'I can truthfully say that after working at hundreds of waste sites and DOE and DOD sites, I have never seen a more troubling site than the Sandia MWL dump' Michael Barcelona, nuclear waste expert
BY BOB KLEIN
Sandia National Laboratories and New Mexico environmental officials have intentionally misled the public for years about the contents of a radioactive landfill at the south end of Kirtland Air Force Base, government documents show.
In addition to a hodge-podge of low-level radioactive waste, the landfill also contains high-level nuclear waste, including 119 drums of plutonium- and americium-contaminated waste, plus a toxic brew of other hazardous chemicals, the documents show.
The shallow, unlined landfill also contains Thorium, Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and hundreds of tons of depleted Uranium-238 and even a radioactive fire truck. The landfill has been leaking radioactive and hazardous chemicals for decades. In 1974, there were two depleted uranium fires, record show.
Federal regulations require that high-level nuclear waste be deposited in a deep geological repository, yet in a hearing last July a hearing officer dismissed all evidence obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act indicating that some of the Sandia landfill waste was “high-level.”
Local environmental advocates are outraged that despite official records showing what the landfill really contains, the government is willing to rely on inaccurate and incomplete records from the 2004 hearing, throw some more dirt on the landfill, plant some native plants and move on.
Misrepresentation of the moldering contents of the shallow, unlined landfill could represent a violation of federal law. That law, the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, requires that federal and state officials, upon discovery of errors or omissions in the official record of such a landfill, correct the inventory and act accordingly to address any previously unrevealed dangers.
In 2004, Sandia officials testified the landfill contained only low-level radioactive waste. But disposal sheets made available to ABQ Free Press show that fuel pins and rods of U-235 were routinely deposited in the Mixed Waste Landfill (MWL) from Cold War-era nuclear reactor meltdown experiments, along with waste from nuclear weapons experiments and atomic bomb explosions.
The sheets were obtained as part of a 5,000-document cache of records obtained by Citizen Action New Mexico under the Freedom of Information Act. They are official, signed and dated records documenting the content and location of the highly radioactive material.
A Sandia spokesman, when asked about the contents of the landfill, denied there is any high-level waste in it. He cited the definition of such waste as the materials generated during reprocessing of spent fuel. Excavating the landfill to remove the low-level nuclear waste in it would be too costly and too dangerous and that the best solution is to cover it up with dirt and vegetation and monitor it, the spokesman said.
“The NMED Hearing Officer’s Report from the 2004 public hearing, based on inventory data, concluded that the MWL does not contain waste defined as high-level, i.e., the highly radioactive material resulting from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. No evidence from subsequent hearings, including a review of disposal sheets, has changed that conclusion,” lab spokesman James Danneskiold said in an email to ABQ Free Press.
That attitude, in the face of the documented presence of high-level waste, has incensed environmental advocates who – since the 2004 hearing – obtained, through FOIA, documents that show otherwise.
“Basically, all the new information regarding the existence of high-level waste in the MWL was excluded,” said Dave McCoy of Citizen Action New Mexico, which has called for a cleanup of the site.
He cited fires and explosions at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad last year and, more recently, at a
radiological storage facility in Beatty, Nev., in October, as evidence of the potential danger posed by the Sandia landfill.
“Putting the RCRA regulation aside for the moment, they go to great lengths to cover up and misinform. How about the truth from SNL? How about the effects of the waste on human beings?”
How we got here
In 1985, the EPA designated the New Mexico Environment Department as the responsible agency for monitoring and overseeing the disposal within New Mexico of both Sandia National Laboratories low-level mixed radioactive and hazardous waste as well as waste from nuclear test sites in the Marshall Islands, Nevada, and Los Alamos.
The landfill, formerly known as Technical Area 3 Radioactive Waste Dump, was until 1988
the main location for disposal of high-level mixed radioactive waste from nuclear reactor meltdown experiments, atomic bomb test experiments, a space nuclear reactor program and spent fuel, according to government records.
The 2.6-acre dump, surrounded by three-strand barbed wire, is located in an isolated piece of windswept desert about 4.8 miles from the Albuquerque VA Center. It’s roughly equidistant from Gibson Boulevard Southeast and Isleta Pueblo.
Following a contentious three-day hearing last July, a hearing officer, Christopher Saucedo, who was appointed by NMED, ruled that “feasibility of excavation … is not an issue” since it was “conclusively determined” at a 2004 hearing that the lab didn’t have the means to safely move the landfill.
Saucedo also ruled that the landfill’s inventory “is reasonably complete” and was “not an issue in this  proceeding.” He also ruled that MWL “does not contain high-level radioactive waste.”
“The inventory of the MWL and whether high level waste is contained herein is not at issue in this proceeding,” he wrote.
“Both,” Saucedo wrote, “were considered resolved in the 2004 proceeding.” Saucedo concluded that he “did not receive new evidence that would require or compel a change in the remedy selection.”
Local researchers, citizens and scientists strenuously contested the decision and argue government officials are purposely relying on incomplete or misrepresented 2004 data, and that federal law requires them to consider the new evidence that the waste is more dangerous than publicly acknowledged back then.
In a January 5, 2015, letter to NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn, Michael Barcelona, an internationally known professor of chemistry at Western Michigan University and a recognized toxic waste expert, expressed his “continued outrage” over the “shameful record” displayed by state and federal officials in their stewardship of the landfill.
“I can truthfully say that after working at hundreds of waste sites and DOE and DOD sites, I have never seen a more troubling site than the Sandia MWL dump,” Barcelona wrote in his letter to Flynn.
“The disposal of high level nuclear waste and chemical materials without adequate inventory, unlined waste sites with no effective cover, and the ridiculous monitoring well network that NMED told them was faulty in the early 1990s … borders on criminal,” Barcelona wrote.
“The [MWL] dump has no doubt been leaking since its inception in 1959,” he said in his letter to Flynn.
Barcelona never received a reply.
In 2000 and 2002, Congress sponsored two independent reviews of the landfill by the Waste Education Research Consortium, known by its acronym WERC. The group’s report concluded that “human health risk and the ecological risk screening assessment for the MWL is adequate.”
Eric Nuttall, who was appointed to serve on the WERC Panel, testified, “Those conclusions would have been impacted and altered had Sandia disclosed the nuclear meltdown experiments and the related radioactive and toxic waste disposal sheets and four memoranda of Sandia management written during the period 1997-98.”
He continued, “Those documents were never submitted for the WERC panels’ review and would have substantially altered” their conclusions. “The Sandia risk assessment reports omitted key information.”
“If the WERC panel had known of the presence and nature of the mixed high-level wastes and the capacity of Sandia for safe, remote, robotic excavation, the conclusions of the WERC would have been far different.”
Further, he wrote: “The information presented to WERC was intentionally deceptive and supportive of Sandia’s concealed plan generated in 1997-98 by Sandia management to never excavate the MWL.”
McCoy calls the agencies’ misrepresentations “stonewalling.” He also calls it playing with the lives of Albuquerque citizens. Barcelona, the WMU professor, adds, “It’s been a carefully orchestrated game of dodgeball for years with the environment paying the price. It sickens me.”
What the state says
NMED and the other agencies involved, as well as Saucedo’s ruling, say everything is in order, including the reliability and appropriateness of the “vegetative soil cover with bio-intrusion cover” Sandia and NMED have proposed and that the hearing officer accepted. NMED did not respond to ABQ Free Press inquiries during the preparation of this story.
On Oct. 24, Secretary Flynn said he was hopeful that he would have completed his review of the document within 45 days, adding that because of the complexity of the issues and the specific recommendations, he might take longer. “I’m a lawyer,” he says, “and I make sure I read things carefully. In the end, it will have my signature on it.”
Hearing Officer Christopher Saucedo did not return phone calls for comment.
Allison Majure, communication director for the state environment department, said she contacted Kathryn Roberts, the head of NMED’s Resource Protection Division, who responded that NMED is not in violation of RCRA. Neither Majure nor Roberts provided the basis for that conclusion.
Bob Klein’s investigation of the Veterans’ Administration, “Wounded Men, Broken Promises: How the Veterans Administration Betrays Yesterday’s Heroes,” was named a Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards finalist in 1981.