Piecemeal Treatment on a Story of Toxic Proportions

December 11th, 2014 · 1 Comment · energy policy, environment, journalism, role of government

By Denise Tessier

Catching up after three weeks away from both a computer and New Mexico news, one story jumped out among the many I’d missed. It wasn’t in the Albuquerque Journal, but the Weekly Alibi.

Written by University of New Mexico Professor David Correia, the Nov. 27 Alibi piece was headlined “Welcome to Albuquerque, Nuclear Meltdown Capital of the World.”

Now, a nuclear reactor is needed for a real nuclear meltdown to occur, and the only nuclear reactors in New Mexico were three small experimental ones at the labs and at UNM. But as Correia’s story revealed, Sandia National Laboratories actually triggered dozens of real meltdowns in its unit near Albuquerque after being asked by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct research, with a goal of preventing a repeat of the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. Correia outlined this time period, saying:

. . .commercial nuclear plants all over the world sent enriched uranium to Sandia, where scientists triggered dozens of nuclear meltdowns by irradiating the fuel at temperatures greater than 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in its Annular Core Research Reactor. . .The experiments contributed to the creation of fail-safe computer codes based on various worst-case scenarios. Nuclear reactors worldwide reprogrammed their computers based on these codes.

But here’s the kicker:

These were real nuclear meltdowns that produced dangerous nuclear wastes. The only safe storage option for such wastes would have been in a specially engineered facility, but no such option existed at the time. Instead the NRC allowed Sandia to bury dozens of radioactive canisters full of meltdown material in vertical holes drilled into shallow, unlined trenches in its 2.6-acre Sandia Mixed Waste Landfill (MWL).

The dump opened in 1959 and for nearly 30 years, until it closed in 1988, received as much as 1.5 million cubic feet of radioactive and toxic material.

And that wasn’t all that was dumped:

Into open pits near the Pueblo of Isleta, Sandia dumped carcinogenic solvents such as tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethelyene (TCE) and dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC-12).

Into unlined trenches a few hundred feet above the aquifer, it dumped metals like beryllium, cadmium, chromium, nickel and 281,000 pounds of lead.

In the middle of it all, it buried tons of various radioactive elements, including more than 100 drums of plutonium, which has a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years.

Correia’s story ended with a chilling quote he elicited from H. Eric Nuttall, UNM emeritus professor of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering, one of five scientists who conducted an independent review of the landfill at the request of the Department of Energy in 2001, and who is an expert on in situ remediation of groundwater:

“This is no ordinary landfill,” Nutall told me. “It’s unlike any other dump in the United States. It’s full of extremely hazardous and highly radioactive materials. . . .It’s no exaggeration to say that if the material in the landfill were distributed around the world and people were exposed, it would kill everyone on Earth.” (emphasis added)

Two weeks later, on Dec. 8, New Mexico in Focus aired a 21-plus minute segment on Sandia’s mixed waste landfill, complete with photographs and maps showing its location just east of Isleta Pueblo and Mesa del Sol. It’s a chilling broadcast, as correspondent Floyd Vasquez elicits the landfill’s history from Nuttall, Correia and Dave McCoy of Citizen Action New Mexico, a group that for years has tried to get more public attention focused on the landfill and its potential threat.

Sandia’s Mixed Waste Landfill is not a secret, but neither is it well-known, as it has received piecemeal coverage over the years, and little focus has been placed on what this “mix” of waste entails. In fact, contents of the landfill were largely unknown until Citizen Action took its discovery efforts to court.

In 2006, Citizen Action filed a suit asking a judge to order the federal government to release unclassified documents on nuclear weapons programs at Sandia National Laboratories. Radioactive wastes from those programs had been placed in the landfill.

The following year, Citizen Action filed a public records request with NMED trying to get results of an analysis that had been done by the consulting firm TechLaw on the possibility of waste leaking from the landfill, which NMED refused to release – even after the Attorney General’s office ruled it was public record. A handful of stories about the landfill appeared in the Albuquerque Journal at this time, and in January of 2008 the paper even weighed in with an editorial saying the records should be released. In October, a judge ruled that it was indeed public record.

In 2010, Journal science writer John Fleck reported on the results of an Environmental Protection Agency review that found that federal agency tried to hide from the public its concerns about the mixed waste landfill.

A year later, Citizen Action filed suit against EPA to obtain results of its monitoring wells near the landfill, but this merited just a couple of paragraphs in the paper. Little has appeared about the landfill since.

Correia noted that last month, NMED issued Sandia conditional approval for a Certificate of Completion for a permit for the landfill, and he wrote the Alibi story after attending a public meeting regarding that permit, saying it “would allow Sandia to permanently store high-level nuclear waste, mixed with carcinogens and volatile compounds, in unlined trenches covered in dirt.” Correia wrote:

If such a landfill were proposed today, it would violate every state and federal law governing the regulation of radioactive and toxic waste management.

Looking at its online archives, it doesn’t look like the Albuquerque Journal has run anything about the landfill in 2014 since April, when it ran a guest column by Willard Hunt, board chairman of Citizen Action New Mexico.

The impetus for Hunt’s column was the radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, and he used the event to highlight the contrast: that even a state-of-the art $6 billion engineered facility in a salt mine one-half mile below the earth’s surface can experience problems, while Sandia’s Mixed Waste Landfill – not an engineered facility – hosts a haphazard mix he says “is leaching more than 100 toxic chemicals and radionuclides toward Albuquerque’s drinking water aquifers every day.”

Note: This landfill is a problem completely separate and in addition to the nearby Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill that has received quite a bit of media attention this past year because of its potential threat to Albuquerque’s drinking water supplies.

Perhaps the Journal is working at this very moment on a comprehensive look at the landfill, but if not, it should be. When a guest column like the one submitted by Hunt is printed and there is no journalistic follow-up – either with an independent story or an editorial comment from the newspaper – there is a tendency for readers to initially wonder and then dismiss it as they become overwhelmed by the other myriad potential catastrophes and tragedies of the daily news cycle in ensuing days. Part of a column’s impact is diminished, too, simply by virtue of the fact that so many unchecked, unprofessional and/or industry subsidized pieces appear on the Op-Ed page.

In that column, Hunt said the NMED in 2005 ordered Sandia to report every five years on the feasibility of excavating the landfill, but has ignored its own order. Hunt wrote that:

In fact, attorney Robert McNeill is currently suing the department on behalf of Citizen Action in the Court of Appeals because of its failure to enforce its final order.

The Albuquerque Water Protection Advisory Board stated the report is four years overdue, recommended evaluating excavation of the landfill wastes this year, and placed the dump on the top 10 list of clean-up priorities along with the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel contamination of the city water supply.

In a related matter, Environment and Energy Publishing reported on Tuesday (Dec. 9) that as the Department of Energy’s national laboratories come under congressional scrutiny, nearly half of the members of the commission doing reviews have ties to those facilities. From that story:

At least four people who are part of the nine-member Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories have now received ethics waivers from department management to participate on the committee. Those waivers absolve members of conflicts of interest when it comes to their own business and financial dealings, including being paid for consulting by the labs that they’re charged with overseeing.

That story came to ABQJournalWatch attention thanks to a tweet from journalist Roger Snodgrass, who for a decade covered Los Alamos National Labs.

The allegations about the mixed waste landfill and failures to enforce orders and ensure containment are disturbing and merit more attention from the Albuquerque Journal.

But in the absence of that attention, kudos to the Weekly Alibi and New Mexico in Focus for keeping the mixed waste landfill in the public eye, and to Morning Word, the news aggregation site that has become an indispensable source for New Mexico news and which led me to the Alibi and In Focus stories after my absence.

Morning Word was started by Matthew Reichbach, who started it as a service at his New Mexico Telegram web site and later arranged to have it distributed by the Santa Fe Reporter . He was still writing Morning Word until Dec. 1, when the feature was taken over by veteran journalist Peter St. Cyr. Reichbach has announced he is closing down the Telegram to help run a new online news site.

It should also be mentioned that V.B. Price at the New Mexico Mercury has not lost sight of the importance of the mixed waste landfill. He wrote about it most recently in September and June, and in April he conducted a full online interview with Dave McCoy.

As Correia noted in the Alibi story, public comments about Sandia’s permit modification request are being accepting in writing through Dec. 19, 2014. Click on the link to his story and scroll down to the bottom to get the names and addresses for submitting comments.

Tags: ······················

One Comment so far ↓

  • DebbyS

    Thank you for this info, I’ve passed it along to enenews so that more people might read your story and links

Leave a Comment