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Citizens Challenge New Mexico’s Plan for Sandia’s Nuclear Waste Dump

If the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the State of New Mexico have their way, 100,000 cubic feet of radioactive and hazardous waste located at Sandia National Laboratories will be left above Albuquerque’s sole source aquifer as a part of a DOE program called “Accelerated Clean Up.”

Accelerated Clean Up may sound like a good thing, but at Sandia it’s actually quite deceptive: it is not clean up at all, but instead consists of covering waste over with dirt. Another misnamed program called “long-term stewardship” that relies on monitoring and institutional controls to “manage” waste sites created during the Cold War years would be responsible for any future clean up actions at Sandia and dozens of other federal facilities nationwide. The DOE hopes the program will save the federal government billions in clean up costs. In reality, communities are being left with the risks associated with leaving significant amounts of contaminants in the air, water, and soil.

While DOE opposed excavating Cold War waste at Sandia citing cost estimates in excess of a billion dollars, Sandia gets about $2 billion a year for its primary mission: maintaining the existing nuclear weapons stockpile and developing new nuclear weapons.

Ron Curry, Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), on record as being a staunch opponent of DOE’s Accelerated Clean Up program, has sanctioned it by issuing a permit to Sandia to cover the Mixed Waste Landfill.

Like many other terms conceived by the DOE, the Mixed Waste Landfill is technically not a landfill, but served as a dumping ground where workers haphazardly disposed of nuclear weapons waste in unlined pits and trenches over a period of about 30 years. Contrary to statements made by Sandia representatives, an unknown volume of liquids were disposed of in the dump. Historic records also indicate that another type of highly radioactive waste, known as “greater than Class C” waste from research conducted at Sandia simulating nuclear meltdowns was disposed at the dump.

Citizen Action New Mexico, an Albuquerque-based public interest group, has filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the decision made by Secretary Curry violates federal law by leaving transuranic (TRU) waste in shallow burial. TRU waste presents a long-term risk to human health and the environment, and must be disposed in a properly engineered, deep geologic repository.

A Sandia contractor reported that approximately 73 cubic yards (approximately 200-55 gallon drums) of TRU waste was disposed at the dump. The state, in its defense, maintains there’s no requirement in the state hazardous waste regulations that TRU waste, or for that matter, “greater than Class C” waste, must be excavated.

The state’s position is misleading. For one thing, the State Hazardous Waste Act regulates hazardous waste, not radionuclides. However, by approving the permit the lawsuit maintains that the NMED is in violation of the federal law that requires deep geologic disposal of such wastes. In addition, a 1994 decision made by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit concluded “ … the State of New Mexico can impose conditions addressing the presence and disposal of mixed waste containing radionuclides and hazardous at federal government-owned facilities.” However, Secretary Curry has chosen otherwise.

A third issue is the continuous release of volatile organic chemicals at the dump. The state permit is based on out-of-date sampling data: no sampling for volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds had been conducted at the dump for more than a decade. It’s highly unlikely that the three feet of dirt proposed for the cap on the dump will stop toxic pollutants from being released into the air.

Interestingly, both the Hearing Officer who presided over the public hearing and Secretary Curry failed to address the TRU waste and “greater than Class C” in their reports and final decisions. Nor did the Secretary acknowledge the comments submitted by some thirty members of the public who testified at the hearing in support of excavation and clean up of the dump. Citizen Action has filed a second complaint citing the state’s failure to provide responses to those who testified. That lawsuit is being combined with the original case which is pending before the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, the State has acknowledged that radioactive mice and tumbleweeds contaminated with tritium and radon have been discovered at the dump. Will the layer of rocks placed under the dirt cap required by the NMED deter animals from burrowing into it and becoming contaminated? Not likely. Sandia’s own studies have shown that adding layers of rocks (also known as “bio-intrusion” barriers) to keep animals from digging into the waste and becoming contaminated have not proven effective over the long-term.

The chain-link fences Sandia has erected surrounding the dump as an “added measure of safety” will do little to keep contaminated rodents and blowing contaminated “native vegetation” at the dump separated from a rapidly encroaching urbanized environment of houses, roads, businesses, schools and playgrounds. One last question: how long will DOE pay to keep watch over the dump at a cost of $120,000 per year?

With the exception of excavation there is no long-term plan that can guarantee to keep the public, our precious groundwater and the estimated 100,000 people who will someday be living at the Mesa del Sol, less than two miles from the dump, protected from the threat of toxic waste that will be hazardous forever.

Questions may be directed to:
Susan Dayton, Director
Citizen Action New Mexico
P.O.B. 262
Sandia Park, NM 87047
(505) 262-1862
Website: www.radfreenm.org

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“In a market economy, private investors are the ultimate arbiter of what energy technologies can compete and yield reliable profits, so to understand nuclear power's prospects, just follow the money. Private investors have flatly rejected nuclear power but enthusiastically bought its main supply-side competitors decentralized cogeneration and renewables. Worldwide, by the end of 2004, these supposedly inadeqaute alternatives had more installed capacity than nuclear, produced 92 percent as much electricity, and were growing 5.9 times faster and accelerating, while nuclear was fading.”
—Amory B. Lovins "Competitors To Nuclear: Eat My Dust"
RMI Solutions, Fall 2005

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