Saturday, August 20, 2011

Las Conchas Wildfire & LANL Nuclear Waste

The New Mexico Community Foundation (NMCF) sponsored another in its Forum for Environmental Education and Dialogue (FEED) series of meetings on Thursday, Aug 18, 2011, at the Pojoaque Elementary   School Business Office, at 5:30 PM. The topic to be discussed was the aftermath of the recent Las Conchas wildfire, which burned ~250 square miles of forestland in the Jemez Mts. There were approximately 20 members of the general public in attendance at this meeting.

A panel of experts had been commissioned by NMCF to present an overview of the fire's aftermath. The panel consisted of: Manny L'Esperance, LANL manager in charge of fire preparedness and an expert in wildfire control; Mike McNaughton, LANL environmental scientist; Mike McInroy, LANL expert on stormwater runoff and its effects; Bill Bartels, an environmental specialist from NMED; Nita Bates, another environmental specialist from NMED. 

Manny L'Esperance talked about the actual fighting of the Las Conchas fire; e.g., the extensive backburns that had been set in order to try to keep the wildfire from intruding onto LANL property (a success, he said); and the difficulty that had been experienced by firefighters in controlling a wildfire that, at the outset, had been moving at a very rapid pace through the forest (only a partial success.) It was perhaps partly due to the efforts of Mr. L'Esperance and partly due to dumb luck that the wildfire did not burn over TA-54, where 100's, if not 1000's, of 55 gallon drums containing TRU waste are being stored under fabric tents. ( As Joni Arends of CCNS has repeatedly pointed out.)

Mike McNaughton talked about several radioactive substances carried by the ash and smoke generated by the wildfire. He said that the radioactive contaminants of special concern to the public were plutonium-239 (originated from the planet Pluto, he thought), contained in the ash, and polonium-210 (of Polish origin, he had heard), contained in the smoke. He said that these two radionuclides could have been equally perilous to human health, if they had appeared in sufficiently large concentrations. Further, he said that although he believed that the ash, being poorly mobile, could not have constituted a danger to public health, he thought that the smoke might have been a matter for legitimate public concern. Nevertheless, he asserted that any radioactive materials that might have been found in the ash or the smoke were of natural origin, or associated with global fallout, and could not fairly be associated with present or past LANL operations. Even so, I thought he might admit that the building and testing of nuclear weapons, both past LANL operations and the sole purpose for which LANL was created in 1943, have greatly contributed to the last ~50 years of global fallout.

Bill Bartels talked about a small number of air quality monitoring stations that NMED had erected around the burning area, in order to spot-check the extensive air-quality monitoring data that LANL instruments were recording. Bartels said that no discrepancies between NMED and LANL data were discovered in the course of this exercise.

Nita Bates talked about the recent collection of air-quality data all around the state of New Mexico, not just to assess the effects of the Las Conchas wildfire, but also to enquire into the effects of the massive Wallow wildfire, which had burned along the Arizona - New Mexico border. She said that these effects were determined to be minimal; e.g., there was no elevation in ozone levels detected due to the two wildfires. She also asserted that Santa Fe had not experienced any appreciable degradation in its air-quality due to the Las Conchas wildfire.

Dave McInroy said that the occurrence of contamination in stormwater runoff was just beginning to be measured by LANL, and that the first data had just been assembled for stormwaters collected at a location upgradient of LANL operations. He anticipated that contamination in runoff would ultimately be found to be less than what had occurred 10 years earlier, following the Cerro Grande fire; i.e., because of interim improvements in drainage and the slowing down of sediment transport rates.

I brought along a copy of this first tranche of stormwater runoff contamination data to the FEED meeting. (The data had already been placed in the online RACER data-base.) I pointed out at the meeting that this data showed that the concentration of strontium-90 and plutonium-239,240 was occurring at ~50 times the drinking water standard, while americium-241, cesium-137, and uranium-238,234 had been measured  at ~10 times the standard. Mike McNaughton then asserted that the drinking water standard was too stringent a comparison to invoke when attempting to assess the seriousness of the levels of these contaminants in stormwater runoff. He also insisted that these data were indicative of conditions occurring in the natural environment and not connected to LANL operations.

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