LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Pickup trucks believed present at the world's first nuclear bomb test, coke and whiskey bottles, a calendar and a toothbrush are just a few of the items unearthed by a cleanup of one of Los Alamos National Laboratory's original toxic dump sites, where the detritus of the 1940s Manhattan Project was strewn through some of northern New Mexico's most scenic mesas and canyons.
More important, workers also extracted 43,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris and toxic soil – all beneath highly specialized containment domes – from what is known as Area B, just across the street from a strip of local businesses, and just more than a mile from downtown Los Alamos.
The three-year, $212 million excavation project on the six-acre site was completed last month, and lab officials boast that environmental conditions there will soon be suitable for residential development.
That's the good news.
But cleaning up the greater 40-square mile lab complex, situated 25 miles northwest of Santa Fe at the top of a series of canyons whose storm waters run into the Rio Grande, is far from complete. And this summer's massive Las Conchas fire that singed lab property heightened environmental and safety fears associated with more than 70 years of nuclear production and experiments.
"I think every time that there is some natural event that has ... the potential for disturbing radioactive sources, everybody becomes very interested in what is going on," said Ralph Phelps, chairman of the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board.
Although lab officials downplayed the fire danger at the time, Phelps said the waste and contaminated buildings at the 63-acre site known as Area G definitely pose a safety threat to northern New Mexico.
As a result, Gov. Susana Martinez and the Citizens Advisory Board have increased pressure on the National Nuclear Safety Administration, which runs the lab for the Department of Energy, to accelerate removal of thousands of barrels of plutonium-tainted waste stored in Area G, the lab's last active dump site. Those barrels gained national focus when the state's largest ever wildfire forced a nearly weeklong evacuation of both the lab and the entire town of Los Alamos.
"Fire up here is something that the folks have been through," Phelps said. "... If a fire were to reach that that area and heat that stuff up and rupture the drums, there is the potential that some of that could go airborne."
Martinez sent lab officials a letter asking that they reprioritize their cleanup plans, which are laid out in a consent order with the state requiring remediation of 90 percent of toxic waste on lab property by 2015 at a cost of some $2 billion.
That consent order covers 33 underground canals of radioactive waste below the barrels, but not the barrels, which are awaiting transfer to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in southern New Mexico. A record 170 shipments of the legacy waste from the nation's premier nuclear weapons facility were taken to WIPP in the fiscal year that just ended, but the equivalent of some 40,000 barrels remain.
"The governor wants to get the (barrels) off the hill and protect the groundwater and wastewater," said Ed Worth, who oversees waste cleanup at the lab.
The same top priority was approved last week by the Citizens Board, volunteers comprised of former lab workers, retirees, public employees and others, chartered by DOE to make recommendations on establishing the order of cleanup initiatives.
"All we do is tell them they should," said Lawrence Longacre, a board member expressing frustration that the priority recommendations had no teeth. "Is there any way we can hold their feet to the fire and say do A, B and C?"
Worth told the board their recommendations are being heard and taken seriously, noting that President Obama's budget request this year for lab cleanup "was more than we ever expected."
Congress, however, has cut the Los Alamos cleanup request for $358 million to $185 million, raising the question of the lab's ability to meet the consent decree
When cleanup first came into focus, some 2,160 separate areas at the vast complex were identified as having the potential to release radioactive or other hazardous contamination. That includes everything from diesel spills to plutonium contamination to explosives. Some 800 contaminated areas remain untouched, including nine of 26 dump sites. Like Area B, lab officials have no idea what some of those sites contain.
Down the hill from Area B for example, is another site that officials say could be even worse.
Not all the waste will be removed. Much of it – like the 33 underground shafts at Area G – will just be capped or buried deeper, with special monitors for lab officials to check for toxic leakage.
The canyons that unfurl beneath the lab complex are also a concern. During the early years, liquid waste was simply drained from buildings out over the cliffs.
Although the lab has cleaned up many of the canyons, storm runoff after major fires like Cerro Grande in 2000 and Las Conchas, the state's largest ever, disrupt the soil, sending new toxins downhill. Since this summer's massive fire, lab officials said they did not yet have new readings or reports on whether any toxins have made their way into the Rio Grande, which supplies water to downstream cities including Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
But Worth told the Citizens Board last week that storm runoff has moved some sediment which could require more remediation in the canyons.
The lab does have readings from runoff coming down from above the lab. Officials say they show an increase in dioxins and some other toxins consistent with a forest fire. They also insist the levels of toxins in those readings are routinely higher than those from runoff below the lab, that those levels of radiation are associated with nuclear testing from around the world, and are no different from readings in other mountainous regions.
But the lack of new reports has some local officials grumbling about the DOE's history of secrecy.
"We have these presentations," Longacre said at last week's Citizens meeting. "They come down from the hill and they tell us how well they are doing, and that's all we know."