing that this is the government’s responsibility to get this cleaned up. So we’re happy to help but kind of hope that no matter what happens they’ll recognize that they need to do their part and get that area ready for more usability because that is a key area for our community right now,” he said.
Councilor David Izraelevitz said he wanted to echo what everyone said, especially Councilor Scott.
“This does not detract from their responsibility, but I also want to publically acknowledge the assistance of Rep. Leger Fernandez in reaching out to us for this opportunity. I believe it’s a very short turnaround time – somebody told me April 1 maybe – so I appreciate that that has been brought to our attention so that we could take advantage of what I believe are now called Community-Based Grants. They’re not earmarks,” he said.
Chair Ryti said the earmark request is an important way to get funding.
“But in no way does it mean that the federal government doesn’t need to figure this out one way or the other. I appreciate the Congresswoman reaching out to us and letting us take advantage of this,” he said.
EM-LA Field Office Manager Kirk Lachman spoke the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board last week about the DP Road cleanup.
“For DP Road Parcel A8-B, Bethel Corporation is putting in the senior housing. We completed a bunch of sampling there and we had no contaminated waste in all of our sampling. We have the rest of Middle DP Road which is the A-16 A and the A-8 A parcels where we will start field work next month,” he said.
Lachman said EM-LA has worked with the New Mexico Environment Department which had been “excellent with their responsiveness” to the Preliminary Screening Plan submitted by EM-LA.
“They provided some good comments, we incorporated their comments and I understand they accepted our incorporation. I haven’t formally gotten approval but we’re looking to submit the final plan to them at the end of the month. There’s some fieldwork we can do to lean forward and get going out there, so we’re working on that,” he told CAB members.
Lachman also noted during the meeting that EM-LA is “potholing” – screening each bucket of dirt and taking samples to determine if there is any contamination there.
“We have allocated significant resources – $9.5 million associated with that work which is non-trivial when you have a budget of $226 million. We’re really looking forward to getting in the field when things dry out just a little bit more,” Lachman said.
The County’s application for the FY22 earmark indicates that the environmental cleanup on DP Road is required to permit affordable housing development. It notes that the County does not expect funds to be requested under the President’s FY22 Budget Request “as the current request only covers specific cleanup activities under the DOE agreement with NMED”.
The description of the program request or proposed language reads: “Environmental Cleanup by U.S. DOE which will permit the development of affordable housing. Radiological contamination was discovered in February 2020 at a site adjacent to new senior affordable housing project on DP Road in Los Alamos County, NM (land acquired from DOE that the County owns). There are still critical needs at this DP Road site, such as characterization of the site for any hazardous materials and subsequent remediation. During meetings between County staff and local DOE staff the County has been told that not enough funding exists in the DOE budget for this remaining work”.
The impact on New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District or the nation states, “This environmental cleanup will protect human health and the environment and will facilitate the development of a much-needed affordable housing project for seniors”.
Under the fiscal impact of the proposed earmark, the agenda packet states that if it is approved by Congress, it “would accrue to DOE to perform the anticipated cleanup, and there is no anticipated direct fiscal impact given that DOE is contractually responsible to abate any hazards found on the property they previously transferred to the County. Once the property is remediated, the County will be able to utilize the asset either for sale to another party or for its own uses”.
The Los Alamos Reporter reached out to Burgess Wednesday to ask for what other types of projects the County could have applied for funding and if there was a limit to the amount for which the County could apply. Burgess said he believed he addressed this in his statements during Tuesday’s meeting “but it was a combination of incorporating the previously approved Federal Legislative Priorities, conversations with EM, and input from our consultant in DC”.
The Reporter also asked Burgess why DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would not be paying for the cleanup work as part of its responsibility for any costs associated with cleanup of properties already handed over to Los Alamos County, even though the actual characterization and cleanup work has been designated to EM-LA.
“Again, I believe I stated that we were asking for (funding) for EM-LA, and that it would not be received by Los Alamos County. I agree that NNSA is responsible, but the past year has illustrated that the U.S. government has internally decided EM-LA is performing the specific tasks,” Burgess responded.
Asked how the $15.3 million amount of the request was reached, Burgess said it was based on verbal estimates that had been discussed in various meetings with federal representatives both locally and in Washington, DC. Asked if the $15.3 million amount is in addition to the $9.5 million referred to by Lachman last week, Burgess said he would assume so because the $9.5 million referred to by Lachman at the CAB meeting was not consistent with what he had previously been told.