ARTICLE - "THE MIIXED WASTE LANDFILL"
By Miles Nelson,MD
There is radioactive waste in our community. A radioactive dump sits just outside the city of Albuquerque. It is situated upstream from the south valley and Isleta Pueblo at Sandia National Laboratory. It is known as the Mixed Waste Landfill and it poses a potential threat to the people of this area. The Mixed Waste Landfill was used for decades for the disposal of radioactive and other wastes. This waste was generated at Sandia during Cold War weapons development. The waste was dumped into shallow unlined pits and trenches. In the early years, especially, record keeping was poor, so an accurate inventory of the landfill does not exist. What is known is that over 28 different radioactive elements or radionuclides are buried there. These radionuclides range in half-lives from days to billions of years which means in terms of radioactive hazard the contents of this dump will remain deadly for thousands upon thousands of years. Sandia National Laboratories admits they are responsible for this contamination but they refuse to clean it up. They have devised a plan wherein they would simply cap the landfill with soil and then watch it to see if any radioactivity leaks into the environment. They promise to monitor the landfill for 70 years. They call this "stewardship." While this plan may serve the best interests of Sandia National Laboratory and the Department of Energy (as it allows them to leave this dangerous material where it is) it may not be the best plan for you and your community. The Mixed Waste Landfill will remain hazardous for longer than we have been a species on this planet. Seventy years of watching this contaminated dump for leakage into the environment is a poor long term plan and compromises the safety of this community.
The Mixed Waste Landfill contains tons of Depleted Uranium, as well as smaller amounts of Plutonium, Americium, Tritium, Cobalt, Cesium, and on and on. All radioactive, and each capable of inducing cancer under the correct circumstances. The potential risk to generations to come from allowing these poisonous materials to remain buried in unlined pits so close to the most populous area in New Mexico is unacceptable. Additionally this risk will multiple as the Albuquerque metropolitan area pushes eastward and encroaches on what is now Sandia property. This expansion is already occurring with the Mesa del Sol development which will be located adjacent to Sandia property. Full excavation and complete clean up of this contamination is the only reasonable long-term solution.
However, there are impediments to the full excavation of the Mixed Waste Landfill at this time, such as the lack of repositories to send some of the contaminants to, or the claim by Sandia of worker danger due to the intense radiation. But alternatives to covering it with dirt and watching it do exist. The Depleted Uranium contained there is deposited in isolated pits and could be easily excavated and taken to licensed repositories. Other such partial excavations could be undertaken if the desire existed at Sandia, and while not an adequate long-term solution this would reduce the overall risk posed by the landfill. Additionally certain stabilization techniques could employed at the landfill to help ensure that migration of radionuclides off site will be slowed. Finally, Sandia's chief complaint against the excavation of the landfill is the intense radiation that workers would be exposed to. This radiation is due primarily to Cobalt 60, an intense emitter of gamma radiation, high-energy rays that easily penetrate the body and disrupt the DNA and bone marrow. But Cobalt 60 has a relatively short half-life of only 5.6 years. After 8 to10 half-lives a radionuclide is generally safe, its radiation having decayed away. By Sandia's own estimates the risk from the Cobalt 60 in the landfill will be minimal in 14 years. That would allow for the safe full excavation of the Mixed Waste Landfill in the year 2014. However, the current plan makes no such provision for this. The current plan merely calls for capping the landfill with soil and watching it. This requires long-term vigilance and commitment on the part of the Department of Energy (DOE), commitment and vigilance they have lacked elsewhere.
The Department of Energy has a poor record in terms of honesty, disclosure and protecting the public's health. There are numerous examples of the DOE violating the public trust. These violations are in the form of environmental contamination, misrepresentation of facts and abdication of public health responsibilities. In terms of "stewardship" the DOE has walked away from its obligations elsewhere. This malfeasance has resulted in the undermining of trust, the poisoning of our citizens, and the development of disease and death in communities effected by these actions. A few brief examples will serve to illustrate this pattern of dishonorable conduct.
· In an effort to boost nuclear weapons production miners were sent into uranium mines uninformed of the health hazards of uranium. Decades later uranium workers were found to have a much higher death, cancer, and related disease rate than controls, and today are still fighting for compensation. Other affected groups included the "low-use segment of the population" living downwind of the Nevada Test Site, the "atomic veterans," and indigenous groups such as the people of the Marshall Islands.
· The Rocky Flats plutonium plant outside of Denver has been the site of numerous plutonium fires with the resulting release of radioactivity into the environment. The DOE routinely downplayed the risk of these fires to the public, preferring to reassure than warn. Tragically this policy has resulted in disease and death. As determined by the local health authorities in Denver there is a 10% to 24% increase in cancer incidence in communities contaminated by the released plutonium.
· The DOE is finally admitting, after years of mounting evidence, a link between excess disease and cancer rates among the 600,000 nuclear weapons workers and job related exposure to radiation and hazardous materials. This admission has taken decades, due in part to inferior epidemiology conducted by the DOE on work related hazards. The DOE has discouraged honest inquiry into health hazards preferring to skew information in order to obtain favorable results.
· Concerning "stewardship" do not be reassured. Three underground nuclear explosions were detonated on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Chain in the southwest region of Alaska. Research conducted by both the DOE and other independent organizations has confirmed radionuclides leaking from at least two test cavities. The results of a 1998 joint sampling investigation by the DOE with the State of Alaska and other grassroots organizations have been sequestered at Los Alamos National Lab and not been released to the public. Thirteen Aleut Tribes have inhabited this region for thousands of years, and live a traditional subsistence lifestyle harvesting food from the marine ecosystem. Despite their promises to monitor Amchitka Island for releases of radionuclides, the DOE has turned its back on the Aleut people by attempting to terminate proposed stewardship of this site.
· In Albuquerque I've witnessed how Sandia personnel present information to the public about the Mixed Waste Landfill in a way that is reassuring rather than informative, such as pointing out that only low-level waste is deposited in the Mixed Waste Landfill. Or suggesting that since the radioactive waste exists in the form of metals migration by way of soil, air and water will not be possible. Or reassuring the public that the DOE will monitor the Mixed Waste Landfill for seventy years, thus ensuring that no dangerous substances will ever escape. What is not volunteered at these presentations is that "low-level" does not mean safe and in fact the "low-level" waste in the Mixed Waste Landfill is extremely hazardous. Or that waste in the form of metals can form salts capable of migrating with water or that these metals will decay into radioactive gases that will disperse out of the ground and into the atmosphere. Also not shared under the current stewardship plan is what action will be taken if monitoring wells at the Mixed Waste Landfill indicate radionuclide contamination of the ground water. This massaging of the facts is deplorable. The public has a right to expect disclosure and accuracy from our public entities not the manipulation of facts in order to gain support for shortsighted and potentially dangerous plans.
The DOE has not responsibly addressed the public's health elsewhere, so it would be naïve to expect them to do so in Albuquerque. Unfortunately we live in a time when honorable conduct on the part of our public institutions can not be taken for granted, the time of innocent trust has ended. We must take it upon ourselves to understand the issues and advocate for right action. Inactivity and ignorance will ensure that we are used to further agendas other than our own. To date all information about the risks of the Mixed Waste Landfill has come from the DOE and Sandia National Laboratory. Missing is outside expert advise on how to address this threat to our community and families. We must insist that accurate information be disseminated to the public and that choices be given to the people of this community so that the ultimate plan for the Mixed Waste Landfill is the right one for us.
The Citizen's Advisory Board for Sandia National Laboratory has commissioned an independent review of the Mixed Waste Landfill. This is in response to concerns expressed at a meeting of the Radioactive Task Group of the Citizen's Advisory Board by members of the public last November. Dr. Mark Barskaran of Wayne State University has been contracted and is currently reviewing the plan for the Mixed Waste Landfill and will be advising the Citizen's Advisory Board in June. Dr. Baskaran is an international expert on the migration of radionuclides and is respected in the scientific community. Further, Dr. Baskaran has no significant ties to the Department of Energy and so will not be influenced by DOE bias. The June Meeting of the Citizen's Advisory Board is open to the public. You may come to listen and learn or to make comments. This meeting will be held on June, 21st, from 6:00 to 9:00 pm at the North Valley Community Center, 3825 4th St. N.W., in Albuquerque. You may call the Citizen's Advisory Board at 505-293-5514 for more information.
Before the current plan for the Mixed Waste Landfill is etched in stone the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) must agree. The NMED is very interested in the opinions of the people of New Mexico. You have to opportunity to influence this process by contacting the NMED or by submitting your comments during the as yet unscheduled public comment period for the plan.
Often we feel powerless to influence events when powerful agencies have vested interests in a certain course of action. But you are not powerless and you must consider alternatives that are in the best interest of your community, your family and in the case of the Mixed Waste Landfill, generations upon generations to come.
Miles Nelson, M.D.