A coyote in Los Alamos searches for prey. Photo courtesy N3B
A mule deer enjoys the vegetation at Los Alamos. Photo courtesy N3B
DOE-EM PRESS RELEASE
With its steep canyons and watersheds flowing into the Rio Grande, numerous ancient pueblo cultural sites, and wildlife ranging from black bears to broad-tailed hummingbirds, the Pajarito Plateau creates a distinct backdrop for the remediation of environment around Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
To protect this backdrop, the Department of Energy’s EM Los Alamos field office and its cleanup contractor, Newport News Nuclear BWXT-Los Alamos (N3B), conducted field assessments at nearly 300 potentially contaminated to protect various ecological receptors from soil contamination associated with historic LANL operations. Receptors include aquatic species, invertebrates, birds, mammals and vegetation.
“We are proud of our work over the past four years, since the start of N3B’s contract, to protect the ecology of northern New Mexico,” said Patricia Wald-Hopkins, human health risk assessor and eco-friendly from N3B and longtime New Mexican.
“We visit each site where we take soil samples — and where we will excavate contaminated soil, if necessary — to identify vegetation and wildlife that may be at risk. If wildlife is not present, we look for animal tracks, droppings, nests and burrows that reflect a certain species,” Wald-Hopkins said. “We are also looking for signs of erosion and whether there is potential for contamination to reach other receptors through contaminant migration.”
Following these ecological assessments, N3B’s environmental professionals combine their findings with the results of site soil samples to perform risk analyses. The scans compare contaminant levels with state-approved risk action levels for each species identified in a given area. The site’s documented history—with information about LANL’s wartime operations—is also considered. The results of these risk analyzes then guide N3B’s remediation efforts.
“Following our ecological assessments, we are developing a conceptual exposure model for all ecological receptors, which tells us what risks we need to address,” Wald-Hopkins said. “If we know there are wildlife and contaminants in the ground, we look at all exposure pathways and calculate the risk of exposure. This is a very important part of DOE EM’s work because it connects our data to what’s actually on the ground. It’s a real-time preview of what’s out there.
More than half of LANL’s more than 2,100 potentially contaminated sites associated with historic operations and originally identified for investigation have been cleaned up. Areas range from small dump sites with a few cubic feet of contaminated soil to large landfills covering several acres.