A map that was included in the NNSA presentation Tuesday evening. Courtesy DOE/NNSA
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
As many Los Alamos County residents and commuters become increasingly concerned about the deterioration of the condition of State Road 4 and the inadequacy of the route to handle the existing amount of traffic to and from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Los Alamos County Transportation Board heard an update on plans for work that has been long-awaited.
Under a settlement reached between the Department of Energy and the New Mexico Environment Department in 2015, in lieu of fines of $54 million related to two incidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad related an engine fire in an underground vehicle and violations related to the handling of radioactive waste, DOE and its contractor Los Alamos National Security agreed to pay $73 million on multiple projects.
One of the projects that was allotted funding was improvement of State Road 4 as a transportation route for transuranic waste leaving LANL. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Field Office personnel attended the Dec. 2 virtual meeting of the Transportation Board where NNSA Federal Project Manager Carol Brown gave an update on the latest plans for the intersection of Jemez Road and State Road 4 which is on the list of funded projects.
Brown explained the five projects DOE agreed to pay for under the $73.5 million settlement, including the storm water engineering structures on waterways to try to reduce runoff on Laboratory property and increase the sediment settling to prevent it going off as runoff. She said another project was waterline improvement and metering upgrades within the main campus of the Lab. Brown noted that at Technical Area 3 the potable water lines at the main campus are extremely old and kept breaking in one particular spot near a potential release site. A 10-inch water line was installed that was also connected to the Elk Ridge Community and increases their fire water pressure. Other projects were associated with environmental reviews and supplementary water monitoring systems for local pueblos.
The funds also paid for the repavement of East Jemez Road and on down to the Totavi area.
“We had money left over from that $12 million but we still didn’t have the money to construct the NM4/East Jemez Intersection so we were very pleased when NNSA headquarters agreed to give an additional investment of $3.5 million to clear the path for the upgrade to move forward,” Brown said. “Also, we’re super excited to be working with the New Mexico Department of Transportation. They agreed to manage and execute the project and we’re doing that through a cooperative agreement. The asphalt is degraded and the paint is faded, we all know it’s in desperate need of reconstruction.”
She said the National Park Service at Bandelier National Monument is going to build a parking lot at the Tsankawi Unit, which will make it much safer for everyone who parks at Tsankawi.
“Coming from White Rock to Santa Fe now is only one lane for the intersection so we’re going to add two lanes to get almost double the traffic and similarly if you’re coming from the Lab and taking a left to go north towards Santa Fe there’s at least two left hand lanes,” Brown said. “The third thing is merging lanes. As you know, coming from Santa Fe to the Lab, that free right lane onto Jemez Road has little to no merge lane. This intersection design is going to add hundreds of feet of merge lane so you can probably get to the proper speed and safely merge. The best one is going to be the free right turn from the Lab towards White Rock going south where hundreds of feet of merge lane will be added.”
Brown presented what she called ‘some high-level timelines”.
“We’re anticipating starting construction for the intersection in spring of 2022. The project may extend over two construction seasons which goes from about May to November…..”You might not see construction right in the spring time. We may be purchasing and waiting for materials to start. The contract will be approximately 210 weather working days. NPS will be constructing the Tsankawi parking lot at the same time so there will be a ton of coordination needed between the two agencies,” Brown said.
In addition to coordination between NNSA and NMDOT, she said additional coordination is also needed with the public, Los Alamos County and emergency services. As the project evolves NNSA will be able to provide more plans, estimates and more detailed schedules, and during construction, Brown noted that communication will be really key. It will include a variety of avenues such as NMDOT, NM Road Maps, Los Alamos press releases, the County’s Cone Zone and very localized information on electronic marquee signs around the intersections. Information for Laboratory employees will be published on the LANL home page.
“A super important thing is what this is going to look like during evening rush hour. In the morning and the evening commutes, especially in the evening commutes, traffic backs up from that intersection all the way to White Rock – about three miles. In the contracts we’re going to add a clause that in those rush hours we want to maintain those lanes that are currently there so that we’re not impacting traffic extensively and we’re trying to reduce the impact as much as possible during evening commutes. We always request that drivers practice as much patience as they can with construction because of the safety of our workers,” Brown said.
Transportation Board Chair David North asked if the contract has been sent out for bid and Brown responded not at this time. She said a design team was hired this past summer just to get the design together and the contract should go out to bid at the beginning of 2022.
Brown was asked if the entire intersection is in Santa Fe County and if so, what is the role of Los Alamos County in the project?
“We probably all think of it as a Los Alamos County intersection because Los Alamos County residents use it, so Los Alamos County was an integral part of designing the intersection. They gave a lot of advice and their expertise towards the design of the intersection – you guys know what the County residents need the most,” Brown said. “We really enjoyed working with Los Alamos County and hope to keep working with them on emergency services. We like to run any design changes past the County, just to keep you guys as a member of the little team.”
Brown said she thinks eventually the long-term plan is for the intersection to be transferred to Los Alamos County. Chair North said that’s the first he had heard of that. Brown said that’s why NNSA definitely wanted to make sure that the County was involved because it impacts County residents.
Joni Arends executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said CCNS submitted comments on the floodplain because they were concerned about the lead that is in the northwest part of the intersection.
“We’re also concerned about the drainage from the firing site further up the canyon that has migrated east through the watershed. We never received responses. We also wrote another set of comments with regard to the drainage on the east side of the road once it hits Tsankawi and also the San Ildefonso Pueblo and we never received a response to that. I’m wondering how those issues are being addressed,” Arends said.
Brown said she knew NNSA took public comment on the changes to the drainage pattern of the flood plain so she thinks that’s what the floodplain conclusion was.
“I can follow up more on if we just take the comments into consideration or if we have to respond to every comment. I don’t really know how that works but I can get back to you on that,” she said.
Arends noted that the intersection is very important and that it’s in a sacred area and it has contamination.
“I’m only remembering lead but I think there are radionuclides as well. And there’s also concerns about how if flows underneath Jemez Road to the northwest to the southwest and then it turns and it goes towards the east underneath State Road 4. That’s what we saw on the floodplain maps which were not very clear,” Arends said.
She also asked how NNSA was coordinating with Santa Fe County on the project.
“We have included Santa Fe County in the design of the intersection. Los Alamos County was the more interested party for the intersection. Santa Fe County has been included and we’ve notified them of the project. We’ll work with them however we need to, whether they want to be a partner. There are many partners and stakeholders on this project if they want to be more vocal participant. And also with emergency services, I know that Los Alamos County and Santa Fe County have an agreement. So we definitely want to make sure that all parties are fully communicated with regarding this project,” Brown responded.
Los Alamos County Councilor Denise asked if Santa Fe County has agreed to the transfer of the intersection to and if NNSA knows when this could happen. Brown responded that she doesn’t know if Santa Fe County has agreed to it.
“I would assume so as it’s scheduled to happen in the future after the intersection project is complete,” she said. She quickly added that it “may” happen.
Los Alamos County Engineer Eric Martinez said over the years there have been tracts of land that currently belong to DOE that are slated for transfer to the County.
“The ownership of the land where the intersection sits is DOE property and that was one tract that was identified as a future land transfer. As far as the timing of that and when DOE plans to approach the County on the specifics of the land transfer, I’m not aware but it has been talked about in the past,” he said.
Chair North noted that if he was seeing it correctly, the piece of land is actually “a fairly big chunk that includes Anderson Overlook”. Martinez responded that to his knowledge, it is a bigger tract.
“I just don’t know the extent or the boundaries though. But you’re correct; it’s a little bigger than the intersection I believe,” Martinez said.