Santa Fe New Mexican (pg. B3)  [Printer-friendly version]
May 14, 1997


By Kathleene Parker

LOS ALAMOS Los Alamos drinking water could be threatened by
radioactivity from years of nuclear research at Los Alamos National
Laboratory and by other contaminates.

The League of Women Voters and New Mexicans for Clean Air and Water
are sponsoring a forum on the subject tonight.

The issue is especially important as Los Alamos considers taking
ownership of the Department of Energy-owned water system, said League
president Elizabeth Best.

"We have had the impression that our water is very good, but there
may be some problems... that may be affecting the water for us and
the communities around us," she said.

The problems go back years to when high concentrations of radioactive
waste were dumped into Mortendad, Pueblo and Los Alamos canyons, said
Bruce Gallaher, of LANL's Environmental Safety and Health group, one
of several scheduled speakers at the forum.

There are concerns about three primary contaminants: tritium,
strontium-90 and nitrates, and what can be done to halt their spread,
he said.

Los Alamos wells go down 3,000 feet to an aquifer in sediments left by
the 30-million-year-old Rio Grande. Those were buried in the volcanic
ash that now forms the Pajarito Plateau.

While the water in the deep aquifer meets all federal drinking-water
standards, that could change, he said.

Samples taken since the 1950s have shown tritium at 100 to 1,000 times
federal drinking-water limits in near-surface water and at above-
allowable levels in isolated pools 100 to 200 feet below some canyon
floors, he said.

Tritium also has been found in the deep aquifer, at trace levels and
probably from natural sources, he said. But isolated readings show
higher levels, though still at only one percent of federal standards
for drinking water, he said.

"The significance of tritium and this is where the regulators became
very concerned about this, and we did too is that it is possible the
lab-derived contaminates do move... all the way down to the lower
aquifer," said Gallaher, who called the findings "an early wake-up

Because tritium has a half-life of just over 12 years, most of the
tritium probably will deteriorate before it reaches the deep aquifer,
he said. Of more concern are nitrates, from fertilizers and sewage,
and strontium-90, a radioactive element that is more dangerous and
long-lasting than tritium, he said.

Tests indicated its presence in the main aquifer, including at above-
allowable levels, though later tests contradicted those results, he

The forum is at 7:30 p.m. at Fuller Lodge on Central Avenue, across
from Ashley Pond.

Copyright (c) 1997 The Santa Fe New Mexican