Environmental Groups sue EPA over Los Alamos pollution

Los Alamos, NM (September 17, 2019) — New-Mexico based clean water advocates Amigos Bravos and Western Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier this week to address urban stormwater pollution downstream of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). 

The lawsuit argues that stormwater pollution from LANL is threatening public health, well above public safety limits. Pollution from PCBs, copper, zinc, nickel, and gross alpha radiation in Los Alamos County should have triggered federal action to reduce or eliminate the discharges in the form of an NPDES permit, but EPA has failed to act. Amigos Bravos petitioned EPA to address the pollution in 2014, but the agency did not respond. In June 2019, Amigos Bravos and Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) notified EPA of their intent to sue due to the agency's lack of action on the 2014 petition. According to WELC, EPA did not respond substantively to the letter. 

New Mexico sets standards to ensure the state's water sources are clean enough for public use as required by the Clean Water Act. The Act requires EPA to regulate stormwater runoff to ensure these standards are met. 

The New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) data show dramatic exceedances of the state’s PCB human health water quality limits. PCB levels in Los Alamos Canyon are more than 11,000 times greater than the New Mexico Human Health water quality criteria and 51 times greater than the New Mexico Wildlife Habitat water quality criteria. Sandia Canyon shows PCB contamination more than 14,000 times greater than the New Mexico Human Health water quality criteria and 66 times greater than the New Mexico Wildlife Habitat water quality criteria. PCBs levels in Pueblo Canyon are more than 3,500 times greater than the New Mexico Human Health water quality criteria and 16 times greater than the New Mexico Wildlife Habitat water quality criteria. These three drainages are all heavily influenced by urban stormwater runoff.

The state’s 303d/305b report, which is required under the Clean Water Act to identify waters that do not meet applicable water quality standards, documents many more exceedances of standards for a variety of pollutants and locations. Mortandad Canyon is high in PCBs, mercury, silver, cyanide, copper, and gross alpha radiation pollution. Pajarito Canyon is impaired for gross alpha radiation, aluminum, PCBs, and copper. LANL’s own documents confirm these findings and identify urban runoff as the culprit for many of these pollutants.

EPA published a preliminary designation in 2015, finding that Amigos Bravos' 2014 petition should be granted. The agency has since failed to take any action, however. 

"We are disappointed that for years EPA has failed to take action to protect New Mexicans’ public health and environment and require that these toxic discharges be controlled and monitored,” said Rachel Conn, projects director with Amigos Bravos. “Meanwhile toxic pollution continues to flow down into the Rio Grande above the drinking water diversions for both Albuquerque and Santa Fe.”

“Under the Clean Water Act, the rubber hits the road when the standards and goals for waterways are turned into permit requirements,” said Andrew Hawley, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “EPA must act now to protect the people and environment in Los Alamos County. We hope the EPA decides to do the right thing.”

For more information or to view the 2014 petition, the letter sent to EPA in June, or the lawsuit filed this week, visit www.westernlaw.org/groups-sue-epa-los-alamos-pollution/.

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