Communities for Clean Water—A network of community groups that has been addressing water issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory since 2006
There have been many positive steps taken in the year since the settlement of a historic Clean Water Act citizens’ lawsuit over storm water violations at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). LANL has held two public meetings, established a dedicated website about storm water and organized several productive technical meetings between the plaintiff representatives, the plaintiffs’ experts and the LANL storm water managers and staff.
The complaint was filed in 2008 in US District Court in New Mexico alleging violations of the storm water requirements to keep pollutants from migrating to the Rio Grande. The parties settled on April 27, 2011. Before the settlement, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote a draft “individual” storm water permit specifically for LANL, the first draft of which was appealed by many of the plaintiff groups, along with Honor Our Pueblo Existence (HOPE). After extensive negotiations between LANL, EPA and the non-governmental groups, a final permit was agreed upon and issued in November 2010. Pete Maggiore, former Secretary of the NM Environment Department and now a Department of Energy official, called it “the most aggressive permit” he has seen in his years of environmental and engineering work. The watersheds covered by the Individual Permit are: Ancho/Chaquehui, Water/Cañon de Valle, Pajarito, Sandia/Mortandad and Los Alamos/Pueblo.
Storm water runoff is created when rain falls or snow melts, and the water does not percolate into the ground. At LANL, storm water flows from the mesas into the canyons and into the Rio Grande, a source of drinking water for Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The Rio Grande is also used for irrigation, livestock watering and recreation, and it creates habitat for wildlife.
The community groups were represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, based in Taos. The plaintiffs in the case were Gilbert and Kathy Sanchez and nine non-governmental organizations spread out from the South Valley of Albuquerque to Taos. These groups included Tewa Women United, Southwest Organizing Project, Río Grande Restoration, Partnership for Earth Spirituality, NM Acequia Association, Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group, Don Gabino Andrade Community Acequia Association (located in Albuquerque’s South Valley), Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, and Amigos Bravos.
The groups successfully negotiated to add public participation components to the settlement and the EPA storm water permit. LANL is required to hold two public meetings a year to describe their compliance with the permit. Two meetings have been held to date: in May 2011 and in January 2012 at the Cities of Gold Hotel in Pojoaque. Marian Naranjo of HOPE said, “The additional public participation opportunities are very important, as they provide a forum where we can express our concerns. We know we will be acknowledged.” You can receive electronic notices of the meetings by signing up at the dedicated storm water website: www.lanl.gov/environment/h2o/ip.shtml?3 under “Updates.” The website contains the permit, maps and required quarterly reports. Annual documents include the Site Discharge Pollution Prevention Plans for the watersheds.
Erin English, PE LEED AP, one of the plaintiffs’ technical experts from the Santa Fe-based Biohabitats/Natural Systems, International, presented at the January 2012 public meeting. She spoke about diversifying storm water management techniques from the top of the watershed to the Rio Grande. During the technical meetings, Biohabitats recommended green infrastructure and low-impact development. Key components of green infrastructure storm water control include structures for infiltrating and slowing down runoff that would collect additional pollutants. For example, bio-retention gardens throughout the LANL permitted area would capture and treat storm water close to the source of pollution and would help reduce and slow down runoff further downstream.
Rachel Conn, projects director from Amigos Bravos and one of the plaintiff representatives in the technical meetings, said, “LANL’s storm water permit is an incredible opportunity to push for green infrastructure solutions to some of the region’s most serious storm water issues. We are hopeful and encouraged by LANL’s receptiveness to our input. The permit requires LANL to address pollution from 450 contaminated sites, 63 of which have been labeled high priority because they contain polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The use of green infrastructure and low impact development would assist in keeping PCBs and other pollutants out of the Rio Grande.
The LANL budget this year for permit compliance activities is around $10 million. At the January 26 public meeting, LANL presented sampling results that indicated that many of the sites are not meeting the target action levels. While this does not constitute a permit violation, as the permit allows LANL three years to meet these limits for the high priority sites and five years for the rest of the sites, these results indicate that the LANL storm water team has a serious challenge if they are to meet permit deadlines.
Plaintiff representative at the technical meetings, Joni Arends from CCNS, said, “The successful litigation and aggressive permit results in increased protection of the Rio Grande and the communities that are drawing drinking water from it.”