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N.M. to write feds on cooperation over White Sands cleanup and reparations

NASA flight controllers board a NASA KC-135 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston during an emergency drill in 1987. They were bound for NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces. (Space Frontiers/Getty Images)
State Office of Natural Resources Trustee called groundwater ‘permanently injured’ from contamination

State lawmakers are asking for federal agencies to come to the negotiation table for damages to groundwater in and around the White Sands Test Facility, as groundwater cleanup is expected to extend into the next century.

In a presentation last week to the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials interim committee, state regulators and other agencies told legislators about the expansive area under cleanup and an ongoing investigation.

Officials tasked with restoring the state after toxic incidents at the White Sands Test Facility, urged lawmakers to push the federal government to pay for damages to New Mexico’s water now, not after decades of cleanup.

“This is going to be remediated for a long time. “said Kate Girard, the executive director at the New Mexico Office of Natural Resources Trustee. “In terms of restoration, this is not a plume that we can wait for cleanup to happen.”

Local water experts said they were concerned the polluted plumes would complicate water planning for Las Cruces’ future.

At the meeting’s end, lawmakers voted to send letters to federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to encourage cooperation with state regulators and come to the negotiation table.

“We will get that letter ready,” said committee Chair Rep. Joanne Ferrary (D-Las Cruces). “I think we should also encourage local governments, in our city or county and different water suppliers to also join in on sending their own letters.”

A monument to the world’s first atomic bomb detonation site at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (Erik Von Weber/Getty Images)
The contamination

Since 2012, New Mexico environment officials have investigated 31 waste storage areas at the site, an “area of concern” and five hazardous waste management areas. Three of the hazardous waste areas are fully “clean closed,” while two are still undergoing investigation.

The contamination plumes are 4 miles long and one mile wide, impacting about 30,000 acre feet, said Rick Shean, the director at the Resource Protection Division for the New Mexico Environment Department.

Shean said NASA is sampling groundwater at 215 sites around the plume, which will continue “into the foreseeable future.”

There are two treatment systems, which pump up the water, and treat a total of 300 million gallons a year. The water is reinjected into the Jornada del Muerto Basin at the edge of the plume, to try and stop it from moving further.

When asked, Shean told lawmakers it will take “decades” to clean up at the current rate.

There’s no expectation of additional groundwater contamination, Shean told the committee, but the New Mexico Environment Department is conducting inspections on soils.

As rainfall flows off the San Andreas mountains, and soaks into groundwater, clean water gets contaminated and pushes the plume westward over time.

A portion of the plume has spread beyond the borders of the White Sands Test Facility. Shean said NASA will have to continue operating the current pump and treat systems to stop the plume’s movement.

Shean said any increase in pollution or discovery of new contaminants would require additional investigation.

The historic building that greets visitors at White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo. Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press
Seeking payment

Water as a public resource in New Mexico is subject to compensation from federal authorities, Girard told the committee. The aquifer was, under federal law, “permanently injured” for the purposes of establishing damages.

The New Mexico Office of Natural Resources Trustee now face a choice, Girard said. Either issue a formal demand, or go to the settlement table – if NASA and the Department of Defense agree to negotiate.

Girard said that if the federal agencies choose to wait, the costs for the damages will only increase.

“Monetary damages assessed under federal laws include a time value,” Girard said. “For NASA and DOD to join us at the table now will cost them much less than if they wait for the 100 or more years for this to be cleaned up.”

The fence near the dirt path to Trinity Site at White Sands Missile Range, the site of the first atomic bomb test. Sue McMillin/Special to the Herald
Water plans and problems

New Mexico’s second-largest city, Las Cruces relies primarily on groundwater – but so do mutual domestics and private wells in surrounding rural areas.

And good groundwater is getting scarcer, said Gill Sorg, who heads the Doña Ana Soil and Water Conservation district.

“We’re mining our groundwater here, we’re losing it and it’s not being replenished,” Sorg said. “With climate change coming along, we don’t expect it to be replenished fully again.”

Even with moderate growth projections, Sorg said higher demand on less water could mean the city’s aquifers are depleted within the next 25 to 50 years.

The city’s future water plans explore tapping basins to the west, which Sorg said would mean “extreme” costs to purchase water rights.

The East Mesa well field for the City of Las Cruces is only three miles away from the western edge of the plume from the White Sands Test Range.

Sorg said the 30,000 acre-feet of contaminated water would provide more than a year’s supply for the city of Las Cruces, which uses about 22,000 acre-feet annually.

If the plume is unusable for Las Cruces or other communities in the future, Sorg said, the federal government should pay up.

“Bottom line, we would like to be compensated for that loss of water,” he said.

From the Apollo space program to now

Established in the 1960s, White Sands Test Facility is a federally run operation to test propulsion systems and rocket materials – which all produce hazardous wastes. It’s in the Jornada del Muerto desert, and occupies a space the size of New Hampshire.

Tests and disposal from testing released hazardous wastes during a period between the 1960s and 1980s.

The breaking down of rocket fuel components lead to N-nitrosodimethylamine contamination in the water. In very small doses, NDMA can cause severe liver damage and internal bleeding according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Contaminants also included solvents and degreasers like trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethene, as well as Freon 11 and Freon 113. Freons are a type of chemical called a chlorofluorocarbon which depleted the protective ozone layer in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Prolonged or repeated exposure to TCE causes kidney cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Repeated exposure to PCE can increase risks of bladder cancer or impact the nervous and reproductive systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

There are two plumes contaminating the groundwater at White Sands, a larger NDMA plume, and a smaller plume of TCE, both are volatile. Cleanup started in the 1990s after the New Mexico Environment Department issued hazardous waste permits under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Those permits were reissued in 2009 and 2019.