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Reps Wait and See on Landfill

Reps Wait and See on Landfill

New Mexico’s congressional delegation say they would support reopening the inquiry into the safety of Sandia National Laboratories’ nuclear-waste landfill if new evidence warrants. It was unclear, however, what standard any new evidence would have to meet.

BY ABQ FREE PRESS STAFF

Three members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation say they would support reopening the inquiry into the safety of Sandia National Laboratories’ nuclear-waste landfill if new evidence warrants. It was unclear, however, what standard any new evidence would have to meet.

ABQ Free Press contacted Sen. Martin Heinrich, Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham because of their current and past ties with Albuquerque.

Udall’s statement is an example of the caution expressed by the delegation.

“Senator Udall believes the State of New Mexico, through [the New Mexico Environment Department], has a firm responsibility to conduct strong oversight over DOE cleanup activities in the state. He believes DOE and NMED should thoroughly evaluate any reliable new information,” said Jennifer Talhelm, Udall’s spokesperson.

ABQ Free Press

Trench 7 of Sandia National Labs’ mixed waste landfill in 1987, before addition of dirt cover. (Photo: Citizen Action New Mexico)

The labs’ shallow, unlined 2.6-acre landfill lies at the south end of Kirtland Air Force Base and contains an array of nuclear and irradiated materials left over from Cold War experiments.

A recent article in ABQ Free Press raises the possibility that the contents of the landfill could leak and explode. The articles were based on Sandia internal memos obtained by Citizen Action New Mexico in a Freedom of Information Act request.

The memos show that in the 1990s, lab officials raised concerns that the landfill likely contains sodium, which can explode if it comes in contact with water and can catch fire if exposed to air.

Such an explosion occurred Oct. 18 at a nuclear waste dump in Beatty, Nev., when metal drums containing sodium corroded and the contents came in contact with water. Dave McCoy of Citizen Action New Mexico said the Beatty incident is proof of the danger posed by Sandia’s landfill.

“They know that, and the fact that corrosion could occur to the containers that they have the metallic sodium in is just an accident waiting to happen at the mixed waste landfill,” McCoy said.

Rep. Grisham’s spokesperson, Gilbert Gallegos, said, “The congresswoman is satisfied that the Environment Department has been effective in its oversight and continuous monitoring of the waste storage.

“Nevertheless, she expects the department to continue to scrutinize every detail that is raised about the waste,” Gallegos said.

Whitney Potter, spokeswoman for Sen. Heinrich, said, “The State of New Mexico is responsible for regulating the mixed waste landfill as well as its long-term monitoring. Senator Heinrich believes Sandia and DOE should continue to provide quarterly progress reports to NMED and that any decisions about future modifications should be based on the best available science.”

The landfill is subject to quarterly review, but that requirement could be lifted in two years.

“At that point in time, I believe what will happen is they will apply for a ‘no further action’ status, meaning they don’t have to do anything anymore. That way, they avoid the five-year review status for excavation of the landfill,” McCoy said.

In the course of researching the Sandia landfill, ABQ Free Press repeatedly sought comment from a spokesperson at NMED on the internal memos uncovered by Citizen Action New Mexico, but no information was provided.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.