Exposing the Environmental Risks at Los Alamos National Labs
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The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico is operated by competent people, right? And, is filled with respected scientists who always tell the truth, right? That is the “official story”—the world’s greatest science protecting America—that LANL has been feeding to the American lawmakers, media and the public for nearly seven decades. But now the northern New Mexico community members and organizations are determined to put an end to LANL’s “official story.” They’re building a “new story.” Here is their story.
On Wednesday July 6, LANL opened after being closed for more than a week due to the Las Conchas Fire that has become the largest fire in New Mexico history. As of July 16 it has burned 156,245 acres including large areas in crucial watersheds and sacred sites in the Santa Clara and Cochiti pueblo lands. That Wednesday afternoon I sat down for 3 1/2 hours of conversation with geologist Robert (Bob) H. Gilkeson, who's a recipient of the annual “Whistleblower Award” from the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability; Joni Arends, Executive Director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS); and David Bacon, board member of CCNS. I was shocked to learn about the massive amount of toxic and radioactive wastes that are on the surface and in subsurface pits at LANL. It got much worse—I learned about the great seismic hazard that has potentially catastrophic implications for the entire American southwest. LANL is also proposing to build a new $6 billion nuclear facility as part of an integral plutonium pit (triggers) production complex for building new nuclear weapons. You can stop this—it is your call.
Contaminated Monitoring: From Technical Lead to Silencing
After graduating with a B.S. and M.S. from the University of Illinois Geology Department, Bob worked as a research scientist at the Illinois Geological Survey from 1973 to 1987. He then joined the environmental company Weston as Technical Director for Earth Sciences, first in their corporate office in Westchester, Pennsylvania and then to their Albuquerque, New Mexico office. In 1988 he joined LANL as a senior consultant. His work focused on characterizing contamination from the lab’s large waste disposal sites, which he says, “weren’t more than just dumps.” This was the first comprehensive study of contamination under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
In 1997 Bob was asked to lead the big project of putting in a network of monitoring wells across the then 47 square mile facility to look at groundwater contamination from laboratory operations. After reviewing the work plan that was written by external contractors and some lab employees, he realized it was incorrect—most well locations needed to be changed and the mud rotary drilling method had to be replaced.
LANL agreed with Bob’s plan to not use the mud rotary method, but then James Bearzi came in as the chief of the New Mexico Environment Department hazardous waste bureau in 1999. Bearzi changed the work plan back to mud rotary. “So I left,” said Bob. “I couldn’t be part of the process that was going to put in more than 30 monitoring wells, each costing over a million dollars, that were going to hide knowledge of contamination from LANL operations.”
I asked, in what way hiding—the wells did not provide the proper kind of data to detect LANL contamination?, He responded “that’s right,” and I said that the LANL reports that claim “no contamination is present” would be wrong because the data to begin with is flawed, and he responded “that’s right.” This is what I’d call a contaminated monitoring operation.
Challenging LANL’s groundwater monitoring methodology and operation became a passion for Bob. After all these years of efforts, “Three months ago the New Mexico Environment Department sent LANL a letter stating that the methodology the lab is using (for monitoring of groundwater contamination) cannot ensure that these wells produce reliable data,” Bob proudly told us.
I learned why honest groundwater monitoring is crucial at LANL. Joni told us about the shocking amount of subsurface waste, “At LANL there are at least 21 million cubic feet of toxic, chemical and radioactive waste buried in unlined pits, trenches, and shafts, on mesa tops, and in the canyons, inside the lab property. During the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, the LANL Director informed the media that large amounts of LANL wastes are buried in unknown locations outside LANL property. Those pits inside and outside LANL are not lined. All that waste is moving towards our groundwater, and that’s why groundwater monitoring is so very important, but their monitoring methods are hiding the detection of contamination."