'They knowingly used false info from defective monitoring wells to make the decision to leave wastes under the dirt cover.... This is a criminal act in my opinion' Dave McCoy, Citizen Action New Mexico
BY BOB KLEIN
A secret arrangement between two government agencies legally mandated to protect the health of Albuquerque residents led them to turn a blind eye to the threat of potential contamination of the city’s drinking water supply by Sandia National Laboratories’ nuclear and chemical waste landfill.
The arrangement between the U.S. EPA regional office in Dallas and the New Mexico Environment Department appears to have been concocted to hide NMED’s failure to adequately monitor the groundwater threat from the landfill years ago, according to documents obtained by ABQ Free Press.
The NMED’s failure came in its role of overseeing the placement of groundwater monitoring wells, which over time produced no useful data on whether radiation or chemicals from the landfill were migrating toward the city’s drinking water. A decades-long effort to keep that fact from the public followed, the documents show.
A representative of Citizen Action New Mexico, a group that has pushed for accountability from Sandia, called the withholding of the data “a criminal act.”
The hidden partnership potentially places thousands of Albuquerque residents at risk from continuing toxic and radioactively-contaminated water from the mixed waste landfill at the south end of Kirtland Air Force Base. The unlined 2.6-acre dump sits 500 feet above Albuquerque’s aquifer and poses no threat to it, according to the EPA.
When the EPA Office of Inspector General examined the nature of the relationship that existed in the late 2000s between EPA’s regional office and NMED, it found evidence of a records cover-up, widespread violations of EPA policies, and evidence that EPA regional officials had been pressured by NMED to conclude that NMED’s proposed solution to the landfill – a simple dirt cover – was best.
The EPA OIG was especially critical of the EPA regional office’s and NMED’s reliance on the data from the defective groundwater monitoring wells. Independent experts say the wells produced “useless” data.
Local environmental advocates say the dirt-cover solution is inadequate to protect Albuquerque’s drinking water. They say the net result is that no one at EPA, Sandia or NMED knows whether the landfill is leaking radioactive or chemical contaimination toward the aquifer.
“We found that some Region 6 staff members intentionally did not document their oversight of the Sandia MWL monitoring wells. The Chief of the Federal Facilities Section and Project Engineer for Sandia also limited public involvement by withholding information regarding the MWL monitoring wells and dismissing the Region’s concerns about the site without documenting their decisions,” the EPA OIG wrote in a report in 2010.
“We found that one Oversight Review team member [of EPA Region 6] felt the team was pushed to agree with NMED’s position regarding the MWL monitoring wells,” the EPA OIG wrote.
The current EPA Region 6 administrator, Ron Curry, who oversees the landfill now and recently refused to reexamine its safety record, is the same person who, as head of NMED, was in charge of regulating it on behalf of the state in the early 2000s – the period covered by the EPA OIG audit.
The landfill was opened in 1959 to hold the radioactive and chemically corrosive debris from Cold War experiments, including melted down nuclear reactors, plutonium-contaminated medical debris from animal testing, nuclear fuel pins and radioactive soil from Pacific Islands nuclear blast tests, as well as an intact but heavily irradiated fire truck. It stopped collecting waste in 1988.
According to Sandia documents, the landfill is strongly suspected to contain metallic sodium, which explodes upon contact with water. The labs’ own documents show that lab officials don’t actually know what’s in it, which contradicts what it told the EPA.
According to registered geologist Robert Gilkeson, a former Los Alamos National Laboratories lead consultant for well installations and monitoring who has examined the landfill record as an independent expert, the groundwater monitoring network beneath the trenches and pits of the dump was “defective at all times.”
Sandia, the U.S. Department of Energy, NMED and EPA had known since 1992 that they were seriously flawed and the monitoring well network did not comply with federal law, Gilkeson said.
That assertion is backed by EPA’s documents. In May 2007, CANM requested an EPA Inspector General audit of EPA Region 6’s oversight of the landfill. Edward Baldinger, the EPA auditor dispatched to investigate CANM’s complaints, stated in a Dec. 14, 2009, report, “As the writing and draft comments progressed to a final letter [after some 20 drafts], the [EPA Region 6 Technical] team was pushed more and more to agree with NMED’s position.”
“Several old wells,” Baldinger wrote, “were located in the wrong direction, wrong depths and not functioning because the wells had gone dry and the well screens were corroded,” possibly “skew[ing] the sample results.”
Baldinger concluded that “EPA’s Region 6 had its results preconceived [because] its management did not want NMED [seen as] doing anything wrong. Therefore, management created a structure to ensure the appropriate outcome would result.”
Critics of the lab argue that had accurate water-monitoring data been considered, other, more expensive remedies for the landfill would have been on the table. Those included digging up the landfill to determine exactly what’s in it, moving its contents to a deep underground storage facility, or encasing the contaminated area in a massive concrete coffin. Digging up the landfill would have exposed workers to danger, ther lab has argued.
NMED is close to signing off on placing a vegetation, soil and “bio-intrusion cover” above the existing dirt cover to keep rainwater and animals from getting into the landfill.
“NMED pushed hard for EPA Region 6 not to even question the past [groundwater test] results or the viability of past tests,” Baldinger reported. He also concluded CANM “got shortchanged” by Region 6 in the group’s demand for accountability from the agency.
In that regard, the April 14, 2010, EPA OIG final report, entitled “Region 6 Needs to Improve Oversight Practices,” found that the EPA Region 6 office labeled a public document as “confidential” to keep it out of the hands of the public. It also avoided putting decisions in writing so relevant documents could not be obtained by CANM through the Freedom of Information Act, according to the report.
The report also said, “The Project Engineer for Sandia intentionally did not document concerns with NMED’s management of the MWL monitoring wells specifically to withhold the information from the public.”
CANM’s Dave McCoy, who has reviewed 5,000 documents related to the landfill that the group obtained through FOIA, said, “NMED used the worthless samples as the basis for allowing the so-called dirt cover solution to be installed.”
“They knowingly used false info from defective monitoring wells to make the decision to leave wastes under the dirt cover,” McCoy said.
“This is a criminal act in my opinion,” he said. “Basically a decision based on fraud.”
Conflict of interest
The EPA records contain no allegations of criminal conduct but they do raise the possibility of a conflict of interest involving a key player that might explain the EPA auditor’s finding of pressure to reach pre-conceived conclusions.
In 2003, former Gov. Richardson – who served as the U.S. Department of Energy in the late 1990s – appointed Ron Curry as the state’s chief environmental regulator with ultimate state regulatory authority over the landfill. Curry held that job until 2010 when Richardson’s second term as governor ended. In 2012, Curry became the EPA Region 6 administrator, a position which gives him continuing responsibility for federal oversight of the landfill today.
The EPA OIG criticisms in the 2010 report were directed at EPA and NMED officials’ behavior that occurred before Curry took over at Region 6 but while he was still head of NMED.
Over the years, Curry has refused to allow a reexamination of the documented conditions at the dump. The EPA actions that the EPA OIG criticized in the 2010 report occurred before Curry took over Region 6 but while he was still head of NMED.
During Curry’s tenure at NMED, his agency issued an order on April 29, 2004, requiring replacement of the seven defective monitoring wells at the Sandia landfill. That order was never carried out.
Nevertheless, NMED and DOE/Sandia used the defective well data at a subsequent public hearing, “knowing the groundwater monitoring system was no good to find contamination,” Gilkeson said.
Less than a year later, on May 26, 2005, Curry did not object to the use of data from the defective monitoring network as the technical basis to make a final NMED determination that the 720,000 cubic feet of hazardous and radioactive wastes should be left in place under a simple dirt cover.
The reliance on the defective data didn’t end there. It was relied upon again last July when an NMED hearing officer, Christopher Saucedo, after hearing public comments, decided that landfill, based on the existing record, should be left undisturbed save for the addition of the bio-intrusion cover.
DOE, Sandia and NMED “did not inform Hearing Officer Christopher Saucedo of that and thereby got the dirt cover remedy they misleadingly requested,” Gilkeson said.
Curry did not return an ABQ Free Press phone call and two emails requesting comment. ABQ Free Press sent an EPA Region 6 spokesman a list of questions for Curry about the potential for a conflict of interest but the spokesman did not respond by presstime.
“So what we have now is the MWL being under the lowest possible regulatory standards for corrective action when the MWL really should be required to meet the standards of a regulated unit for closure, a much higher and far safer standard,” McCoy said.
On Feb. 1, NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn was granted a fourth extension for filing a final order based on Saucedo’s recommendation that the DOE’s and labs’ correction action plan – the dirt cover with bio-intrusion barrier – be accepted in its entirety. No reason was given, other than the boilerplate, “for good cause.”
The latest extension was set to expire on Feb. 19 – more than six years after Baldinger’s revelations of deceit and 56 years after the dump opened for business.
Bob Klein is an Albuquerque freelance writer.