Members of the Regional Coalition pause for a photo during their busy trip to Washington, D.C. this week. From left, Elmer Torres, Pueblo de San Ildefonso; Commissioner Danny Mayfield, Santa Fe County; Commissioner Jack Volpato, Eddy County; County Council Chairwoman Sharon Stover, Los Alamos County; County Administrator Harry Burgess, Los Alamos County; Board of Commissioners Vice-Chair Andrew Chavez, Taos County; Mayor David Coss, City of Santa Fe; Mayor Alice Lucero, City of Espanola; Rep. Jim Hall, New Mexico State Legislature; Secretary F. David Martin, New Mexico Environment Department; Seth Kirshenberg, Kutak-Rock; Energy Development Coordinator John Heaton, City of Carlsbad. Courtesy Photo
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The delegation from Northern and Southern New Mexico communities are unified in their desire to see Congress fund clean up of environmental waste sites at Los Alamos – that was the clear message when they traveled to Washington, D.C. earlier this week.
The newly formed Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (Coalition) along with representatives of the State of New Mexico, the San Ildefonso Pueblo and Southern New Mexico communities, made their inaugural visit to the nation’s capitol and expressed strong support for increased cleanup funding during an unprecedented series of meetings.
In just two days, they took their message to the New Mexico Congressional Delegation, Department of Energy (DOE) officials and congressional staff members to discuss the need for adequate cleanup funding for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).
It was the first time this diverse group of Northern and Southern New Mexico local, Pueblo, and state government officials had traveled together to Washington, D.C. to deliver a unified message of support for cleanup to Congress and DOE.
“Federal dollars are critical to the clean-up of legacy waste at LANL,” said New Mexico Environment Department Secretary F. David Martin. “The people of New Mexico deserve to have immediate environmental objectives met regarding the clean-up, such as safely removing above-ground transuranic waste and protecting ground water, surface water, and drinking water for the surrounding communities.”
“It meant a great deal to see these individuals from across New Mexico standing here united today in DC with a common goal: we need Congress to fund and support cleanup activities. The last time I saw this united effort was after the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, when the LANL contract was up for bid,” said Sharon Stover, Chair of the Los Alamos County Council.
In addition to Stover and Martin, the Coalition members on the trip included Mayor David Coss, City of Santa Fe; Elmer Torres, Pueblo de San Ildefonso; County Administrator Harry Burgess, Los Alamos County; Mayor Alice Lucero, City of Española; Commissioner Danny Mayfield, Santa Fe County; Commissioner Jack Volpato, Eddy County; Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Andrew Chavez, Taos County; Rep. Jim Hall, New Mexico State Legislature; and Energy Development Coordinator John Heaton, City of Carlsbad.
The group met with Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall; Representatives Ben Ray Luján, Martin Heinrich and Steve Pearce; NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino; Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Environmental Management Tracy Mustin; Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Pete Lyons; the Senate and House Armed Services Committee Staff Members; Senate Appropriations Committee Staff Members and other DOE and Washington officials.
Members of the Coalition were emphatic in stressing during their visit that clean up should continue, as several of them expressed in comments made after the meetings. Mayor Coss stressed that clean up is a key component that should not be overlooked when Congress considers funding LANL programs and supporting their mission.
“Continued progress on cleanup of legacy containments is essential to protect our communities’ water and lands. Doing a good job on cleanup provides jobs and allows all of us in New Mexico to focus on a positive future with LANL,” he said.
Elmer Torres, traveling to DC to represent San Ildefonso Pueblo, and Commissioner Danny Mayfield from Santa Fe County agreed with Coss.
“LANL’s continued effort for cleanup is important and impacts all cultural and traditional aspects. Without an overall clean environment, traditional activities cannot and will not be carried out. With the support of additional funding for cleanup and removal of waste, this will reduce the chance of any future contamination,” said Torres.
“These were very important meetings to have as a united bipartisan group focusing on the environmental needs of our communities to cleanup all the waste at the Laboratory to ensure protection for the region,” Mayfield added.
During discussions on Monday and Tuesday, the group emphasized the importance of moving transuranic (TRU) waste currently stored at Area G at LANL to WIPP.
Secretary Martin led the discussions, reiterating the need for LANL and WIPP to be fully funded in order meet the goals and milestones in the newly developed Framework Agreement.
In addition to getting TRU waste moved to the WIPP facility, the Coalition discussed the importance of ensuring that groundwater is safe and stormwater is not contaminated.
Secretary Martin urged DOE and the Delegation to push for a cleanup budget of $255 million for LANL and $229 million for WIPP. Secretary Martin also stated that the State is not interested in amending the existing Consent Order unless there is adequate funding and demonstrated progress to move forward with the Framework Agreement.
In meetings with Senators Bingaman and Udall and Representatives Luján, Heinrich and Pearce, the entire New Mexico Congressional Delegation expressed support for cleanup at LANL and said they would work to make sure there is adequate funding.
Senators Bingaman and Udall, as well as Representative Lujan, told the delegation today that they are planning to meet with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino and Gov. Susana Martinez’ representative Brian Moore later this week to discuss cleanup issues.
“Clearly, the members of the Coalition were very interested in asking questions during our meetings about NNSA priorities- top projects that, in our opinion, appear to have changed in prioritization over these last few months,” Stover said. “For example, CMRR was not funded recently, and yet we had been told it was the number one defense issue for NNSA just three months ago. We were seeking answers to find out what happened. While we didn’t get any direct answers from NNSA, we were all glad to hear that the delegation was meeting with Secretary Chu this week. We feel that they heard our concerns and are going to be assertive in getting us some specific answers.”
John Heaton, representing the City of Carlsbad, echoed those sentiments, and said the lack of funding has consequences that are far reaching for both northern and southern New Mexico.
“The characterization budget of WIPP was cut $15 million, which is the function that gets the TRU waste on the road from the sites. Without adequate characterization money and additional maintenance money to keep WIPP safe, it will be impossible for DOE to meet its commitments to remove the TRU waste from Los Alamos,” he said.
Eddy County Commissioner Jack Volpato agreed with Heaton.
“Removing the waste from Los Alamos is important. We have the capability of accomplishing the task in two years if it’s adequately funded,” he said.
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s meetings, other members of the Coalition said they felt they had made their points well-known, and that the delegation was listening.
Mayor Alice Lucero said she supports the Coalition to represent the City of Española, which has thousands of residents who commute to work at LANL every day.
She said the community is very interested in seeing clean up continue in Los Alamos, but also wants to see the economy remain strong, too, since LANL is a major employer for Northern New Mexico communities such as hers.
“It is essential that LANL gets adequate funding for cleanup, since the quality of water is important to us; however, the elimination of jobs at LANL has had an adverse impact on the economy in the Española Valley,” she said.
Andrew Chavez, Vice Chair of the Taos County Commission, said that to him, the economic impacts coming from recent cuts to Lab funding were about more than just the immediate future of Los Alamos, and that was one of the messages he wanted to convey to the delegation during the trip.
“We need to keep LANL healthy to continue to provide career opportunities for our children and economic stability for Northern New Mexico now and into the future,” he said.
Rep. Jim Hall said he felt the Coalition drove home their points with the delegation, and that they were empathetic, responsive and willing to take action on behalf of New Mexico.
“After hard work by NNSA officials, the New Mexico Environment Department and LANL staff, we have reached an agreement on an aggressive schedule for moving above ground TRU waste to WIPP. Unfortunately, this agreement came about late in the President’s budget process, so a lack of funding for the project threatens timely completion. The LANL coalition has come together and visited Washington to advocate for full funding for cleanup and has all of our support,” Hall said.
“The fact that we had a coalition of communities from across the state, all carrying a common message, appeared to be influential in each of the meetings we attended. This trip was an important first step for the Regional Coalition, and hopefully the investments made by each participating community will result in an increased budget — and therefore accelerated cleanup — to the benefit of both the environment and economy of New Mexico,” said Los Alamos County Administrator Harry Burgess.
Stover said that the delegation have committed to following up with the Coalition after their meeting with Chu this week, and that they intend to keep meeting on a monthly basis to discuss items of interest and concern at LANL.
“This wasn’t just a one-time trip,” she said. “This is a great group of individuals who are about their communities – who realize the importance of funding these kinds of activities for LANL and WIPP to the benefit of all of New Mexico. We are committed to carrying this forward to the next step, and continuing to be fully engaged with our representatives at the state and national level.”