Subj: Race is on to remove tainted Los Alamos soil
Date: 6/28/00 5:07:25 AM Pacific Daylight Time

Race is on to remove tainted Los Alamos soil
Tuesday, June 27, 2000
By Associated Press

A legacy of the Atomic Age lies in the soil along a canyon about two
miles from a reactor once important in nuclear weapons research and

Now there's a race against time and weather to ensure the
radioactive-contaminated soil from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New
Mexico doesn't flush onto neighboring Indian lands and into the state's
largest river, the Rio Grande.

Seasonal rains are expected soon and lab officials fear that could bring
heavy flooding because of a fire last month that consumed more than
48,000 acres in and around Los Alamos.

Workers are digging up truckloads of the dirt along Los Alamos Canyon
and shipping it to a waste storage site on the federal laboratory's

Large swaths of the once-green mountainsides are barren, except for the
blackened remnants of pine trees. There's little or no vegetation to
slow water or stop sediment from pouring into some of the canyons that
lead to the river about 10 miles from the city of Los Alamos.

On Monday, lab officials led a tour of the contamination site and
explained the excavation operation that should be finished late in the

Lee McAtee, the lab's deputy director of environmental safety and
health, said there's no serious health risk from the soil because it has
very low levels of radiation. A frequent hiker to the area, for example,
would receive a radiation dose equal to riding in an airliner for one

But McAtee said the lab wanted to ease potential concerns of the public
by preventing any contamination from moving off of the government's

"We're doing it because we believe it's the right thing from the
standpoint of being a good neighbor," said McAtee.

So far, about 360 cubic yards of soil — 33 dump truck loads — have been
dug from a sandy area alongside a rocky road that leads up the canyon.
Up to twice that much may be removed by the end of the week. The digging
started Friday.

Environmentalists welcomed the lab's effort to stop the spread of

"It's a good idea to do cleanup where cleanup is possible," said Greg
Mello, director of the anti-nuclear Los Alamos Study Group in Santa Fe.

Except for the excavation operations — roped-off areas with
radioactivity warning signs — there's nothing to visibly suggest the
place had become a dumping ground for early makers of the atomic bomb.
It looks no different from the high desert canyons all around Los
Alamos. A road leading into the area has a gate that warns of possible
contamination, but there are no markers of specific contamination sites.
The area and road has been open to hikers.

The soil is believed to be contaminated from dumping in the 1940s and
1950s of liquid wastes near a weapons research reactor shut down seven
years ago. Rains have carried contaminated sediment down the canyon.

Lab officials selected the area for excavation because it contained
among the highest levels of contamination in flood-prone canyons. Once
the soil is removed, clean dirt will be brought to the site and then
rocks will be placed along the meandering channel - now dry — where
water flows when it rains.