U.S. seeks to ease testing of Los Alamos lab’s cancer-causing contaminants

Tests that are less able to detect cancer-causing chemicals in water would replace Los Alamos National Laboratory’s current, more acute testing under a regulatory change the U.S. Department of Energy is proposing.

The federal agency is using New Mexico’s three-year review of surface water rules to push for a test that’s more limited in detecting polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs for short — and to adjust state regulations to accommodate this method.

Environmentalists and state regulators oppose the less stringent testing for PCBs, which medical research has shown can cause cancer, impair children’s brain development, hurt reproductive systems, and increase the chance of heart and liver diseases.

The Energy Department contends its proposed testing would be sufficient and that the current method required by the state goes far beyond what’s necessary.

Parties in the dispute have submitted written arguments and testified at hearings held by the state Environmental Improvement Board as part of its triennial review of surface water regulations. The board is open to suggested regulatory changes the state will study and decide whether to adopt in the coming year.

A clean-water advocate bashed the proposed testing change as another attempt by the Energy Department to cut corners on safeguarding public health.

“It’s a shame that our taxpayer money is being used to lower the bar for protections for New Mexico waters and weaken our water quality standards,” said Rachel Conn, project director for Taos-based Amigos Bravos.

Conn, who gave rebuttal testimony at a board hearing, said the public money she’s referring to is what the Energy Department has paid lawyers and consultants to argue why the lab should have more lax testing standards.

The lab has 130 to 140 miles of streams in and around its site, covering 36 square miles. How often it monitors the waters for pollution varies according to location and contaminant — hourly, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly or, if by permit term, every five years.

In New Mexico, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues permits for discharges and stormwater runoff, and the state checks whether the water quality meets its standards.

Lab officials didn’t respond to a request for comment. But during his testimony, John Toll, an Energy Department consultant, told the board the state’s required testing method was never officially approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Therefore, the state must use the test the EPA has approved — and which energy officials are proposing — to determine contaminant levels in surface waters, Toll argued. This test is the preferred method in Clean Water Act guidelines known as “Part 136,” he said.

The state, in turn, cannot require testing that detects amounts lower than the minimum levels described in these guidelines, Toll said. He argued the state must revise its regulatory language to accommodate this less sensitive testing.

A state regulator rebutted Toll’s arguments both in her testimony and in an email.

“States can adopt regulations that are more stringent than the federal regulations, which is the case here,” wrote Shelly Lemon, the state Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau chief.

More specifically, state law doesn’t bar agencies from adopting standards that are stricter than the Clean Water Act, she wrote.

The state’s current testing method is the only known one that can assess whether wastewater and other discharges comply with the state’s criteria as well as federal pollutant permit limits, including for PCBs, she wrote. The tests are state approved and written into the regulations, she added.

Lemon described the state’s test detecting PCBs at levels that are orders of magnitude lower than the one federal officials want to use.

The Energy Department seeks testing that detects PCBs at micrograms per liter, whereas the state’s current test can measure PCBs in picograms, which are one-millionth the size of a microgram, she wrote.

In practical terms, the federal agency’s test would fall short, pinpointing the toxic chemical to a level that’s 35 times greater than the state’s permit limit, Lemon wrote, in contrast to the state’s test detecting PCBs to a degree that’s 15 times less than the limit.

Conn said the lab’s push for laxer testing is part of a larger effort to weaken the state’s permit requirements on pollutants.

The lab has appealed its permits to challenge the state’s testing criteria, and at the same time it’s now trying to replace these more rigorous monitoring methods, she said, calling the two pursuits “a direct correlation.”

New Mexico residents, including those in pueblos near the lab, benefit by having more information about the water they consume, not less, said state Natural Resources Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins.

Hart Stebbins said her office looks at how PCBs affect ecosystems that support fish and other wildlife, which are vulnerable to these toxic pollutants.

“We support using the most sensitive methodologies available to detect PCBs at the lowest concentrations possible,” she said. “That’s important because PCBs bio-accumulate and biomagnify along the food chain.”

That means even tiny amounts of PCBs have a significant impact on insects, fish, beavers and bears living in areas that have been contaminated by the lab’s discharges, she said.

“So this proposal is clearly moving in the wrong direction,” Hart Stebbins said.

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