Mikolanis Steps Up Conversation On LANL Legacy Waste Cleanup With Local Communities In Virtual Forums


Michael Mikolanis, DOE’s manager for the Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office has been busy during the last three or four months presenting to governmental and community groups on the progress being made with legacy waste cleanup since October 1, the beginning of the federal fiscal year 2022.

Mikolanis has spoken to the Legislature’s Interim Committee on Radioactive & Hazardous Waste and the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board and presented during a January 6 combined EM-LA and New Mexico Environment Department forum, as well as an EM-LA community meeting January 22. This week he is hosting William “Ike” White, the Senior Advisor for DOE-EM during his visit to Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Mikolanis has noted the successful collaboration of EM-LA and NMED on the FY2022 Consent Order Appendix B milestones, explaining that there continues to be a regular dialog with NMED’s technical team and leadership on those and other aspects of the cleanup program despite the ongoing lawsuit filed by NMED against DOE. One of the issues he has discussed at length has been the hexavalent chromium plume at Los Alamos National Laboratory and how the Interim Measure to address the plume is working.

“When the Interim Measure was initially installed, the most urgent task was to stop the migration of the southern portion of the plume towards the property boundary that we share with the San Ildefonso Pueblo. The primary objective of the interim measure was to create a hydraulic barrier that could reverse the groundwater flow and push the plume back and further away from the Pueblo boundary,” he said.

Prior to putting the interim system into operation, the highest concentrations of chromium in the groundwater were at Well 50 right by the Pueblo boundary and were steadily increasing and had reached approximately three times the groundwater standard of 50 parts per billion for New Mexico.

“Today, with the combination of extraction, treatment and injection, we’ve controlled the downgrade migration, we’ve pushed the flow back 500 feet from the Pueblo’s boundary and the concentration at Well 50 is showing approximately 92 percent reduction in the chromium as compared to where we started. That’s a significant improvement,” Mikolanis said.

Under the Interim Measure, chromium is extracted and then processed and then the purified clean water is re-injected into the ground. Mikolanis noted that as EM-LA is drawing and pushing back the plume it has extracted about 320 pounds of chromium. In FY2020 and FY2021, some 180 million gallons of water from the plume have been extracted, processed and injected.

NMED officials have not been as enthusiastic about the progress being made on the plume as EM-LA. They have used is as an example of why the state needs to have a firm Consent Order that would allow NMED to have more teeth in holding DOE accountable. NMED has pointed out that of approximately 160,000 pounds of hexavalent chromium that was released from 1956 to 1972 and discovered in 2005, only a few hundred pounds of chromium have actually been removed. NMED feels the Interim Measure has not been very effective and would like to see more resources put into the project from the DOE site to ultimately get the plume cleaned up.

Mikolanis, on the other hand, says the Interim Measure is only a temporary thing and that DOE’s focus moving forward is to get the information necessary to characterize the plume to the point where they understand what the Final Remediation ought to be. He noted that two new groundwater monitoring wells, R-71 and R-72 have been drilled to a depth of 1,700 feet and that a third well, R73 is being added to the eastern boundary of the  plume.

“NMED has also proposed some additional locations that we’re currently evaluating. We are collaborating as best we can with NMED to develop a strategy that helps is transition from one of groundwater monitoring to one that is design, whether it’s a pump and treat extraction of some other final remediation that lets us address the plume in the near term,” Mikolanis said.  

He also addressed legacy waste operations in TA 54, also known as Area G where the scope of the work is not part of the Consent Order but is a priority for EM-LA’s cleanup mission. Area G includes contamination that was created prior to 1999. In FY2021, EM-LA completed 33 legacy contact-handled transuranic waste shipments which were sent the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad. He said 13 shipments were completed within the first quarter of FY2022 and the overall goal for the fiscal year is 30 shipments.

“We prepared or processed, remediated 140 cubic meters of transuranic waste for disposal in FY2021, which is twice the amount of FY2020. To give you a sense of what that looks like – 140 cubic meters would be the equivalent of 700 55-gallon drums of transuranic waste,” Mikolanis said.

Mikolanis noted that transuranic waste is not all that’s being processed and remediation.

“I want to call your attention to the 380 cubic meters of low-level waste that EM-LA has shipped offsite. That’s the equivalent to 2,000 55-gallon drums, or to put that in the context of shipments, if those were to be TRU shipments, (they’re low-level waste) that volume equates to 47 TRU shipments just in terms of volume. It’s not just the transuranic waste that we’re processing. The low-level waste is just as important and we made quite a bit of progress in it this year,” he said.

EM-LA started out with approximately 10,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste to clean up and disposition. Mikolanis said there’s about 2,400 cubic meters below ground that’s the scope of the remaining EM mission, which is one-third of the original hazard. The low-level waste is shipped out of state to Energy Solutions in Utah, Permafix in Richland or Waste Control Specialists in Texas.

Mikolanis said processing operations have resumed in Area G where the safety analyses have been updated to include new controls. A new operation is also in place in Dome 231 that includes gloveboxes and equipment to drain residual liquids from transuranic waste containers because WIPP waste acceptance criteria prohibits any liquids in the materials being sent there for disposal.

Another project in the works for EM-LA is the retrieval of cemented transuranic waste contained in corrugated metal pipes.   “Back in the day of operations, transuranic waste was mixed with cement and these corrugated pipes were filled with the waste, solidified and buried very shallowly in Area G. This year we’re going to be digging those up for the very first time since the mid-1990s that we retrieve subsurface waste. We’re going to be exhuming those, pinching them off and getting them ready for characterization and shipment to WIPP,” he said.

Excavation of the Middle DP Road Site has been completed, Mikolanis said, adding that N3B is currently conducting confirmation sampling and looking for metals contamination such as lead and copper. He said the overall assessment results will have to meet the residential risk levels and an assessment report will go to NMED in April.

Mikolanis said EM-LA  is still operating under a continuing resolution authority for its budget.

“Congress has not passed the appropriation for the Department of Energy for FY2022 so we continue to work on the levels that we had last year. That continuing resolution authorization expires Feb. 18 so Congress will have to take action on another continuing resolution. We will continue to operate the way we are until we can get a budget,” he said. “Meanwhile, the Appendix B milestones that we put together were based on the continuing resolution level so we’re going to continue to execute and complete those schedules. We have the funding and the budget to do that, and if Congress does come up with an FY2022 appropriation, we’ll revisit the work scope that we’ve planned and identify additional work.”

Mikolanis said he has made a commitment to NMED that EM-LA will be collaborating with them as DOE sets priorities should any additional funding come in place.

“We want to align the additional work scope that we might accelerate or work on and make sure we collaborate with NMED as we do that because there might be some additional milestones in Appendix B to discuss,” he said.

Mikolanis also discussed the Justice 40 Initiative. As part of a broader executive order issued by the administration, DOE-EM is participating in the Justice 40 Initiative, which is a whole government effort to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from certain federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities. Mikolanis said the Office of Management & Budget issued Justice 40 Initiative guidance in July of last year.

“It is of course, the administration’s comprehensive approach to advancing environmental justice. OMB identified specific areas for federal agencies to engage with states, tribal governments including the pueblos, and local communities. I’m really excited and I’m proud to share with you that EM-LA was selected as one of five pilot programs for DOE. I consider that a privilege and it’s very exciting to be able to pilot the Presidential initiative like this. It’s not something that comes along in an office or a career very often,” he said.

Mikolanis said EM-LA is dedicated to cleanup of legacy community contamination that was left behind by nuclear weapons production of research during the Manhattan Project and Cold War Era at LANL.

“Justice 40 aligns very closely with our cleanup mission commitment to continue to invest in the communities that have been affected. The Justice 40 Initiative pattern of remediation and reduction of legacy pollution is specifically where EM-LA will focus its attention and work under the OMB’s guidance, he said. “At first, we will be providing high-level familiarization for stakeholders and then providing additional guidance as we receive it from OMB.”