BY MAIRE O’NEILL
New Mexico Environment Department Resource Protection Division Director Chris Catechis is not mincing his words when he discusses NMED’s position on the hexavalent chromium plume discovered in 2005 which is part of the legacy waste clean-up mission at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
At a recent meeting of the Legislative Interim Committee on Radioactive & Hazardous Waste, both Catechis and Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos raised concerns that Department of Energy Environmental Management program at LANL is not taking an aggressive enough approach to characterization of the chromium plume.
Catechis explained the 2016 Consent Order between DOE and NMED dealing with legacy waste from LANL left since the Manhattan Project era. The 2016 Consent Order, which is an update from the original 2005 Consent Order, NMED and DOE officials meet each year to set up a series of milestones, campaigns and targets for the coming federal fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Catechis said an example of those is the Chromium Interim Measure that deals with the characterization of the chromium plume.
He said the milestone for the current year was working on an Interim Facility-Wide Groundwater Monitoring Plan that LANL has to deliver to NMED by October. That plan will involve putting in new screening wells that might be required for characterization and cleanup of the chromium plume.
“We will begin in July working on the coming FY2023 milestones. We will sit down with DOE and go over the progress that’s been made, if there’s any slippage of the schedule, and whether there are any milestones DOE is getting additional funding for in the cleanup budget – you could say our ‘wish list’ – activities we would like to see addressed within the Consent Order,” he said.
Catechis said there were “some issues with DOE” back in FY2021 where the two entities weren’t able to agree on some of the milestones.
“We felt that the cleanup was not moving as quickly as it should be moving and then we entered into litigation with DOE. It was moved from state court to federal court. The current LANL cleanup end date for DOE is 2036, which is in the Consent Order, and we don’t feel that they’re going to be able to make that timeline based on the progress they’re making at this time,” Catechis said. “We’re really trying to get to a place with DOE where we can have a stronger Consent Order for enforcing and accelerating that cleanup and helping them to meet those milestones they need to make.”
He said within that, NMED has continued to meet with DOE and that the federal judge has asked the two agencies to continue to talk.
Catechis explained to the committee that between 1956 and 1972, approximately 160,000 pounds of chromium was released into the canyons at LANL and caused the hexavalent chromium plume, which was discovered in the regional aquifer in 2005.
“We’ve been working with DOE to put in some interim measures as we move toward final cleanup. We’re still working with them on the nature and extent of the plume. The plume right now from what we can tell is about a mile long and about half a mile wide. We’re still trying to determine the final thickness of that plume,” Catechis said. “We (NMED) regulate chromium groundwater at 50 parts per billion (ppb), which is a pretty good threshold for that but we’ve had samples of detects at greater than 400 ppb so it’s a pretty serious issue up there at Los Alamos in dealing with this plume.”
He said the issue has been important to the public, especially as chromium has gotten into the regional aquifer.
“In pushing DOE into getting the final measure into place, we do feel that while they have done some interim measures to try some pump and treat, to date they have only removed about 156 pounds of chromium so it’s not a lot of chromium that’s been removed,” Catechis said. “So we have some differences of opinion as far as how that plume is being treated with interim measures. We want to see greater emphasis put on this cleanup so that we can get to a final remedy. One of the differences we have is that our technical experts seem to believe that they’re really with the measures they’re taking, just kind of pushing the plume around. They’re not really removing water that needs to be removed.”
He noted that the southern boundary of the plume is at the boundary between LANL and the Pueblo de San Ildefonso and that trying to keep the plume contamination from moving further has been a big concern. NMED has been very involved and continues to have a number of technical meetings with DOE where NMED pushes towards greater funding and measures for the chromium cleanup and getting the chromium out of the aquifer.
In responding to questions from committee members, Catechis said NMED feels the Consent Order is not strong enough as an enforcement mechanism and wants stronger enforcement mechanisms in place for cleanup.
“We host the only radioactive disposal site in the nation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) and so we should also see greater cleanup of the laboratories at Los Alamos. The Labs had put in the final date of 2036 and we don’t feel they’re going to be able to meet that at their current pace and funding so we want to be able to push that cleanup a lot faster. I know it’s important for the communities around as well as Los Alamos County,” Catechis said.
In response to questions, he explained that as far as NMED is concerned, the funding for the cleanup is outside of its control. He was asked if the state could contribute financially to the cleanup.
“I think the federal government and the Manhattan Project created the mess and they should be responsible for the cleanup. It shouldn’t be the taxpayers of New Mexico that are held responsible for that cleanup,” Catechis said.
Asked about monitoring wells at LANL, Catechis said the chromium wells are specific to the Interim Measures for “pump and treat”.
“We do have quite a few groundwater monitoring wells up at Los Alamos for chromium and we’re still putting in more because we’re really trying to get the nature and extent of this plume. We feel that we want to allow DOE to try some interim measures on cleanup and if we don’t have a full picture of the plume, it’s going to be hard to put in a final measure. We are really pushing DOE to chase that and we feel pretty strongly that they’re just ready to go full bore into cleanup but we get into some heated discussions with them and we hold them accountable and push for these additional wells to be put in and sure enough, we’re still chasing them on this,” he said.
Giving the committee a little background on the Consent Order, Rep. Christine Chandler said she thinks Catechis was “being very kind” when he was giving the history of the Consent Order.
“The DOE and the Lab put that Consent Order in place and that Consent Order was relatively strong and that was part of the state’s negotiation. However, in the waning days of the previous administration, the Environment Secretary renegotiated the Consent Order in a way that removed a lot of the state’s ability to enforce against the DOE and many of us who were watching the process felt it undermined the state’s ability to have strong enforcement ability against DOE,” Chandler said.
She noted that since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has taken office and there is a new Environment Secretary, there has been a concerted effort to increase the enforcement ability under the Consent Order.
“It was a step-by-step process unfortunately that the Secretary had to follow to be able to develop the ability to do so,” she said.
Chandler said she has spoken many times with Sec. James Kinney about what he is doing and that she thinks the lawsuit against the DOE has an ability to create an environment where the state is going to get a new Consent Order that has stronger enforcement measures.
Asked when the state began working with the DOE to try and get the chromium issue under control, Catechis said the plume was discovered in 2005.
“So it’s been a long time we’ve been pushing on them to take action on that – to put in the necessary funding and get the full scope of the plume – how big it is, how deep it is – and move forward with that so we’ve been, I won’t say fighting, but strongly pushing them in the right direction,” Catechis said.
Chandler said, “So we’re approaching 20 years now of having to deal with a contaminated aquifer, contamination that’s very serious if it makes it to the drinking water. I just want to emphasize it is in the aquifer but at this point I believe there is no indication it has made its way to the drinking water. I want to say that and emphasize that because I don’t want alarm bells going off that are excessive.”
She said she certainly thinks alarm bells are necessary because eventually it is thought that the chromium will make its way to the drinking water.
“And DOE would be fully responsible for then finding additional water sources for the community, drilling new wells for the community so that we are not drinking essentially poisonous water,” Chandler said.
She said she wanted to emphasize as the Representative from Los Alamos that the chromium plume is a critical issue.
“I do know that the Environment Secretary has been making every effort to press and I find a continuing disappointment in the Department of Energy in their inability to get their act together on how to resolve this problem on behalf of the state and on behalf of the residents who could be affected including the neighboring pueblos who are also within the range of the plume,” Chandler said.
Catechis later said the main issue with the chromium plume is that it’s in the aquifer.
“DOE is using the interim measures to pump and treat with a technique where they inject molasses because it actually helps with the chromium and is a technique that has been used back east. But we’re talking about a place where this is hundreds of feet down into the ground whereas back east they’re looking at 20 feet deep and so it was a much shallower area,” he said.
Catechis said DOE didn’t have success with the molasses at LANL.
“They’re trying to rehab one of their wells because of that, and NMED is like, ‘Just move on. It’s failed; let’s go to the next one’. The priority is to keep it (the plume) from crossing the border into San Ildefonso Pueblo. But this is where we have the issue is we feel that the measures they’re taking – it’s not really effectively removing chromium from the plume, it’s just spreading the plume around,” Catechis said. “And that’s been our biggest fight with DOE at this point is getting them to come into agreement with our technical experts. The EPA, they have their technical experts as well on this so it’s not just a matter of NMED saying this. Even in the last few months they’re starting to come around to some of our way of thought on that. They’re trying to make some changes on the DOE side where they’re working better with us and not so adversarial.”
Catechis said his general take is that DOE is not really sure how to address the plume and that historically that’s been the biggest issue.
“For us, because it’s in the aquifer and the people it affects, it’s a top priority for us and we’re really pushing them to address this and get the necessary funding. I know that they sometimes talk about not having all the funds necessary that they need for doing this cleanup or they try to play the game of, ‘Well you need to pick what’s the most important thing for cleanup’. It’s all very important to us but as far as why they wouldn’t want to agree to some of these milestones, I don’t know, other than they’re trying to figure it out themselves. I know that’s not the best answer but it is hard for me to get in on their head,” he said.
Catechis said DOE is not rejecting the data but the cost of putting in additional monitoring wells.
“For every monitoring well, it’s thousands of dollars and they tell us that’s just more money we’re putting in to gather additional data, but it’s data that’s needed to make a determination on the nature and extent of this plume. It’s not wasted data. There is a possibility that in the future some of these wells could be turned into remediation wells but at this point it’s just getting these into the ground because we have to have a firm data set on how big this plume is and which direction it’s moving to,” he said.
Rep. Chandler also addressed legacy waste that needs to be cleaned up and removed from LANL.
“The residents of the state of New Mexico are certainly warranted in being concerned about the waste that has been sitting on the mesa for many, many years, and has not had adequate attention from the Department of Energy. And yes, I understand, because I often hear this when I bring this point up, the WIPP site was closed in 2014, that is also almost 10 years ago and we have yet to see an accelerated access to that site for Los Alamos waste,” she said. “Every meeting we have where we talk about WIPP, this issue will be brought up to make sure that this item is very much on the forefront of the administration and the public, and again, I want to commend the Secretary and the governor for pushing on this issue and I know in my conversations and discussions this could impact the re-licensing of WIPP and I just want to bring that to everyone’s attention. This is a very important issue and it could well bear on how the process goes for the re-licensing of the WIPP site.”