A panel that discussed the cleanup of the LANL Chromium Plume with the Legislative Committee on Radioactive & Hazardous Materials consisted of, from left, Joni Arends, co-founder and executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear, Rick Shean, director of the Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division, Michael Mikolanis, manager of the DOE’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office, Maggie Hart Stebbens, trustee of the Office of Natural Resources Trustee and Kate Girard, executive director, ORNT. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
It looks like the New Mexico Environment Department will accept a grant from the Department of Energy Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office to pay for an independent advisor to help work through an impasse between the two agencies and work towards a final remedy solution for cleanup of the hexavalent chromium plume that lies beneath Los Alamos National Laboratory. The plume is estimated to be 1 1/2 miles long and half a mile wide and was discovered in 2005.
The Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee meeting in Los Alamos August 21, heard presentations by Michael Mikolanis, Manager of the DOE Environmental Management Los Office (EM-LA) and Rick Shean, NMED’s Director of Resource Protection and in depth, and followed on with sometimes demanding questions from committee members including Rep Christine Chandler of Los Alamos.
Mikolanis explained that the DOE has been operating under the Chromium Interim Measures and Characterization primary objectives which are to provide interim measures to prevent the chromium plume from migrating beyond the Lab boundary and to study and test the aquifer to gather the data needed to conduct and corrective measures evaluation. DOE believes these two objectives have been met. The third objective is to conduct a corrective measures evaluation. DOE began implementing the Interim Measure in 2018, installed five extraction wells, set up a treatment system for contaminated water they extracted, and installed five injection wells.
Mikolanis said since the start of the Interim Measure the southern edge of the plume has been pushed back at least 500 feet if not more from the boundary with Pueblo de San Ildefonso using the injection and extraction method. He said some 445 million gallons of contaminated water has been treated to remove the hexavalent chromium – the equivalent of 674 Olympic size swimming pools. That treated water has been injected back into the aquifer at a rate of about 135 of those each year, Mikolanis said.
“A secondary benefit we have gained from the operation of the Interim Measure is that we have been able to remove 700lbs of chromium. That’s not the primary objective; the primary objective is to contain the plume, but it is a secondary treatment,” he said.
Last year in November DOE received written direction from NMED to cease injection of the treated water by April 1, 2023 unless certain things could be demonstrated.
“As a result of that the DOE ceased injection on March 29 consistent with that regulatory direction. Since then without the injection, we cannot extract either. In my experience regulators don’t generally build their own models and will sometimes perform confirmatory calculations. So the DOE facilitated a series of three-party summits with DOE, NMED and the Pueblo because they were most directly affected by the regulatory direction and we have an obligation to do consultation with the Pueblo,” Mikolanis said.
In those summits, he said DOE provided NMED with an understanding of their technical basis, calculations and a model made up of years of sampling data.
“We discussed what the impacts were going to be or we thought they would be with the NMED directive and began discussions of options to do something different to begin remedying the plume instead of containing it. Unfortunately those discussions reached an impasse. DOE’s understanding is that (NMED) is expecting a change in where we injected the treated water during the last five years, which effectively eliminates the hydraulic barrier that has been containing the plume until now,” Mikolanis said.
He said the Interim Measure was not designed solely as an extraction containment and that it relies on the hydraulic barrier as well.
“The concern that DOE has is that the transition to injection elsewhere would effectively turn this into an extraction only containment field and the system was never designed to do that. Without a redesign and reevaluation DOE has a concern that it would allow the plume to move past the barriers that we have been creating successfully for the last five years,” Mikolanis said. “The redesign and reevaluation of the Interim Measure is effectively beginning the first stages of what would appear to be a remedy and we are concerned that proceeding like this would bypass the public engagement that (Resource Conservation Recovery Act) requires for moving forward and proposing the remedy.”
He said DOE feels they are in a position to move forward into a remedy and NMED disagrees. That has been one of the major issues the two agencies have been trying to work through for some time now. Mikolanis said recent data from three wells clearly shows an adverse effect from the shutdown. He showed a chart indicating chromium concentrations at the time operations were ceased and how the level has increased sharply in the last three months.
“Effectively in the 3 ½ years we operated the well we reduced chromium concentrations by 170 ppb (parts per billion). In the last three months the chromium in this extraction well (CrEX-5) has increased 80ppb and that is nearly half of the gains that we made in the last three years. At this rate, it will erase completely the 3 ½ years’ worth of work sometime in October,” he said. “Both NMED and DOE have an obligation to protect the natural resources of New Mexico and I know my colleagues at (NMED) are working hard and in the best interests of the state and the cleanup project. We have informally shared this adverse trend with NMED and will follow up with a formal notification of the trend here in the very near future. It’s my hope that NMED will give the same consideration to this adverse trend that emerged when the recent regulatory direction came down and hopefully we can get the regulatory direction changed or reversed and continue to discuss how to move forward with the chromium campaign under the Consent Order.”
During his presentation, Shean said NMED is working with and trying to encourage DOE to not just continue to manage but to start to aggressively deal with the chromium plume as it is known today.
“Nothing we’re trying to do is to discourage progress but only to get to a place we see as less risky for the community,” he said.
Shean noted that the plume was caused when 160,000lbs of chromium was released from a power plant cleaning cooling tower over the time it was used.
“It was very common practice to put chromium inside the tower to prevent corrosion. The plume we currently know is about a mile and a half long and half a mile wide and it was discovered in 2005. We don’t yet know the nature and extent of it,” said Shean. “We did not interpret with the data that (DOE) had that they were having this much success with creating a barrier as they were creating a depression as if they were pulling out groundwater.”
NMED is encouraging DOE to continue extraction but to re-inject the treated water into another place.
“Our concern is that where they’re currently injecting, we’re not certain that they are injecting on the south side of the plume. Our concern is that they may be that instead of putting clean water on top of contaminated water, they are just diluting it and pushing it down. This will cause problems in the future when you’re trying to design a bold cleanup plan and cleanup system in order to address all of the contamination,” Shean said.
He said DOE is working under the Interim Measures Work Plan.
“The first plans were submitted prior to 2015 and after the 2016 Consent Order; another work plan was required and that was submitted in September 2022. Given our concern about the state of cleanup what we thought that pumping out the groundwater and re-injecting it was doing, we issued a notice of disapproval for that work plan. We agreed to extraction but we wanted alternative locations for the re-injection of the water,” Shean said.
In April 2022, NMED notified DOE that it was not in compliance with its Discharge Permit 1835 that was in place to allow NMED to regulate the re-injection.
“When we noticed they were out of compliance, we started seeing rising contaminants in one of the wells – one of the lower screens on the well. DOE refuted the noncompliance and wanted to continue its pump and treat system as it had been placed and they proposed a process and they showed us their model. We had the conversations but we still weren’t convinced that there wasn’t additional harm being done to the plume by their current system,” Shean said.
NMED’s Groundwater Quality Bureau issued DOE a letter in December requiring corrective action – to cease injection into all wells associated with DP-1835 but to continue with their extraction.
“What we see going forward is that NMED wants to work with DOE to ensure that they cease injection but continue to work with their extraction putting the treated water elsewhere so it gets back into the aquifer. We are not comfortable with approving a final cleanup plan until they’ve figured out the full nature and extent of the plume. Currently we don’t believe the edge of the plume and the depth of the plume has been satisfactorily determined. There’s also a gap of knowledge between the source and where the plume ends that we’re able to monitor at this point that exists,” Shean said.
He said once the work with DOE and NMED comes together the two agencies can work together to prioritize an alternative means of disposing of the water.
“We’re going to push that they identify alternative injection locations for the water outside the plume boundary,” Shean said.
He noted that in July, the Government Accountability Office, a government agency watchdog, came and interviewed both DOE and NMED staff several times to go through what was apparently going on.
“They provided six recommendations, one of them being to have DOE and NMED work with an independent third party facilitator to help us work on these situations that Michael described as an impasse. Recommendation 2 was to have DOE conduct a root cause analysis in order to understand work plans that have been put out earlier and develop a corrective action plan to account for the amount of money that they’re spending,” Shean said. “This underscores for us that the Consent Order as is, is not working for us, leading up to inefficient use of time and resources for both the federal government and the state government.”
During questioning by committee members Shean was asked if he doesn’t feel comfortable yet in diverting the water away from the plume and doesn’t want to inject it back into the wells.
“I’m not comfortable with where it’s being placed right now with the current system. We think it’s putting it right back into the plume. We would like it to be pumped out, treated and put somewhere else outside the plume boundary. We have been leaving it in LANL’s hands to find a new alternative,” Shean said. “We have technical disagreements with how far the plume reaches at this point. We don’t disagree with the difficulties. It’s not simple to do especially with this geology but we disagree currently on the nature and extent that (DOE) provides us at this point.”
Also in response to a committee question, Mikolanis noted that out of 160,000lbs of hexavalent chromium released from the power plant only a fraction of it has made it down to the groundwater.
“The current estimates are probably about 15-20 percent at most. The rest has been trapped at the surface maybe in the organic soils etc. Some of it has just run out into the environment. Of the 160,000lbs, 700lbs removed is a small fraction of that but it is progress as a secondary objective of the Interim Measure,” he said. “The increase over three months that I mentioned is from chromium extraction well No. 5 – the chromium concentration had been steadily decreasing over 3 ½ years of operation of the Interim Measure from 300ppb down to 120ppb, however since the directive, the level is making a sharp turn upward and has increased by 80ppb which is almost 50 percent of the margin that we’ve cleaned up in the last 3 ½ years. The point I was making on that is that if this trajectory continues – and there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t – by late fall or early winter we could be back to where the Interim Measure began in this well and there are two other wells just like it. We’re seeing a rebound now that we’re not running the Interim Measure that was building a hydraulic barrier.”
Mikolanis said NMED and DOE both agreed with the hydraulic barrier as recently as 2021.
“Since we have stopped that hydraulic barrier the chromium plume has continued to move and re-contaminated the aquifer that we have cleaned and pushed the chromium plume back and that rebound is having an adverse effect on the environment that we just very recently made the state aware of,” he said.
Asked if he was expecting a rebound, Mikolanis said he was.
“This one is probably happening because of the earlier (NMED) directive that we not start the Interim Measure when we started up in October after maintenance. A model may not be perfect but it is the best data that you have. DOE has access to some of the best and most creative minds in the world and is able to bring them to examine our model and our basis independently. I also offered prior to Chris Catechis leaving to fund a grant for NMED to independently go out and find a third party to evaluate our model as well,” he said.
The concern DOE has is they have an obligation under the Consent Order to contain it the plume and without the hydraulic barrier they won’t contain it. Asked if the same discussions will have to be had next year, Mikolanis said he hopes that by this time next year the Interim Measure operation will have resumed.
“I very much want to do this. If we’re going to redesign the Interim Measure, if pump and treat is going to be the remedy, I’d just as soon move into the remedy as soon as possible. I agree with almost everything (Shean) said except about the amount of data we have to have to move into remedy. The EPA guidance documents do say that you have to have enough characterization data to evaluate different treatment options to select a remedy. We know the depth of the plume and how far east and the extent of it. Those are design issues. That’s what the final design would be. Pump and treat is the final design…. I’ve already started the technical work to do that but I’m not going to submit it if my regulator won’t take it. That wouldn’t do anything for the relationship,” Mikolanis said. “I agree we will have to get more characterization data to do the final design but that remedies proposal, the Corrective Measures Evaluation, takes 18 to 24 months. My proposal, and that’s what I’ve been bringing to the table with my regulator, is let’s get that started now. We know enough to make the decisions and defend it. We don’t know enough to actually defend the final design but I can get that data in the next two or three years because once we get the remedy we begin what’s called a Corrective Measures Implementation Plan.”
He noted that there’s a plethora of EPA good practices and guidance that would be used to proceed and that the design can take years to accomplish and get in place.
“Let’s get the remedy started now. I’ve heard cleanup delayed is not a good situation to be in so I’d like to accelerate that if we possibly can. It’s just getting the state and the Department of Energy on the same page for that,” Mikolanis said.
Mikolanis noted that his colleagues and regulator are coming to the table in good faith and working hard trying to find a solution. “We don’t agree and we’re polarized but I’m not criticizing my regulators with my comments,” he said.
Rep Christine Chandler addressed committee saying, “Colleagues, welcome to my world. We’ve been talking about this chromium forever, probably in excess of 20 years. I was on the County Council when the community was engaging on this and I must say that our conversation just seems to be just constantly repeated – disputes about where we should be drilling, what appropriate corrective action is, etc. etc. etc. and I hope we all won’t have to do that together for another 10 20 years. I’d like to get this solved. Having said that, we’ve been in the weeds really, in this conversation and it seems to me we’re in the weeds always when we talk about this. So let’s elevate the conversation.”
She asked Mikolanis, “What is the goal? What are we trying to accomplish. What’s the big picture? Where are we going?”
MIkolanis said he wanted to go to completing the first campaign under the Consent Order, which is to find and study and recommend a remedy and move into the remedy phase.
“That’s where I want to go with the chromium. I believe that we are able to do that today and I want to move into that phase. I’ll re-design and address all the issues that are on the table in the remedy phase if pump and treat is the selected remedy,” he said.
Chandler called his answer “still a weeds answer”.
“It’s still an answer that’s in the weeds. How are we going to measure and don’t tell me it’s the interim measure and we’ve got a barrier. Tell me what real success is,” she said.
“Real success is getting a remedy in place that’s going to treat the plume,” Mikolanis responded. “I’m looking for clean water”.
“I think we can all agree to that. We spend a lot of time talking about whether we’ve moved an inch or we haven’t moved an inch or whether the well should be in one location or another location. We’re looking for clean water. What’s the Department’s objection to actually pumping the water back into an area that NMED thinks is more appropriate? What’s the rationale for not just saying, ‘Hey, we’re with you. Let’s do it?’ What’s the problem? “ Chandler responded.
“In keeping the conversation high, my concern is by simply doing that we will turn clean water into contaminated water and the plume will get past the extraction well that the state would want me to use instead of the hydraulic barrier. That it will slip past the measures that are already in place to extract and remove the chromium and damage the natural resources of the Pueblo. I think we would probably agree that the state would have the same goal,” Mikolanis responded.
“So it sounds like this is a technical dispute so what is a path forward in resolving this? Do we have a path forward in resolving the dispute?” Chandler asked.
“No, at this stage we do not have a path forward for that because the impasse appears to be whether we would be allowed to propose a remedy that would resolve all these issues. The state wants us to simply put in another injection well and redesign the rest of the Interim Measure and that’s essentially a remedy and if we’re going to do a remedy, I don’t want to bypass the public input that RCRA requires. New data might be a little bit of a game changer to show that the recent regulatory direction is not good for the environment,” Mikolanis said.
Chandler asked Shean if he agreed on that last statement from Mikolanis.
“I would agree that we both want the same things but I would say there’s nothing keeping DOE at this point from being more aggressive at this point. They can amp it up and put it in a place that we can all agree on that it is not impairing the plume as it is now. It takes time but it can be done. NMED is not standing in the way of them doing it,” Shean responded.
“Is it funding?, Chandler asked.
Mikolanis said EM-LA has the money to operate the system but that he doesn’t know that “amping up” looks like. He noted that the Consent Order, which is the bilateral agreement between DOE and NMED doesn’t envision an amping up of the Chromium Interim Measure to do something different. Because it would be a change to the Consent Order, it would have to be negotiated by NMED and N3B.
Chandler brought up an earlier comment by County Utilities Director Philo Shelton that the County had shut down one of its drinking water wells, PM-3 and asked Mikolanis if that had been a prudent measure for Shelton to do that. Mikolanis said he has had discussions with Shelton and the County on that well after shutting it down.
“Simply put, we don’t have any indication of a hydraulic communication between the County’s drinking water well and where the plume is. I don’t think there was a need to shut down the well because of the chromium plume itself at this time. There were other issues in terms of whether it’s a prudent investment of the County’s resources given the condition and the need for refurbishment some of the equipment in the pump,” Mikolanis said. “There were a number of reasons that factored into the County’s decision to shut that down or leave it shut down and it was more than just the chromium plume based on my discussions with the County.”
In response to questions from Sen. Jeff Steinborn, Mikolanis said re-injection of the clean water was both NMED’s and DOE’s solution in 205 when the work plan for the plume was written up.
“It appears that has changed in the last year. It’s still a solution advocated by the Department of Energy as an interim measure. The Corrective Measures Evaluation we’re drafting isn’t complete yet but I would envision that pump and treat will be a very strong contender for the proposed remedy. Of course the state makes the final selection,” he said
Mikolanis said the re-injection of the treated water is the result of the best technical analysis that exists today.
“It demonstrates that the hydraulic barrier would again continue to contain the plume from moving to the east and to the south. It’s not going to last forever. You can’t keep an interim thing like this forever because water will eventually find a way to go around any barrier you create. That’s why it’s interim and that’s why the DOE has a bias for action to move into remedy as soon as possible.,” he said.
Steinborn asked Shean if he believed that were the clean water was being injected, it was spreading the plume around a little bit.
“That’s correct,” Shean said. “And or pushing the edge of the plume down further.”
The two parties as to how much more characterization is needed to design a remedy, although they both agree on the extent to which the plume has been characterized. DOE, however believe there has been enough characterization to select a remedy and move forward with that phase. Both parties and the GAO agree that it’s time to bring in a third party to help evaluate the data and come to an agreement on the re-injection issue. Asked if DOE has the funding to move ahead with pump and treat as a final remedy, Mikolanis said that’s a complicated question.
“The simple part would be I’m funded to move into the remedy. I probably would have to change some of my priorities and shift funding around but once the construction and the design were done, we’re back into a steady state of operations. It’s a little bit of a complex question because the of additional information I’m going to need to characterize the depth and the extent,” Mikolanis said. “The recent decision from the Office of the State Engineer to go to only single screen wells – we’ve been successfully using two screen wells which gives double the bang for the buck in getting all that data from two locations so with just one it takes twice as much time to get that characterization and twice as much time possibly to get the final design done.”
He said the system can’t be left shut down for that time because it will take years.
Sen. Steinborn believes it is time to put the pedal to the metal and get the federal government to send the money to accelerate the chromium program and deal with it.
‘As you said the water will find a way; the contamination will find a way so you’re kind of in a race against the clock trying to prevent something bad from happening. You also said something important, Mr. Mikolanis, which is yes, you could fund it but you’d have to maybe shift some priorities. You’re funded a certain limited budget which is supposed to take care of a suite of environmental issues. So this is why I urge DOE to come really to the table with a new Consent Order with our Environment Department. is that a time when we’re really expanding the mission of Los Alamos, we really need to increase the velocity and capacity of our cleanup efforts here. We shouldn’t have to pick and choose priorities here, we should be doing all of the above and New Mexico should be demanding nothing less,” Steinborn said.
The committee voted unanimously to send a letter to both parties urging them to quickly bring a third party mediator on board to expedite resolving the current impasse.