Los Alamos Labs Toxic Leaks, 3 Spreading Plumes, & Plans to Insist on Adequate Protection

Sunday TEWA Women’s United and Communities for Clean Water staged a training session on the LANL plumes, the looming permit hearing on plans to remediate one of the plumes, and to develop strategies for testifying to ensure that our community is protected. Details

Our Water Is Threatened by 3 Toxic Plumes. What You Need to Know and What You Can Do

Those who govern us do so according to rules, laws, regulations and permits. A permit is a kind of law defining the rules we agree to be bound by.To achieve legitimacy, permits must be consented to by all parties, but while DOE, LANL and NM Dept. of Environment (NMED) have agreed to permit DP 1793, they have never sought or accepted the input from the public. The hearing scheduled for Nov. 7 was set only as a result of a Title VI Civil Rights Act Complaint filed by Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping (CARD). A Public Involvement Plan (PIP) was required by an EPA agreement and only now is the NMED initiating that PIP.

The workshop I attended on Sunday, Oct 21 pointed to the many ways that the remediation process has been flawed and how the regulatory system is rigged to favor corporate profit over protection of people and planet. While the science behind the remediation of the three plumes is complex, the flaws with the regulatory process are much easier to understand. I will try to stay out of the weeds on the chemistry and science behind the three chemicals involved and focus on the system, the process, and how both need to be fixed. It can’t be stressed enough that this one permit process is a microcosm for how the energy industry makes critical decisions about pollutants and remediation efforts using horribly flawed criteria and without any consultation with the public . And it is not an accident. The rules are explicitly and clearly designed to protect corporations from harm while exposing us to limitless levels of harm. We need to understand this stuff first; then we need to fix it.

What are the plumes? I acknowledge that while I knew that Los Alamos National Labs had a legacy of toxics that were a threat to our land, our plants, our air and most critically, our water, my grasp of the details were murky. From the training I attended I became much more informed about the serious threat that the three spreading plumes of toxins are and what is being done about them. To begin, there are three known groundwater plumes resting just above the aquifer below LANL.  Pollution has been detected in the aquifer at levels up to 24 times the regulatory standard. What’s more groundwater discharges into the springs on the west side of the Rio Grande. Plumes rest atop the aquifer with some plumes being over 60 feet thick.

The three toxins that are part of these plumes are:

  • RDX, a highly explosive white powder found above the aquifer south of Water Canyon. RDX can enter the groundwater from improper disposal of waste water or from spills or leaks after improper disposal. RDX affects mainly the nervous system. It can cause seizures in humans or animals when large amounts are ingested or breathed.  The EPA has determined that RDX is a possible human carcinogen based upon studies conducted on mice.
  • Perchlorates are very reactive chemicals used mainly in the production of explosives. The general population can be exposed to perchlorate from contaminated drinking water, food and milk. High levels of perchlorate can affect the functioning of the thyroid and impact the functioning of other organs. From the time of conception, through pregnancy, infancy and childhood the developing brain is dependent on adequate levels of thyroid hormone. During the first trimmest, a fetus is almost entirely dependent upon the mother to supply thyroid hormone. Reduced levels of thyroid hormone can interfere with normal brain development and function.
  • Chromium.  Chromium comes in two forms:  Cr3 and Cr6.  Cr3 supports your body while Cr6 is dangerous to your body and can cause cancer. In 2004, NM found levels of Chromium of 270 parts per billion in Chromium plume. A short time later, levels were found at 2400 parts per billion, almost ten times the original finding. NM State law prohibits levels over 50 parts per billion, meaning we have found levels 50 times the NM legal limit. But it gets worse. Much worse.

The information in the above summaries came from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Division of Toxicology and Human Health Services. 

What is the permit being discussed on Nov. 7? DP-1793 is a permit to which DOE and LANL have agreed to clean up pollutants to 90% of the standard. DP-1793 governs the process for attempting to remediate only one of the three plumes, Chromium.  The proposed remediation actions involves injecting molasses (or possibly baking soda) into the plume. The goal of this remediation scheme is to reduce the carcinogenic, soluble, and mobile Cr6 to the less toxic and less mobile Cr3, then bring the water to the surface (350,000 gallons a day) and either reinject it into the aquifer or distribute it over the surrounding surface area, presumably in a less toxic form.

What is Wrong with How LANL, the Department of Energy and the NMED?

There are so many things wrong with how LANL, DOE and NMED collaborate (more accurately collude) to regulate and monitor plume remediation and the prevention of the introduction of toxic substances in the first place,

  • Criteria for determining if a toxic represents a potential harm does not consider multiple exposures or the person exposed. The standard is based upon possible impact on an adult male, ignoring the science that indicates that women in general are more susceptible to harm and that pregnant women and young children even more susceptible. So when NMED establishes that 50 parts per billion is the standard, this is based upon the projected harm to a male and does not include potential impact on a pregnant woman or fetus.
  • In determining if remediation is needed and in identifying the specific actions to be taken if remediation is called for, the law requires that DOE, LANL and NMED must assess the degree to which their actions could cause harm to the environment and the community. But in weighing this decision, they consider both the science and the economics involved. When pondering actions, DOE, LANL and NMED only considers whether there is a high degree of certainty that harm is likely.  If from their research they believe harm is unlikely either by leaving the plumes alone or by using one of their proposed remediation strategies, that will weigh heavily in their deliberations and decisions. How this manifests itself in decision making is that there are two options for remediation, one very costly but certain to prevent harm and another far less expensive but having some level of harm involved, the decision would lean toward the less expensive alternative. The problem here is there is just too much we don’t know to prove harm is likely, even when (as described below) there is significant evidence that harm is very possible. As a result, it is likely that the only way one could prove to a high degree of certainty that significant or even catastrophic harm could result is for that harm to become evident. And that would then be too late to prevent it.
  • In short, in determining what to do about preventing possible harm or remediating a toxic situation such as the plumes, the criteria used includes factors related to science and economics and if future harm is not certain and cost of remediation is high, it may not be deemed cost effective enough to warrant remediation.
  • Criteria for determining harm also does not incorporate the potential compounding harm resulting from multiple toxins, as is the case in relation to the three plumes. Each plume is being treated separately and projected impact is based upon each toxin separately, ignoring the potential of compounded impact resulting from exposures to multiple toxins.
  • Beyond the above, there are specific problems with the proposed DP-1793 permit.

What is wrong with permit DP-1793?

  • Let’s start with the fact that NMED has no website link to the actual wording for DP-1793. It is difficult to ‘consent’ to something if you do not know what it is.
  • Very often efforts to reduce toxic disposal risks or to remediate them are presented in falsely constructed either/or options. ‘Either we pump molasses into the Chromium plume or we let the Cr6 slowly poison you.’ The either/or scenario such as the one above, doesn’t even include the possibility of alternative remediation strategies. And in this instance there is another alternative not being actively pursued, the use of bio-microbial interventions using the network of mushrooms to cleanse the chromium.
  • NMED has not captured baseline data on the levels of Cr6 on the land where 350,000 gallons of supposedly ‘cleaned’ chromium will be dispersed on land surrounding LANL and the plume. In the absence of this baseline data, how is one to tell if the distribution of the presumably cleaned chromium-impacted water is indeed cleaned and is not increasing Cr6 on the land?
  • Above I mentioned that NMED had set a standard of 50 parts per billion for Chromium. But there is no standard here or anywhere for Cr6, a far more toxic substance than its kin, Cr3. We do not know with precision how much Cr6 creates harm but we know it does. But a standard that captures only the presence of Chromium would tell us nothing about the level of Cr6. Either the samples could include mostly Cr3 or Cr6, one could be highly toxic, the other benign. But the permit does not include some kind of standard for an acceptable level of Cr6. Essentially, DOE, LANL and NMED are saying ‘trust us’ with absolutely no criteria for determining if that trust had been broken.
  • The process is self-monitored by the contractor selected by LANL to implement the remediation and while water sample data will be collected monthly and reported to NMED, the public would only be able to see this data in an annual report published 12-15 months after the end of a year of water samples, i.e. 2 years after samples were initiated. This prohibits the public from reasonable ability to monitor the potential impacts or harm being caused by the remediation efforts. In the work I did with public health and education programs in the Bay Area, we used data to inform a cycle of inquiry with date immediately informing thinking about the implications of preliminary data. It would seem that if this kind of a process is part of LANL, DOE and NMED, the public as a stakeholder is excluded.

What evidence is there that Cr6 poses a significant risk of harm? Let’s start with the fact that the Chromium plume contains toxins that exceed the NMED standard for concern fifty times over. But there are other reasons to be fearful of potential harm.

  • Los Alamos has been sitting on all kinds of arms-related research, development and testing since 1943. Throughout this period LANL was presumed to be being regulated to protect those who work at or live near the lab. Yet a study conducted by Catherine Richards examined cancer incidence and mortality in Los Alamos County between 1970-1996 and found cancer incidence rates that were significantly elevated in LAC when compared to the state reference population rates including breast, melanoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, ovary, prostate, testis (significant at the 90% confidence interval), as well as thyroid and breast cancers. This is a hotly contested finding among the scientific community. But there is more.
  • Studies have shown that exposure to Cr6 during pregnancy may cause miscarriages, low birth weight, and some changes in skeletal development and the reproductive system.
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that Cr6 is a human carcinogen. The National Toxicologoy Program classifies Cr 6 as a known human carcinogen.
  • But here is the real issue. There is so much we simply don’t know and yet we act as if we do know. And we exclude the public from the decision making and monitoring of decisions.

I am going to stop here as related to the science behind our concerns. This is weighty stuff and while there is more to be said, adding more to the above will not necessarily contribute to deeper understanding. In a future post, I will provide more information about the November 7 hearing and will provide speaking points should you plan to join me in testifying at the hear hearing. I will also provide information about how and if you can provide written comments. But before closing, I also want to share with you what the Precautionary Principle is and why it is so important.

What is the Precautionary Principle and why is it so important?  The Precautionary Principle flips on its head both the criteria and the process for determining harm and considering options. The Precautionary Principle assumes that:

  • Agreements about how to proceed must be consented to through an informed, open democratic process that requires input from and consent by multiple stakeholders beyond DOE, LANL and NMED
  • Various alternatives must be considered and either/or non-alternatives should not be imposed;
  • The absence of absolute proof of harm is not sufficient to honor the possibility of harm, especially in areas where science has simply not considered the possibility or scope of harm;
  • Science should be one valid criteria for decision-making, but so should ethics, and in relation to potential harm to the planet  and to people economics has no place in the discussion. What price do we place on the health of infants? Would the mother of a child born with serious developmental disabilities put a cap on what LANL should have spent to prevent it?  Would we?  Should they? The perspective of that mother needs to be represented in the room when decisions are made.
  • Western science is not the only or perhaps even the best ‘science’ to be considered. Indigenous peoples have lived in harmony with the earth for centuries. Their understanding of the delicate interplay of land, water, plants and animals may not have been subjected to clinical trials, but they have been developed through centuries of experience by peoples who have demonstrated quite clearly a reverence for the land and a lack of even understanding the concept of profiting from it.

The most important element to the Precautionary Principle is that it very clearly respects our doubts and emphasizes humility in all we do and decide, something entirely absent from public discourse and policy making. In recent posts I have spoken of the need for a new economic and political system. We also need a new way to decide on important issues that challenge our community, the LANL plumes being but one example. The Precautionary Principle seems like a good start on reforming our process for deciding.

More on this in coming posts. But save the date: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 9am at the Los Alamos Magistrate Court, located at 2500 Trinity Drive, in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne





5 thoughts on “Los Alamos Labs Toxic Leaks, 3 Spreading Plumes, & Plans to Insist on Adequate Protection

  1. The “Scientists” who would be working on this project, were all groomed by corporate interests. The need for corporate funding at the academic level has already distorted the “Science.” The Geological or Environmental Engineers, are all contacted early in their careers and groomed for corporate jobs. Students in these field who question any of this corporate influence are weeded out early, and don’t have access to internships, grants or scholarships. Every single source of academic funding, requires a certain compliance. Every single academic activity, from the clubs they join to the topic of papers they write is subject to corporate scrutiny.

    Real Science endorses the Native American view of the complexity in the interactions of natural systems. Corporate Science is a narrow limited view.

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    Abbas has the background and expertise to lead on energy & Utility issues where much of the legislature is distressingly ignorant.

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