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Contamination Data Incomplete

In May, a huge forest fire in New Mexico made national and international news as it burned almost 50,000 acres in and around nuclear weapons production and waste storage facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

A satellite photo on May 11, 2000, of the Los Alamos forest fire.
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], U.S. Dept. of Commerce)

During the fire, SRIC and other public interest organizations received hundreds of calls from people asking what the dangers were, should they evacuate, should they drink water, and what were the long-term risks. Because of the lack of reliable data, and the lack of candor of some government officials, accurate and definitive answers to the questions were impossible to provide. We could say that there were and are dangers, though no one knows how severe since no one really knows how much radioactive and hazardous materials have been released from LANL over the past 57 years.

We do know that some of the damage done by the fire will take years to remedy. That remains true despite one law passed by Congress in July to provide more than $500 million dollars to rebuild the more than 200 homes and apartment houses destroyed in Los Alamos and for business losses, as well as more than $130 million for LANL. Another bill may provide $200 million more. In contrast, the Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Indian Pueblos were allocated only $9 million, though they can also make claims on the other funds. Other tribes were provided no specific funding. While national attention has waned, New Mexicans will continue to face threats of contamination and the lingering effects of government dissembling and bad decisions.


As it burned, the fire threatened many people because of the airborne contamination spread by the fire over large areas of New Mexico and into portions of Colorado, Texas, and Oklahoma. More than 15,000 people were evacuated from Los Alamos and some nearby communities during the fire, thereby substantially reducing human exposure, except to the more than 1,000 firefighters battling the blaze.

Since there is no accurate inventory of what contaminants were in the trees, structures, and soil that burned, long-term damage to health, crops, soil, and water will be virtually impossible to accurately assess. Fortunately, no one was killed in the fire, nor have serious injuries been reported.

In the area near LANL, the denuded, mountainous watershed terrain will result in larger scale runoff than normal with the result that more radioactive and hazardous materials in the soil will be transported into the Rio Grande and to Cochiti Dam on Cochiti Pueblo land. Some of the federal funds will be used to build dams and other barriers to limit runoff and to expedite reforestation.

Official Pronouncements

Initially, federal government officials stated that there were no releases of radioactive or hazardous materials, even though that was not true. Later, when air monitoring data showed increases of up to 30 times the amount of radioactivity in the air, officials stated that the releases were "natural" radioactivity. Monitoring data during the height of the fire on May 10-12 were not made available until days after and then had major gaps. Some monitoring stations had no data, there was no data on the smoke plume at higher levels (it rose up to 20,000 feet), and there was no monitoring in several surrounding communities that received large amounts of ash.


Available data show that, on May 11, particulates from the fire were as much as eight times greater than federal standards. At more than 20 monitoring locations, levels of radioactivity in the air were from a few times to 30 times higher on May 11 than two weeks previous.

Additional data is being collected from some soil and water samples. Some farmers and consumers want to determine whether there is significant contamination, in order to get compensation. Or, conversely, determine that there is not significant contamination so that consumers are reassured. Some limited water sampling will be done in some of the runoff areas. But long-term monitoring will be needed, and no one has yet committed to fund it or to make the data public.

The Future

In addition to continuing effects of the fire from rainwater runoff, LANL's on-going work and its new nuclear weapons missions threaten people with the prospects of even greater contamination. And with a major nuclear weapons facility in a forest, there will be another great fire some day.

Where Los Alamos Canyon meets the Rio Grande (Photo by Dede Feldman)

Information Resources

LANL's website provides its monitoring data during the fire and its description of the hazards to the public.
Public Affairs
Los Alamos, New Mexico 87545
Tel. 505-667-7000
Web: www.air-quality.lanl.gov/AirConc_CerroGrandeFire.htm  

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) did limited air sampling during the fire and encouraged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to bring in some mobile air monitors, which arrived after the height of the fire. The website has summary data from May 11-17, the locations of air monitors, and the findings of the regulatory agencies.
1190 St. Francis Dr.
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87502-0110
Tel. 505-827-2855
Web: www.nmenv.state.nm.us/aqb/fires/default.htm  

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) is an environmental organization that has monitored contamination at LANL for more than a decade. It successfully sued LANL over violations of the Clean Air Act, and continues to do independent assessment of ongoing air emissions.
107 Cienega
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Tel. 505-986-1973
Fax 505-986-0997
Web: www.nuclearactive.org

Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) is a nuclear disarmament organization that also monitors some environmental issues at LANL. It conducted sampling of some contaminated areas before the fire and carried out sampling from airplanes during the fire.
212 E. Marcy St.
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Tel. 505-982-7747
Fax 505-982-8502
Web: www.lasg.org   

Nuclear Watch of New Mexico (NWNM) is a newly formed watchdog organization of nuclear facilities, including LANL.
551 Cordova Rd., #135
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Tel. 505-989-7342
Fax 505-989-7352
Web: www.nukewatch.org

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– W.H. Murray in The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.

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