BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Council had a broad and informative briefing Tuesday evening from DOE/NNSA Los Alamos Field Office Manager on four issues of major interest to Los Alamos and surrounding communities. It was perhaps the most extensive public discussion before Council in recent years on land transfers within the County, especially 900 acres in Rendija Canyon. Wyka also discussed the Cerro Pelado Fire, the Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Electrical Power Capacity Upgrade, which will involve a 12 ½ mile transmission line from near Buckman Road in Santa Fe to LANL.
Wyka, who is marking his one-year anniversary of his return to LANL, started his presentation noting the exceptional interagency coordination during the Cerro Pelado Fire, thanking County Manager Steven Lynne, Los Alamos Fire Chief Troy Hughes for their tremendous cooperation.
“The collective fire response was a remarkable example of interagency coordination and communication. NNSA partnered with about 17 agencies at all levels of government including the County,” Wyka said.
He addressed the Electrical Power Capacity Upgrade project noting that LANL requires a reliable redundant electrical supply for all its activities.
“The existing transmission lines will not provide sufficient redundant electrical power to meet mission requirements. After about 2027, with pit production and all the other science research and development work that the Lab does, we’re going to be capacity-limited. NNSA proposes to upgrade the electrical power supply system and as part of the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) process, NNSA is working with the U.S. Forest Service as a co-lead with us as well as the Bureau of Land Management as a cooperating agency to development an environmental assessment for review and comment,” Wyka said.
He noted that the draft environmental assessment is expected to be available for comment late summer and that NNSA is working diligently to address the concerns of the tribes, the state and the congressional delegation.
“This project is really going to benefit not only the Lab but actually the County as well. I think that the fire taught us that we need that redundant power supply and having a third transmission line will help in that area,” Wyka said.
The Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement is another initiative that is starting, Wyka said.
“Last year the NNSA administrator, Jill Hruby, determined that LANL is due for a new SWEIS to assess the effects of future operations. We anticipate posting a notice of intent to prepare the new SWEIS this summer. This will kick off the scoping process,” he said. “We really look forward to working with the County throughout the entire NEPA process – that’s very important. As with prior LANL SWEIS updates, this one will analyze the environmental impacts of the new operational activities and programs that we have not previously analyzed so a lot of things such as pit production will be included and it will focus on the things that are new that we haven’t analyzed yet.”
The process is expected to take approximately two years and Wyka said NNSA will engage tribal nations within New Mexico as well as a couple in Colorado and Arizona for input to kick off the initial discussion process, which he said is very transparent with public meetings where comments will be recorded.
Kirsten Dors, the NNSA NEPA Compliance Officer explained that it is her function to shepherd along the process of both the environmental assessment that is going on for the Electrical Power Capacity Upgrade project as well as the SWEIS.
“The purpose of a SWEIS is to provide the public, stakeholders and governments with an analysis of potential environmental impacts from ongoing and reasonably feasible projects. We’re not pie-in-the-sky dreaming 30 years out – we’re looking 15 years ahead which flows along with our site planning that we’ve been doing as we look for new and modified operations and facilities, not only infrastructure but the operations and the types of projects and programs we’re working on onsite,” Dors said. “We also look at reasonable alternatives and we provide a basis for the decision-making and improved coordination. We’re going to be coordinating with (DOE Environmental Management) and so their work will be coordinated with our site-wide document.”
Dors said the SWEIS provides an overall NEPA baseline so that the environmental effects with the proposed future changes in programs and activities can be compared with that baseline.
“We compare those every year in a yearbook which is available online. It is really user friendly. It’s available to the public and it’s a good talking point to compare where we are every year with what’s been analyzed in the Site-Wide. The reason we’re really picking to do a Site-Wide right now is since 2008 when the last one came out, we’ve had multiple fires, we have a new endangered species, we have climate change, we have a lot of things that have been happening that we really don’t feel comfortable supplementing our existing Site-Wide anymore,” Dors said. “With the comprehensive site planning, we’re super excited to look forward together as one site and incorporate the opinions of our neighbors – we are involving the tribes and our other federal neighbors as well as the County as our partner on the Plateau.”
Turning to the topic of Rendija Canyon and the land transfers from the NNSA to the County, Wyka said he knows this issue is something super important to the County Council.
“The Los Alamos Field Office has worked with Council for many years on this topic to determine the suitability of DOE property for transfer to the County. The Field Office is aware and supportive of the County’s desire to make use of the property. We understand especially with the increase in the number of employees we’re bringing to the Lab it’s critical that we also find housing and transportation mechanisms to work with that intent,” Wyka said.
He said NNSA is prepared to convey a 900-acre Rendija Tract with certain restriction because of the possible existence of unexploded ordnance, lead and nitrate that could possibly be disturbed during excavation or construction activities. He said NNSA is committed to working with the County to find conditions under which to convey Rendija Canyon as well as other tracts deemed suitable for transfer.
Paul Holland, who oversees the NNSA’s real property portfolio, noted that of the 1,300 acres that remain for transfer to the County under public law, Rendija is the largest tract. He said NNSA anticipates transferring most of the acreage to the County in the near future.
“The current status is negotiations are ongoing with the County. Last summer there was a walk-down involving the County and the Field Office, the Forest Services and numerous entities. As a follow up from that meeting we shared some of the maps involving some of the constraints of the area with the County. Right now we are just waiting for what County proposals would be for different recreation purposes and that would really define negotiations going forward of how we treat these different parcels of Rendija Canyon,” Holland said.
In addition to Rendija, he said there are four other areas that still await transfer.
“To go somewhat chronologically, the C4 Tract – the White Rock Y area as you’re traveling the Main Hill Road, that’s probably the closest in terms of transfer. Really all that’s awaiting now is finalization of a survey and then we should be able to go forward. The C2 Tract, which is the NM 4 portion on our property from the White Rock Y south to White Rock itself, terminating at the boundary of the (Pueblo de San Ildefonso) Sacred Area. That is about 18 acres total and we anticipate that would go in the not too distant future and is currently awaiting completion of the road intersection and the warranty associated with the road before it can transfer,” Holland said.
Another remaining area is A18-3, which is in Pueblo Canyon near the Wastewater Treatment Facility which can be seen from the Main Hill Road.
“We anticipate that in the not too distant future. It has some cultural resources that have to be approved by the historical preservation officers,” Holland said.
The final remaining tract, A16 – Technical Area 21, which is east of fence at the end of DP Road was not discussed by Holland except to say that tract “had the most mission associated with it”.
Acknowledging the County’s push to have the land transfers finalized, Wyka noted that about 66 percent of LANL employees live off the mesa somewhere other than Los Alamos.
“Part of what we’re looking at is how to keep people off the hill. If they don’t need to be up here to do their work, if they don’t have their hands in gloveboxes or are not doing that type of work and we have a lot of those folks and that’s why we’re taking advantage of teleworking and lease spaces in Santa Fe that can house a large portion of those that don’t need to come up here,” he said. “The other thing is looking at transportation and what we can do in that area, whether it’s satellite parking, different transportation mechanisms to reduce the burdens on the intersections and on the community for those that have to transfer up here. The discussion of land transfers falls into the area of reducing the burden on the County on account of the significant growth that the Lab is going to see over the next few years.”
During further discussion of the Electrical Power Capacity Upgrade, Dors clarified that the proposed transmission line will not generate more power but will transmit more power.
“As we’re looking at it right now it has options for how it reaches DOE property and a few of the options we’re looking at go through Forest Service property and BLM property so that’s why it’s a cooperative project with these other federal agencies,” she said. Within the boundaries of the County we are planning some onsite generation mainly photovoltaics, which is the conversion of light into electricity using semiconducting materials.
Council David Izraelevitz said there has been some discussion about also hanging some fiber optic access through the proposed transmission line and asked if that is still being considered and if so how it might work and if it would support Los Alamos County as well as the Laboratory. Dors responded that the plan for that was to run it from Santa Fe near their landfill and trench through a certain portion of Forest Service land and then hop up onto the Reeves Line.
“The Reeves Line has the capacity to hang the fiber optic line. They’re going to use a helicopter I hear – it would be fabulous to watch – but they already know how to do that. They’ll hang the fiber optic on top, cross the existing crossing at White Rock Canyon and then come across. It would be available for the County as well as the Lab as it was proposed a few years ago,” Dors said. “It was stalled out a little bit when PNM was supposed to merge with Lucent and that went kaput. I don’t know where that project is right now. But I know that there has been a lot of interest, and as we talked about the transmission line, the fiber optic line has come up. They’re completely separate projects, they’re completely different funding. They both are moving us forward in technology which would be nice. We’re still waiting to hear from PNM if they’re going to continue with it.”
Going back to the Rendija land transfer, Izraelevitz said he understand that the Corps of Engineers has done a survey to kind of map at least six inches from the surface but that it was his understanding that there is other equipment that can do a deeper survey that would permit better mapping of where (unexploded ordinance) is located so that it would permit “better economic development of those areas”. He asked if there has been discussion about the possibility of conducting a better survey that would be more detailed, that would permit the County to use that area.
Holland responded that that is really where the conversation goes regarding the proposed future uses.
“So when we hear back on which specific areas of Rendija have recreational uses tied to them, that would be the next step as potentially additional investigation. I would caveat though while it is possible to go to greater depth, it is also the position of NNSA that it would still involve deed restrictions because of the unknowns. The way I describe it to people it’s kind of like running into IEDs in Iraq. The technology is imperfect and things can be missed no matter how many times you look at it, so we can go to a greater depth, that would be part of the ongoing negotiation to transfer Rendija which believe it or not has been awaiting transfer since 1973, so it’s been a while,” Holland said.
Izraelevitz also raised the County’s request to NNSA in 2020 for the transfer of 3,500 acres near White Rock https://losalamosreporter.com/2020/05/27/los-alamos-county-seeks-to-acquire-3500-acres-of-land-in-white-rock-from-doe-nnsa/.
“There was a letter sent a couple of years ago and we received a response that it was not available for transfer. Are there circumstances that might lead to reconsideration of that? It’s one of the most developable areas that the County has and it certainly would have a big impact on housing if we could continue that conversation,” Izraelevitz said.
Wyka responded that the statement is still accurate.
“We do not have any additional lands available for transfer. What available means here is – consider the parcels we just talked about that are going to be transferred. It took tens of millions of dollars to prepare them to get to this point. So we have no lands that are available for the foreseeable future for disposition mainly because you have things like cultural sites, endangered species habitat, contaminated canyon bottoms, unexploded ordnance and things like that. That’s really what available means, just to be clear,” he said.
Dors said, “You have to remember too that just because we don’t have a building on it doesn’t mean we don’t have a use for it. A lot of those areas or at least TA-36 provides a buffer to mission work and I know a lot of people in White Rock get a little bummed out when things go boom and their windows rattle and things knock off the walls. If you put stuff a lot closer to our explosives areas things will break, not just fall off the wall. So we are remembering that if there’s not a building there, that doesn’t mean it’s not used. It’s providing a buffer, a boundary area and that is also considered a use to us.”
At the end of the discussion, Wyka referred back to the Cerro Pelado Fire.
“The success of that was because of the coordination, the collaboration and communication with each other and it was over a long period of time. It started many years ago. That type of activity needs to continue with all these other tremendously important efforts. We need to bring employees up here to do critically important missions and we also need to be respectful and mindful of our partners – I live up here too – and of the community and the roads and the schools – to work with each other on all these different levers to make the improvements we need to make over the long-term,” Wyka said. “This pit production mission is for the next 40 years so it’s going to continue to grow. That’s very significant with all the other incredibly important science, research and development that we’re doing at the Lab. We’ll need to continue that same collaboration and coordination we had on the Cerro Pelado Fire on all these other important issues.”
Wyka concluded by saying the draw for bringing people here to the Lab is this community.
“It’s a special place. That is something that is on all our minds because the staff that we have to bring to the Lab on the Triad side and even on the federal side – the draw is this community,” he said.