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The Risk at Buckman

Santa Fe recently brought online a new system that takes water out of the Rio Grande to supplement it's municipal drinking water. Unfortunately the new system, called the Buckman Direct Diversion, draws water from directly beneath several canyons that regularly dump storm water laced with radionuclides and other bomb-making contaminants.

What on earth would prompt Santa Fe officials to draw municipal drinking water from below the Los Alamos National Labs – host to more than 2,000 known toxic dumpsites? You might ask them. Seriously, if you are concerned you should attend their Board Meeting this Thursday (City Hall, 4:00p), where you can ask them directly. If you can't make the meeting, you can always call or email them.

Consuelo Bokum    bokatz@cybermason.com    505-982-4342
Chris Calvert    ccalvert@santafenm.gov    505-955-6812
Danny Mayfield        dmayfield@santafecounty.org    505-986-6200
Rosemary Romero    r2romero@santafenm.gov    505-690-3016
Liz Stefanics        lstefanics@co.santa-fe.nm.us    505-986-6210
Virginia Vigil        vvigil@co.santa-fe.nm.us    505-955-2755
Rebecca Wurzburger    rebeccawurzburger@gmail.com    505-955-6815

They will tell you that they commissioned a study to look at the risk to Santa Fe residents, and the study concluded that there was “no health risk” posed by drinking water from Buckman.

No health risk? None?

Here’s are a few things you should know about the risk analysis.

First, there is no such thing as a system with “no risk.” Everything has risk, and when it comes to engineered systems, history is rife with examples of engineers under-predicting risk. I pointed this out in a letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican last November, and surprisingly I got a call the next day from an investigator from the New Mexico Board of Registration for Professional Engineers. He reminded me that when I became licensed as an engineer in New Mexico, I agreed to abide by a Code of Professional Conduct that includes reporting substandard engineering practice that might effect public safety.

So last November, I filed a formal complaint against ChemRisk – the company that did the risk analysis. The investigator, Roman Garcia, told me that no ChemRisk employees could be found on the roles of licensed engineers in New Mexico.

It’s one thing to practice engineering without a license, and it’s another to tell 100,000 users of a water system that there is no health risk from drinking water taken from beneath a nuclear waste dump.

The results of ChemRisk’s report were released in draft form in October, 2010 after Santa Fe had already spent more than $200 million on the Buckman project. ChemRisk charged $200,000 for the analysis -- about one-tenth of one percent of the project cost. Seems like that might have been a good investment to make before the start of the project, rather than after it’s completion.

On it’s website, ChemRisk bills itself as the “premier contractor in the U.S for characterizing former nuclear weapons complex sites.” In other words, they have carried out millions of dollars worth of work on behalf of LANL and other weapons complexes. Are they willing to jeopardize those contracts in favor of a little $200,000 contract for Santa Fe? This is commonly known as an “inherent conflict of interest”.

ChemRisk’s integrity has been questioned before. In 1997, the Wall Street Journal reported that ChemRisk “reanalyzed” data from another scientist and published their work in a scientific journal, under the original scientist’s byline, reversing the conclusion that chromium contamination in drinking water leads to an increased risk of stomach cancer. ChemRisk didn’t mention that the work was paid for by PG&E, who was working at the time on the infamous Erin Brockovich case. PG&E paid $333 million to settle the Brokovich case, and the scientific journal retracted the article.

Did ChemRisk’s do anything unethical when they analyzed the Buckman data? In my opinion they did, but they may have gotten some help from the Buckman Board. Buried in ChemRisk's report is an assumption that four of the most dangerous contaminants known to wash into the Rio Grande above Buckman are removed before anyone drinks the water. In other words, they analyzed the risk of contamination after the contaminants were removed, allowing them to state that there is “no health risk”.

Just about anyone can tell you that after you remove contaminants, there is no risk of contamination. You don’t need to spend $200,000 to find that out.

An article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican last December claims that the decision to study the risk of contamination under the assumption that contaminants had been removed was made by the Buckman board of directors. That would be shocking if it turns out to be true. Perhaps we should ask them.

I haven’t carried out my own analysis of the risk of LANL contamination getting into Santa Fe’s drinking water and making people sick, but my guess is that over the long run it's somewhere around 100 percent. My reasoning is this: If you put one bullet in a six-shooter, spin the cylinder, point the barrel at your head and pull the trigger, the odds of killing yourself are just one in six. But it is a well established fact that if you repeat the game over and over again, day after day, you will surely kill yourself. It is a mathematical certainty.

As long as the Buckman pumps continue to run and the LANL toxins continue to flow, Santa Feans are playing a perpetual game of Russian Roulette with their drinking water. Unless LANL cleans their waste out of the canyons above Buckman, eventually our water supply will become toxic.

It is, sadly, a mathematical certainty.

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Reader Comments (1)

Bill Dupuy, the news director at KSFR, interviewed me about this story a couple of weeks ago. The podcast of that interview is here:

Be sure to listen to the end, because he plays back an interview from last December exposing fraud at ChemRisk, and then busts Rick Carpenter for not caring that he hired a criminal outfit to do his risk analysis. Sweet!
August 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark
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