December 2010

ChemRisk Says Rio Water from Buckman Project Is Safe – Community NGOs Question Their Findings

Seth Roffman

On Tuesday, December 7th, from 6–8 pm at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, ChemRisk, LLC will hold the third and final public meeting to discuss responses to comments they have received regarding preliminary drafts of the Buckman Direct Diversion (BDD) Project Independent Peer Review (IPR) documents.

ChemRisk, a risk analysis corporation, was hired by BDD Project Board, which is composed of Santa Fe (city and county) elected officials. AMEC Earth and Environment, based in Socorro, NM, has collaborated with ChemRisk to assess the safety of surface water flowing downstream from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and groundwater traveling through the Regional Aquifer toward the Rio Grande. The report also contains a detailed evaluation of potential tap water health risks to Santa Fe residents. The advocacy group Healthy Water Now ASAP, a network of doctors, nurses, therapists, midwives, early childhood educators and concerned citizens, has expressed their public health concerns to the BDD Board for the past several years.

ChemRisk’s report summary released in October states that “LANL contributes very little, if any, chemicals and radionuclides to the Rio Grande during normal flow (non-storm) conditions.” It also says that LANL doesn’t present a risk during stormwater runoff, and that chemical and radionuclide levels in the river are “within acceptable drinking water standards and are naturally occurring.” The report concludes, “There will be no health risk to people drinking BDD Project tap water.”

The Buckman river diversion site is located three miles downriver of Los Alamos Canyon, which contains contamination from 67 years of Manhattan Project operations. A system has been installed that will shut off the Buckman intake in the event of any LANL contaminated surface water that could migrate into the river via the canyons. An “early warning system” that is supposed to keep contaminated water from entering the BDD was washed out by two flash floods between August 15-23 of this year, which were 200 year/1 hour and 100 year/1 hour storm events respectively. It reportedly took LANL 24 hours to report to the BDD Project that water was flooding down the canyon, and three days to repair the system.

In recent months engineers have been testing pumps that are to eventually bring about 15 million gallons of Rio Grande water a day, 11 miles uphill to Buckman’s Regional Water Treatment Plant in Santa Fe on Caja del Rio Road. A complex system utilizing sediment removal, membrane filtration, ozonation and granular activated carbon is designed to produce high-quality drinking water. The plant is expected to be running at full capacity in April and begin delivering water when the city takes over in May.

Santa Fe currently relies on two eastside reservoirs, which supply about 40 percent of the city’s water, along with a number of wells. The BDD Project is expected to provide 60% of the drinking water, including 8,730 acre feet a year of Native Rio Grande and San Juan-Chama Project water, for 100,000 Santa Feans living in the city, county and at the Las Campanas development.

A number of questions remain. When the economy improves, will water from the $217 million project enable growth and development while allowing the aquifers to recharge? Will it provide a sustainable source during drought years? Where the river reaches Albuquerque, it has recently been reported to be at its lowest level in years. What effect might Albuquerque’s demands on the river have on Santa Fe?

Despite ChemRisk’s reassuring assessments, some who have been closely monitoring the company’s complex analysis remain concerned about water, soil and air issues. Robert H. Gilkeson, Registered Geologist, and representatives of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) say that some of ChemRisk’s recent assertions are directly contradicted in the prelimminary draft report.

Some of their concerns:

1) Whether contamination has already migrated to the Regional Aquifer via pathways under San Ildefonso Pueblo. Gilkeson and CCNS say that the groundwater system connection to the Rio Grande is only partially understood as documented in LANL reports. LANL is now claiming a complete reversal of its 2005 position about the connection between the contaminated groundwater, the Regional Aquifer and the Buckman Well Field.

2) That since the Buckman Sentinel Monitoring Well has not yet been installed, the available data for the report has been compromised; that according to a 2007 National Research Council report, the system of groundwater monitoring wells is inadequate; and that studies have been inappropriately limited.

3) That flash floods and snowmelt flow over 212 dumpsites in Los Alamos/Pueblo Canyon with radioactive, toxic and hazardous contaminants including plutonium, cesium, strontium, americium, neptunium, tritium, selenium, hexavalent chromium, PCBs, perchlorate and others. The EPA, in its recently issued stormwater permit, has identified 40 “high priority” sites that require cleanup in the next three years. CCNS is demanding that in order to protect public health, these sites be cleaned up before the Buckman Project goes on-line.

4) That ChemRisk used the federal EPA standard for total chromium rather than the more protective NM standard.

5) Gilkeson and CCNS says that contaminant concentrations in the groundwater are high because large areas of the regional aquifer are contaminated with chromium at concentrations far above both standards, and that the “nature and extent” of a chromium plume accidentally discovered in 2004 is still unknown.

6) That the preliminary draft report of the IPR team states that drinking treated water from the BDD Project could result in a lifetime cancer risk of 1.76 people per 10,000, which exceeds the less protective public health standard of 1 person per 10,000.

At the conclusion of the BDD Independent Peer Review, the Final Technical Report, Executive Summary and Community Summary will be publicly available through the websites and Drafts of the documents are also available for those who wish to read them before the meeting.

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2 thoughts on “ChemRisk Says Rio Water from Buckman Project Is Safe – Community NGOs Question Their Findings”

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