ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico regulators on Wednesday unveiled a draft proposal aimed at getting the federal government to clean up tons of hazardous waste and contamination left behind by decades of nuclear research and development at one of the nation’s premier laboratories.
The proposal comes after missteps by Los Alamos National Laboratory resulted in a radiation leak in February 2014 that derailed the federal government’s multibillion-dollar cleanup effort at the northern New Mexico lab and other defense-related sites across the country.
New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the goal of the new consent order is to accelerate cleanup and leverage more federal dollars for the work.
Flynn said the current order, which was signed by the state and the U.S. Department of Energy in 2005, is outdated and hasn’t been working.
Criticisms have been focused on its piecemeal approach and long-term goals and deadlines that were missed.
“This is our effort to get the process moving forward,” Flynn said. “We’ve tried to make it more flexible.”
That’s one reason Flynn said the department didn’t want to include a final date for finishing all the cleanup work at Los Alamos.
Instead, the proposed order sets milestones and targets over the next three years for addressing old dumps on lab property, contaminated sites within the town and a plume of chromium contamination that’s headed toward a Native American community and the Rio Grande.
With a clear plan, Flynn said he hopes the new proposal will encourage the government to restore funding for the cleanup work. He suggested dedicating $255 million a year to environmental work at Los Alamos, much more than the request of $189 million for the next fiscal year.
The U.S. Department of Energy said in a statement Wednesday that it’s committed to cleaning up legacy waste at the lab and looks forward to reviewing the state’s proposal.
A series of public meetings will be scheduled in the coming weeks and the public will have through May 16 to submit comments.
Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico argued there are “giant loopholes” in the proposal that would allow DOE to call the shots and even delay cleanup if funding isn’t available.
He also voiced concerns about the lack of public participation in developing the order and the ability of the public to weigh in on future changes.
The proposal does not address the tons of radioactive waste still marooned at the lab due to the closure of the federal government’s nuclear waste dump in southern New Mexico. That waste is contained in rows of stacked drums inside temporary tents outfitted with monitoring equipment and fire suppression systems.
Flynn said the transfer of that waste — contaminated gloves, tools, clothing and other material — is still a priority but it depends on the reopening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Watchdog groups have been critical of cleanup efforts at the lab, suggesting officials aren’t going far enough to address the waste that was placed in drums, plastic bags and cardboard boxes and buried years ago in unlined pits and shafts on lab property.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico contends soil samples taken from the storage compound known as Area G — the lab’s largest disposal area — show detectable amounts of plutonium and americium.
The group maintains there are still threats to the regional aquifer that supplies water to several northern New Mexico communities and that the radioactive waste needs to be moved before cleanup can begin at Area G.
“We want nothing short of comprehensive cleanup at the Los Alamos lab,” Coghlan said. “That would be a real win-win for New Mexicans, permanently protecting our water and the environment while creating hundreds of high-paying jobs.”
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