DOE Environmental Management At Odds With Environment Department On What To Do With LANL Chromium Plume

A sparse crowd attended a recent forum in person on the LANL Chromium Plume hosted by DOE Environmental Management and N3B. Most people in the room were DOE or N3B employees, Los Alamos County representatives or press. Many people attended via Webex, but there were few community residents tuned in. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

DOE Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office Manager Michael Mikolanis speaks at a recent community forum at Cottonwood on the Greens in Los Alamos. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


The Department of Energy Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office (EM-LA) is at odds with the New Mexico Environment Department after receiving a notice of violation on the Hexavalent Chromium Plume Project. EM-LA Manager Michael Mikolanis was very open about the situation at a recent EM-LA community forum in Los Alamos.

“If there is a highlight I will remember as far as my tenure here as Field Office Manager, it’s the effort we’ve been making to improve transparency and try to build on the trust that we have with not just the public but with the regulator, the tribal nations that surround us, the elected officials the non-government organizations that have an issue or a concern with what we’re doing,” he said. He added that DOE has an issue with the regulator (New Mexico Environment Department) that he was going to speak about from the DOE side.

Mikolanis said DOE has a bias for moving forward with a remedy for the plume as soon as possible. He noted that EM-LA had been working collaboratively to build up to writing a work plan, which they submitted to NMED last September. While waiting for a response they heard from the NMED Hazardous Waste Bureau that they were to leave certain injection wells and extraction wells offline.

“We currently have three injection and three extraction wells offline for electrical corrective maintenance but as we were offline we were directed by the Hazardous Waste Bureau to keep them offline as they evaluate what they want to do with the Interim Measure.” Mikolanis said. “My partners out there are working on corrective maintenance to restore full operability of the injection and extraction wells but in the interim when they are ready to go, the state has directed us to leave those wells offline”

He said that’s about 60 percent of the injection and extraction capability that we’ve been directed to keep off offline. EM-LA also received a notice of violation in November from the NMED  violation Ground Water Bureau with concerns raised by their subject matter experts (SMEs).

“The chromium plume moved back 500 feet from the Pueblo de San Ildefonso – that’s a great thing. There were two anomalies, however, two wells in different locations and while the rest of the wells showed decreasing concentrations, those two wells had increasing trends,” Mikolanis said.

He said the EM-LA model explains some of that but the state doesn’t and the NMED SMEs are concerned that the increasing trends are actually causing harm to the aquifer. NMED requested an action plan in June to address the increasing trends and the concern that the Interim Measure could be causing further migration of the plume.

“In September we provided the state with an action plan and we started executing it. They hadn’t approved it. We knew the actions we needed to take and we started to work on that risk. However, in December we received a different set of regulatory directions. This one will direct DOE to cease all injection of treated chromium – treated water that we’ve extracted from the aquifer – cease injection entirely,” Mikolanis said. “By April 1, I have to cease all injection under the Discharge Permit to prevent any further migration of the chromium contamination – cease until, one, we have completed all the actions in the action plan. That’s going to take more than a year because it includes drilling some new monitoring wells – probably more than 1 ½ years because we’re working with the State Engineer for drilling permits. It’s going to be Year 2 before I finish that action plan and this letter of direction essentially says you will cease it until you finish that action plan. We can definitely prove by the calculations, modeling, simulations and data that our operations are not causing further migration of the plume and we’re not going to do any injections until NMED agrees with what we present. That’s a pretty significant change to our operations.”

He said DOE and NMED have different professional opinions and although not speaking for NMED, he is confident that both agencies have a primary interest in protecting the health of the environment and the publis.

“ I am absolutely confident that even though we have differing professional interpretations of what’s happening with the operations of injection and extraction, we are both focused on ensuring that safety and assuring the welfare of the aquifer and that we are not causing damage,” Mikolanis said.

The DOE position is that the damage to the aquifer occurred when the operations released the chromium into the environment where it became Chromium 6 and worked its way through so once it was released it got into the aquifer and the damage was done.

“It’s going to migrate. Water’s going to move no matter what we do. Even the hydraulic barrier is an interim, temporary holding pattern. The plume is going to find its way around the Interim Measure. That’s why we need to find a remedy. It’s important and we need to get enough data to put an effective system in place. Right now the Interim Measure is operating to contain the plume on LANL land while we get a remedy in place,” Mikolanis said.

The concern EM-LA has with the directions received is that turning off the Interim Measure and stopping injection into the plume is that the plume is just going to head back to the Pueblo de San Ildefonso again.

“We are working with the state to help them understand some of this and what our technical models and calculations and so forth are showing us,” Mikolanis said.

He said NMED gave EM-LA one option.

“They’re not telling us to turn the Interim Measure off. Let me be clear about this. They’re only telling me to cease the injection. So what does that mean? If I can’t inject, I can still do some extraction, but what are my alternatives? In their letter they called it ‘an alternative disposal means’. One of them is covered in the Permit we have with NMED, which is land application. The problem with land application and ceasing the injection is that once we turn off the injection, the hydraulic barrier is gone. I can still stop the plume and affect some of the plume migration by extraction like a Hoover vacuum sucking up some of the plume as the groundwater moves if forward towards San Ildefonso lands but without the ability to re-inject, my ability to treat is significantly impaired,” he said.

Mikolanis said EN-LA has done some rough calculations and is sharing them with NMED so that they understand the full implications of the directive.

“If we were to do land application, which is allowed by the permit, there’s another challenge. We have to work with the State Engineer’s Office because they’re the ones that regulate the water in the state. NMED has a role in this because they have a permit that defines the restrictions of what we can and can’t do with land application so I assume they will be supportive with that because there are some major challenges and they’re looking for us to find an alternative means to inject,” he said.

This will also affect Los Alamos County because EM-LA leases the water rights from the County.

“Currently with extraction and injection we’re not consuming any water because every gallon of water we extract goes back into the ground. Without land application I’m consuming a lot more water than before and that’s going to be of interest to the State Engineer. The change in the operations could be pretty impactful,” Mikolanis said. “Last year we extracted over 100 million gallons and treated it, pulling out about 156lbs of chromium from the water.”

He said EM-LA estimates show that with all the restrictions involved in land application of the treated water, including not applying it in freezing temperatures, land application would be limited to 10 hours a day.

“When NMED gave us the option of land application years ago there were some very strict restrictions in there to protect the environment. Those restrictions will also affect my ability to effectively do any extraction and treatment without reinjection. Our estimate is 10 percent. So instead of extracting 100 million gallons a year and pulling out 156lbs, now I’m going to be pulling 10 million gallons a year and only 15 or 15lbs of chromium out,” Mikolanis said. “Extraction of the chromium is not the primary objective of the Interim Measure. It’s there to hold it until we can find a remedy. Removing chromium out of the groundwater is what the Final Remedy would do. It’s a secondary benefit we have now. I would like to pull every pound of chromium I can out with the Interim Measure.”

He said EM-LA has some success and that neither the state nor EM-LA is happy with it.

“We’d like to pull more out. And now we’re going to go from 150lbs to 15lbs. I did a little calculation on what it would look like if I just put it in tanker trucks and tried to get it out. The canyon is pretty small and you can’t drive a semi-tractor trailer up there. In fact when we take bus tours down there it’s a tight fit so we could probably get a medium-duty tanker and pump it all out. A medium-duty tanker is about 2,000 gallons – that’s 50,000 trucks going up and down Mortendad Canyon a year,” Mikolanis said. “That’s almost 4,200 truck trips every month up and down that canyon. We can’t do that safely, so even hauling it out to deposit it in somebody else’s backyard, that’s not going to work either.”

He said EM-LA is working with NMED and that part of that involves helping the NMED to understand that EM-LA operates the system when NMED provides them the regulatory direction.

“I don’t expect them to completely understand all the operational subtleties of some of the changes to the system. We’re going to continue to help them understand that these are the options,” Mikolanis said.

“We’ve drilled a lot of wells. We’ve gotten a lot of data. We’ve done calculations – we’ve calculated what the capture radius of an extraction well is, and how it impacts the aquifer for cleaning. We’ve done calculations on groundwater mapping. All that data, all those calculations, go into developing what we call a groundwater model – a simulation of what’s happening underground. We have a model that tells us what’s happening. It’s not perfect. We’ll have to change it as we discover new things, but it is the best understanding that the Department of Energy has of what’s happening 1,000 feet underground.  We’ve got all these technical calculations and the modeling. The state doesn’t calculate those. That’s what we use to make operational decisions on how we operate the Interim Measure,” he said.

The primary path EM-LA is following is to share that with NMED, he said.

“It’s our understanding from the discussions that the state doesn’t have the calculations or modeling. Their direction is coming from the SMEs’ professional conclusion that the rising indication of those two wells I mentioned earlier is indicative of unanticipated and unacceptable damage to the aquifer. We hope to change that by sharing our technical analysis and how it was put together – and it was put together and meets the guidelines and standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency for putting together these kinds of simulations,” Mikolanis said. “We’re going to walk them through how we did the calculations, how we put the mode together and what the modeling is tilling us and the hope is as when we share our technical basis, NMED has told us they are not using our model or any of our information for regulatory decisions. But by informing them of what we have, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to share with them and get some confidence on their part that the model explains what those trends are going forward and we will be able to work a solution that doesn’t require me to turn off the injection.”

For the benefit of any members of the tribal nations that might have been attending the forum, he said when EM-LA received the direction from NMED they didn’t have the opportunity to do what they would normally do when making a decision which is consult with the sovereign nations.

“We have worked with the Pueblo de San Ildefonso to make them aware of the direction and what our options are and will continue to work with them. They’ve asked us to bring together NMED as we continue to work the solution,” he said.

Mikolanis circled back to what he believes are the options.

“Option 1. Bring our technical basis, help our regulator understand it and work to find an accommodation that does not, if they have some confidence that we have in our model – that does not necessarily require injection. Part of that would also be, if this is really a critical concern that we are doing harm, let’s move faster with the Final Remedy. I have bias for action. Maybe this is an opportunity to move quicker even though we would like to get a little more data. I believe the bullet on target is the right time is better than the perfect one three hours later after the competition is over. So maybe we can move it a little further and accelerate that,” he said. “The second option is supposing the state doesn’t have confidence in our model, they still have a strong desire as a regulator – and I have to respect their role as a regulator – to not inject. Now I’ll have to look at other options, work with the State Engineer, with Los Alamos County, with NMED and the permit conditions they have to see the feasibility of land application and I’ll limp along at 10 percent. At least we’ll be doing something. It’s not going to put the hydraulic wall in place but that is the only other option because the state is not telling me, ‘Don’t extract’ they’re telling me ‘Don’t inject’. I doubt that I’m going to get that done by April 1. The State Engineer, from what my team is telling me, in their experience we’re laying out the pathway in parallel with engaging with our regulator to share our technical basis. What approvals do we need and get those discussions started. But I don’t think we’re going to establish that by April 1. That date is rapidly approaching. Now I’m going to have the hard decision, do I follow the regulatory direction I got from my regulator or do I disobey and run the risk of wearing an orange jumpsuit at the Iron Bar Hotel.”

He stressed that the options he outlined are thoughts and that no decisions had been made because he wanted to consult with the Tribal Nations.

“I’m inclined to shut down the Interim Measure as a whole because I can’t extract if I don’t have land application, so we would shut it down. I’ve directed my corporate partners to run another model to simulate what’s going to happen when I shut down six of the wells now and shut them all down in April. I’d like to know what’s going to happen in three, six, nine, 12 months, what’s happening with the plume, and when I start seeing bad things happening I want to share that with the state as well and then I’ll evaluate my options. That’s kind of option 4. Option 3 was shutting down,” Mikolanis said.

He said EM-LA has rights and privileges under the Consent Order that can be exercised which he is sure NMED shares as well.

“But my focus and my objective, and I’m sure NMED shares those as well but I won’t speak for them, is working towards an amicable solution that let’s me give some assurances to my regulator that we’re not harming the environment, that we are being protective of the aquifer, and find a solution that does not have me going into dispute resolution and doesn’t keep the Interim Measure shut down to the point where we start reversing and doing bad things to the plume and bring it closer to San Ildefonso,” Mikolanis said.

He doesn’t anticipate a couple of months to big a big deal because the Interim Measure system was shut down for a few months at the beginning of COVID.

“The world didn’t end, I didn’t get chromium over the border and upset the governor of San Ildefonso but we’ve never left it shut down for a year or two years before. That’s what the modeling I’ve asked N3B to go perform to give me some insight that I can share with the regulator. We’re working to a solution, not a food fight. One of the things I’m focused on is improving my relationship with my regulator and entering into a dispute resolution is not a conducive way to improve trust and work with the regulator who really has the best interest of the state, the environment and protecting it at heart just like we do,” he said.