The Pollution Industrial Complex

The following article was written by V.B. Price, and published on the New Mexico Mercury on Sept. 8, 2014.  It is reprinted here by permission.

 

SNL & Los Alamos Labs 

Should anyone doubt the power of money, and money’s service to the so-called national security state, whose agencies spend the nation’s riches like it was jet fuel gushing into an aquifer, one only has to refer to the years of stalling and stonewalling at Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) in Albuquerque regarding the oversight of its nuclear reactors and its mixed waste landfill.

SNL and its sibling at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) are poster children for the Pollution Industrial Complex in this country and around the world. And New Mexico is the great litter box of high tech droppings, the inevitable pollution that progress, in its twisted relationship to national security, brings.

One can see this clearly in under reported lawsuits brought by Citizen Action New Mexico (CANM) against SNL and the state’s Environment Department last year and this.

It’s important to know, though, that when we use iconic language like Sandia and LANL, we’re talking about corporate and academic America and their relationship to pollution, not necessarily the technical and creative work force of those labs.

SNL is operated and managed by the Sandia Corporation, which is what’s known as “a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation” under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). SNL bills itself as the “nation’s premier science and engineering laboratory for national security and technological innovation.” It’s unclear to me, as yet, what the exact remuneration Lockheed Martin receives for running SLN.

Lockheed Martin was formed in l995 with the merger of Lockheed Corporation and Martin Marietta.  Last year its revenue was just under $45.5 billion. Its products include munitions, ballistic missiles, fighters, satellites, and spacecraft.

LANL is managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a company formed by the University of California and defense contractors Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services, and URS Energy and Construction, under contract to the Department of Energy.

The Pollution Industrial Complex gets what it wants, and gets away with virtually anything, because of a labyrinthine tangle of proprietary secrets, national security secrets, and regulatory relationships with federal and state governments which no mere citizen-voter could ever hope to meaningfully comprehend without the devoted focus of someone living a monk-like existence.

The military and domestic economy of the modern world – in the United States, China, Russia, Europe, Japan, and the industrial giants of the Middle East and Latin America – is based on profit margins by corporate and governmental tangles like these. And those profit margins are often unhappily anchored in pollution, in saving money by fending off requirements to prevent environmental contamination nor to clean it up after it happens. And despite the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and all the other environmental laws and regulations, the wealth of these enterprises is still grounded in the heedless creation of public health disasters. It’s so ubiquitous that I hesitate to call it an “unintended consequence” of their activities.

If it weren’t for New Mexico’s deep community of non-profit environmental watchdogs we would know virtually nothing about what’s going on.

SNL has been watchdogged for decades chiefly by CANM, founded by Sue Dayton and now operated by Dave McCoy whom I interviewed on Insight New Mexico several months ago.

CANM isn’t just making things up. In 2002, during the Richardson administration, the state Environment Department determined that SLN’s handling of its toxic wastes was an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment.” The state concluded that SLN was endangering the water supply. In 2004, after bitter exchanges, Sandia and the Department of Energy signed a “consent order” with the state to take “corrective action” to clean up its waste.

It was right around this time that New Mexico’s powerful senator and ardent nuclear defender Pete Domenici had inserted into the 2003 federal Omnibus Appropriations Bill a provision that forbade the state of New Mexico from forcing Sandia to post bond, or “any other financial responsibility requirement” guaranteeing the clean up of its hazardous waste. In other words, SLN is indemnified by the federal government against all financial claims against it if it fails to clean up its waste. With no bond, only taxpayers are left holding the bag. (Orphaned Landp. 170)

CANM’s lawsuits, and other court dealings over SNL give us a tiny window onto how it is next to impossible to exercise timely oversight of these immense national security public-private partnerships. Two recent lawsuits deal with long delays in legal requests for information, delays that can only be considered stalling tactics.

In a 2013 suit, CANM charged the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) with a continued “pattern and practice of wrongful delay” of over two years  and counting in fulfilling a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for details about the safety conditions of the nuclear reactors at SNL. CANM contended the reactors were unprotected from earthquakes, suffered poor quality of computer software, and lacked procedures to confine plutonium in the case of explosions. The suit cited a 2004 Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report that found “inadequately examined dangers existed at SNL for fire hazards, airplane crashes, and equipment operations.”

Another suit has to do with perhaps the most dangerous nuclear waste situation in the state, the SNL “mixed waste landfill” near Mesa Del Sol’s residential zone overlooking the South Valley. In the l990s it was said of the toxic dump that it was too dangerous to move, but not too dangerous to keep right where it was and, from what I can tell, continue leaching into the groundwater from its unlined pit.

CANM contends that the state Environment Department has let SNL off the hook by ignoring the absolute requirement in the consent agreement for the dump is to be re-examined “every five years” to assess its situation, the health of the ground water, and especially if conditions have changed enough to warrant moving the toxic and radioactive materials from the dump. The suit maintains that the state’s environmental division has tried to weasel out of the exact wording of the five year requirement, contending erroneously that it is ambiguous.  How can “every five years” mean anything but “every five years”? The state environment department under the Martinez Administration has extended the five year report deadline to the year 2019. To my knowledge no reassessment of the mixed waste landfill has been officially undertaken since 2004.

The SNL landfill contains some 119 drums of plutonium, tons of depleted uranium, and over “100 radioactive and carcinogenic organics and chlorinated solvents,” according to CANM.

This is why regulating the Pollution Industrial Complex is perhaps beyond even the magical powers of an agency or NGO run by Merlin and Harry Potter. Big Pollution and its federal and state fellow travelers can fiddle and dodge to escape regulations and agreements through the courts for as long as it takes, spinning a web of Kafkaesque complications that simply can’t be parsed out in any intelligible way.

Still, to do nothing is unconscionable. So good for CANM and its small army of volunteers for serving the public’s health and interest by doggedly insisting that slippery corporate and national security polluters follow the rules and the law, even if they find it easy as pie to bob and weave their way out of them.

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