Published on Saturday, May 27, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Radioactive & Chemical Runoff Feared After Blaze at Los Alamos
by Bob Drogin
More than two weeks after a hellish New Mexico wildfire burned 400 homes and closed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, concern is mounting over whether erosion caused by the fire will unleash toxic and radiological contaminants into the Rio Grande.

Jim Danneskiold, a lab spokesman, said Friday that emergency teams of hydrologists, soil scientists and other experts this week began assessing the threat from dozens of the lab's 626 known "potential release" sites, many dating back to World War II and the early Cold War.

So far, he said, they have identified about a half-dozen former dumps that might release low-level nuclear and chemical waste into streams and rivers once the region's annual "monsoon" rains begin in July. The fire burned off the grasses and brush that has held the contaminated soil in check.

"There definitely will be movement of contaminated sediments off lab property," Danneskiold said. "It's a question of when, not if, the flood waters come through."

Overall, the Cerro Grande fire inflicted considerably more damage at the nation's chief nuclear weapons design and development facility than officials initially acknowledged.

The blaze devoured about 40 trailers, sheds, warehouses and other nonpermanent buildings, caused millions of dollars in smoke and heat damage to lasers and other sensitive equipment, and delayed an array of secret, defense-related research and other work, officials said.

One scientist developing polymers lost his computer hard drive and all his backup data disks--eight years of work--when his office-trailer was destroyed. Also destroyed were several wooden buildings from the Manhattan Project, including one containing blackboards still covered with chalk notes used to construct the first atom bomb.

Energy Department and lab officials said that the fire did not jeopardize the lab's main mission: guaranteeing the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear stockpile. Federal and state agencies have not detected any release of radiation from the lab, although local background radiation readings have increased because of the fire.

Thousands of physicists, engineers and other lab workers began returning to the battered facility this week for the first time since the lab closed on May 8. But several research and testing sites, where the fire was most intense, will remain closed for an indefinite period.

In addition, about 270 lab workers who lost their homes or other property have been given liberal leave to arrange their personal affairs. In all, 400 Los Alamos families were made homeless by the blaze.

In Washington, President Clinton said that his administration is "committed to ensuring that all those who have been affected by the fire . . . are fully compensated for their losses."

Clinton said in a statement that the White House is working with the congressional delegation from New Mexico to write legislation to provide for federal compensation. "We are committed to working with the Congress to ensure that this matter is addressed as promptly as possible," he added.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt separately released a report from an independent review board that sharply criticized National Park Service personnel for igniting the blaze that accidentally led to disaster.

Park Service crews at Bandelier National Monument set a "prescribed burn" on May 4 in an attempt to clear underbrush and prevent a wider fire. Instead, the blaze roared out of control.

Babbitt said that he would extend a moratorium on prescribed burns by the Park Service indefinitely. Other federal agencies may resume the fire-control tactic when the monthlong ban expires on June 12.

The New Mexico fire has devoured 47,650 acres so far, including parts of the Los Alamos lab, the Santa Fe National Forest, the San Ildefonso Pueblo and Santa Clara Pueblo. Although the inferno is now mostly under control, high winds continue to bedevil firefighters and the blaze flared up again Thursday night near the lab.

The fire's long-term danger is only now coming into focus. An interagency task force called the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team this week began assessing the threat from erosion on the now-bare hills and canyons surrounding the town of Los Alamos, which adjoins the lab.

Ken Palmrose, a spokesman for the group, said that computer models project erosion "that could be 100 times normal" this summer from heavy rains and lack of ground cover.

He said that 85 crew members already have begun raking charred topsoil, planting trees and contouring slopes to reduce runoff. He said the challenge was so immense that "we're considering things larger than anything in our manual," including damming canyons or building large sediment pools.

Indeed, three helicopters and a plane are on standby to begin aerial reseeding of severely burned areas with native species of grass. About 18 truckloads of seed--720,000 pounds in all--were expected to arrive Friday.

But Greg Mello, who heads an independent watchdog organization called the Los Alamos Study Group in Santa Fe, said that officials are moving far too slowly to clear up the witches' brew of toxic contaminants in the lab's disused dumps.

"Huge flood flows are expected from the burned watersheds this year," he warned. "Contaminated sediment will move downstream."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times