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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Los Alamos Fires Fallout

Air Date: Week of

According to government scientists, more damage from the Los Alamos fires may be yet to come. Vicki Monks reports that heavy summer rainstorms could produce unprecedented floods that may carry contaminants from the government’s nuclear weapons lab into surrounding communities.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The recent wildfires in New Mexico destroyed hundreds of homes in the town of Los Alamos and part of the government's nuclear weapons laboratory. But government scientists say more troubles from the blazes may be ahead. Fire on nearly 50,000 acres of steep forest land left the soil unable to hold water. Heavy summer rains could lead to massive floods that wash contaminants from the nuclear weapons lab into surrounding communities. Those include some Native American pueblos. Vicki Monks has our story.

(Footfalls and wind)

MONKS: Santa Clara tribal member Alvin Warren climbs to the top of Puye Cliffs, where the stone walls of an ancient pueblo village still remain. From this elevation, he can see for the first time the extent of the fire's devastation.

WARREN: Four years ago I would never have imagined, standing here, that this whole western view would be dominated by burned-out areas. I'm looking right now at a place where we, you know, usually go hunt -- usually find a lot of elk in there, and there's also quite a bit of bear. That whole little valley is just burned.

MONKS: Firefighters just barely managed to protect the archaeological ruins here. This ancient village is a National Historic Landmark. But many other important cultural sites were destroyed. Santa Clara Governor Denny Guitierrez says the Pueblo people are grieving over the loss.

GUTIERREZ: We hold this very, very sacred within ourselves. And we've always done so.

MONKS: Governor Guitierrez says his people are also worried about what they might have inhaled in the smoke that settled over their village at the height of the fire.

GUITIERREZ: It was thick, and even some of the ash was coming down into Santa Clara and the surrounding areas -- just like a thick, heavy cloud hanging over Santa Clara. I think that was the most concerning to our tribal members.

MONKS: Santa Clara is just downwind from the nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, where fire scorched nearly 8,000 acres. Much of that land is known to be contaminated with radio nuclides and toxic waste. During the fire, air monitors recorded radiation levels as much as 10 times above normal. But lab officials assured the public the increased radiation came from natural sources and posed no danger. Some scientists are not so sure, including Robert Weeks of the New Mexico Environment Department, who spoke at a public meeting in Santa Fe.

(Milling voices)

WEEKS: When I ask, hey, have you got any documentation of that, any citations in the scientific literature, the answer was no, no I don't. So I don't know where these things were coming from. They might be right. They might be wrong. But I have yet to see any hard numbers, solid things that you can hang your hat on.

MONKS: And smoke is not the only worry.

(Helicopter engines)

MONKS: In the mountains above Los Alamos, helicopters were still carrying water to remote, smoldering hot spots, as government scientists tried to determine just how bad floods might be once summer rains begin.

(Splashing water)

MONKS: Hydrologist Greg Kuymjin is splashing water over burned ground to see whether it will soak in.

KUYMJIN: See, it beaded up and just ran right off.

MONKS: He explains that a hot forest fire can bake soil into a hard water-repellent surface that will send sheets of rainwater rushing down steep slopes in torrents.


KUYMJIN: I'm also looking at the texture of the soil -- and if there's any fine roots or litter or organic material left in the soil.

MONKS: With most of vegetation gone, there's nothing to hold soil or contaminants in place.

KUYMJIN: Even a series of small storms could result in a lot of erosion and runoff.

MONKS: That's especially troubling news for Los Alamos National Laboratory. Over the past 60 years, the lab has dumped its waste directly into canyons here, and several of the most severely-contaminated areas were burned in the fire. Lab geologist Steve Reneau.

RENEAU: The floods will be very, very big. Instead of this small channel carrying water, probably this entire valley bottom will have water up to several feet deep. And the floods are of a concern from the contaminant standpoint, because it's the floods that move the contaminants. A lot of it will end up in the Rio Grande.

MONKS: The contaminants include PCBs, heavy metals, and plutonium, but the geologist insists that contamination levels will be too low to pose a threat.

RENEAU: We are quite certain it's not a potential health problem, because where the contaminants are today, as they are in the canyon bottoms at the levels they are, they're not presenting a health problem. We haven't seen any reason to post any areas or clean areas up in a canyon bottom because of potential human health risk. At the concentration levels they are today, as they get eroded and carried in the floods downstream, the concentrations will become much, much less.

MONKS: But the citizen's group Nuclear Watch of New Mexico points to a 1999 study done by the lab itself, which admits that contaminated sediments could pose risks downstream. Much of the contaminated sediment moving down the Rio Grande will end up in Cochiti Lake on Pueblo land. Los Alamos scientists have already found plutonium from the lab in this lake, and Cochiti Pueblo leaders worry that lab officials are underestimating the danger.

PECOS: We even refer to that reservoir as our trash can. Anything coming off of that plateau is going to remain as sediment or silt in the reservation.

MONKS: Jacob Pecos is director of the Pueblo's Environmental Protection Agency, which must rely on the nuclear weapons lab for funds.

PECOS: We only know what the lab tells us. You know, there's always that aspect of the truth. You know, are they telling us the truth? Are they telling us everything? And we don't know.

MONKS: The huge volume of sediments that are expected to wash into the river and lake may kill fish and smother plants, but the contaminants themselves are not likely to cause immediate harm. Pueblo leaders are more concerned about long-term health effects and damage to the ecosystem as the pollutants work their way through the food chain. For

Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Monks.



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