Synthesis/Regeneration 9   (Winter 1996)

Nuclear Laundry Dumping Radioactive Material into Santa Fe Sewage System

by Susan Hirshberg, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety

Residents of Santa Fe and neighboring communities have expressed growing concern about the operation of a nuclear laundry which currently dumps radioactive material into the Santa Fe sewage system and may have been doing so for over 30 years. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) recently learned that the Santa Fe laundry, Interstate Nuclear Services (INS), has continued to operate despite deficiencies in the laundry's ability to detect radioactivity in its wastewater.

In the early 1960's, when the INS laundry was originally sited in Santa Fe, it was in a country setting, relatively isolated from the public. Now, the laundry's location at 11310 Siler Rd. is in the heart of a busy commercial and residential district. INS continues to wash and dry radiation-contaminated clothing from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), and recently began laundering items from the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. Past customers have included Palo Verde (a nuclear power plant located in Arizona) and Kirtland Air Force Base (near Albuquerque). INS may provide services for additional customers of which the public is unaware.

Water Issues

A 1991 document, prepared for LANL by a LANL contractor, states that "INS' current attitude toward compliance seems to be: Dilution is the Solution to the Pollution." Of particular concern to the authors was the laundry's inability to detect alpha emitters, such as plutonium, which would be expected in LANL's waste. "Currently, monitoring data for INS' laundry facility is not sufficient to be able to detect typical waste originating from LANL laundry," the document explains. Water samples tested for radiation do not "represent a very accurate picture of the actual quantities of alpha emitters which may be present in the effluent."

There is no evidence that INS has significantly changed its filtration systems and monitoring practices since the 1991 report was written. INS presently uses about 8,000 gallons of water per day, and has recently requested to be allowed to use up to 25,000 gallons of water per day. The radioactive wastewater from the laundry goes directly into the Santa Fe sewage system. Because the Santa Fe Sewage system discharges directly into the Santa Fe River and the City is not required to monitor or treat waste streams for radioactivity, radioactive materials may have contaminated the Santa Fe River as a result of laundry operations. Radioactive grey water and sludge may be spread over such areas as the Downs at Santa Fe, Santa Fe Country Club golf course and the Rancho Oso Rio polo grounds, now used as a soccer field for children. CCNS has called on the New Mexico Environment Department to test all areas which may have been contaminated by radioactive wastewater.

Air Issues

Current rates of airborne radiation have been estimated by INS to be as high as 80 millirem per year at the fence line. For comparison, Los Alamos National Laboratory as a whole is allowed by the Clean Air Act to emit only 10 millirem of radionuclides per year at the fence line. Under the Clean Air Act, INS and other non-Department of Energy facilities in New Mexico and nationwide are not permitted to expose any member of the public to more than 10 millirem per year of radionuclides. The Clean Air Act requires facilities such as INS not only to comply with the 10 millirem per year standard, but also to file reports with the EPA for emissions as low as 1 millirem per year. According to the EPA, the agency has never received reports or a determination of compliance from INS.

CCNS is presently in consultation with the EPA about whether the potential 80 millirems of emissions would constitute a violation of the Clean Air Act. Hank May, Director of the Radiation Protection Program of EPA's regional office in Dallas TX, recently told CCNS that the EPA may not consider these emissions under the Clean Air Act since they are emission from radioactive material rather than of radioactive material. CCNS will be seeking a formal ruling from the EPA as to whether measurements of direct radiation should be used to figure out calculated dose rate.

Public Participation Issues

Presently, the license for this facility is up for renewal. In spite of the radioactive emissions and effluent that come from this facility, no public hearing where residents of Santa Fe can gather information and voice our opinions about whether the license should be renewed has been held to date. Noting public concerns about the laundry, CCNS led a call to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Secretary for a public hearing to be held prior to the relicensing of the facility. In response to CCNS' s call for public action, the NMED has received hundreds of requests for a hearing on the relicensing of INS' laundry, including letters from citizens, nonprofit groups and elected officials; phone calls; and a petition containing m ore than 600 signatures, circulated by CCNS. The display of widespread public interest in the relicensing process prompted the department to agree to hold a public hearing. The hearing was originally scheduled for November, but was postponed at the request of CCNS, and with the agreement of INS and the NMED, because of several procedural irregularities on the part of INS and NMED.

These irregularities, including the filing of a new, untimely application by INS without public notice, were hampering the public's ability to gain up-to-date and timely information and jeopardizing public participation in a full and fair hearing. "There is more at stake here than what happens at this hearing," said Kathleen Sabo, Executive Director for CCNS, "we are fighting to give the public a voice in what happens in our community and to set precedent for other hearings in the future."

Note: The INS management chart shows similar operations in Aiken, S.C.; Springfield, Mass.; Royersford, Pa.; Richland, Wa.; Portsmouth, Va.; Morris, Ill.; Columbia, S.C.; Macon, Ga.; Osceola, Iowa.; Ontario, Cal.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and in Europe. Greens and other activists in these areas might wish to check out these facilities.

CCNS can be contacted at 107 Cienega St., Santa Fe, NM 87501 or (505) 986-1973; fax 986-0997.

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