Reading Room

The Government's Public Meeting: A Portrait in Pen and Ink

On October 7, 2010, the Dept. of Energy and Livermore Lab held a long-overdue public meeting on their plan to clean up the "leading edge" of the toxic groundwater plume that has migrated westward from Livermore Lab and is now under suburban homes, apartments, streets, a city park and a community swimming pool.

We have written elsewhere about the details of the contamination (see, for example, the special section in our September/October 2010 newsletter, Citizen's Watch, our Superfund petition to improve the cleanup and its funding, and our earlier blog of September 22, 2010).

Here, we offer a small portrait of the meeting itself, including the Lab's presentation and the community's response.

To begin, Livermore Lab sent innocuous postcards to the neighbors living directly over the off-site contaminant plume, but did not send invitations more broadly to other Livermore residents. Nor did DOE or the Lab alert the media. It wasn't "top secret" exactly, but the public meeting was certainly not well publicized to the public.

Given that, the turn out was respectable. There were just over a dozen community members present (most of them directly-affected residents who were also Tri-Valley CAREs members). There were several city staff. The EPA was represented. And, interestingly, there were more than a dozen Livermore Lab and DOE staff, including three PR people.

The Livermore Lab presentation included diagrams of the off-site groundwater plume and its "leading edge," which has become disconnected over time from the Lab's larger off-site contaminant plume.

The major pollutant in this disconnected, or leading edge, portion of the toxic groundwater plume is the solvent PCE. The PCE and other contaminants are in a section of the community aquifer known as hydrostratigraphic unit 2.

The Lab's preferred plan to deal with this portion of the plume is to construct a pipeline out to meet it. The pipeline would ultimately extend about a half-mile west of Livermore Lab, going under Vasco Road, partly along Arroyo Seco, down Susan Lane to Charlotte Way, north along Charlotte, and then across Charlotte near Kathy Way to a well at Big Trees Park known as Well #404.

Well #404 is a "pumping well" constructed by Livermore Lab to pump the polluted groundwater out of the aquifer vertically about 100 feet and put it into the newly-constructed pipeline, which will be underground, but only by several feet.

From there, the polluted water would travel back to the Lab's property and be treated in an existing treatment facility called TFA. The treatment would separate the PCE and other solvents and poisons from the water, and the cleaned water would be used to recharge the aquifer.

Visualize, also, that the Lab has other pumping wells along the half-mile pipeline route between Well #404 and TFA -- and these other pumping wells will bring additional toxic water (with TCE and more) from other parts of the off-site plume and mix the pollutants together before it all gets to TFA for treatment.

The Lab estimated that the new pipeline construction would begin in 2012 and that it will take 15 years of continuous pumping and treatment at TFA to remediate the leading edge of the plume.

The Lab's powerpoint presentation ended here and the meeting became interesting (if frustrating) as residents tried to bring their local knowledge and concerns to the Lab's attention while the DOE and Livermore Lab were determined to ONLY allow questions.

No comments permitted, said the DOE PR person acting as facilitator. Do you have a question, he barked more than once, interrupting the public in a voice intended to intimidate.

Still, many valid community concerns were raised. The DOE, the Lab and the regulatory agencies would do well to pay attention.

Multiple members of the public, including Marylia, pointed to the outline of the disconnected portion of the plume and noted that there were no monitoring wells there. Having monitoring wells in place would be like having "eyes" there to see if the remedy was actually working or not. Click here to read Tri-Valley CAREs' comments.

Jo Ann noted that elevated levels of plutonium had been found in the top few inches of soil in Big Trees Park and nearby areas, and asked that any pipeline construction in the area include air monitoring and dust suppression and other measures to protect the workers and the community. Click here to read Jo Ann's comments.

Beverly asked, "Where are our values?" She pointed out that billions of dollars are being spent on nuclear weapons development while only 1% of the Lab's annual budget goes to fund the entire main site Superfund cleanup. Click here to read Bev's comments.

Matthew voiced concern that the treatment method at TFA was not going to break down the toxic solvents into non-toxic constituents. Instead, it would use activated carbon filtering to remove the pollutants from the water. When the activated carbon is then "regenerated" in an incinerator in someone else's backyard, the result is airborne pollution. Click here to read Matthew's comments.

Scott brought up Livermore Lab documents that discuss the toxic metal chromium, including hexavalent chromium, in the groundwater near Well #404. He spoke of the new, more restrictive CA public health goal, instituted because of chromium's extreme toxicity. A lively discussion ensued when the Lab stated they were only required to worry about the maximum contaminant level, which is set many, many times higher than the public health goal. Click here to read Scott's comments.

Other members of the public brought and/or submitted written comments, but did not speak in the restricted, questions ONLY atmosphere of the [supposedly] public meeting. Click here to read David Tanouye's comments.

And, other members of the public voiced important issues, but did not provide written comments. Gus talked about how deceptive it was for the Livermore Lab to try and blame the Navy for the contamination, when the Lab had been polluting since it was founded in 1952 -- and there are contaminants in the environment that the Navy never used.

Marion asked about the levels of tritium (radioactive hydrogen) in the off-site plume, since there are high levels of tritium known to be in other parts of the groundwater plume. The Lab's answer: "We only found tritium in the off-site plume at low concentrations; about 120 picocuries per liter or so." As the Lab's presentation had not included any mention of radioactive materials in the off-site plume, this was notable.

So, while the DOE and the Lab have a lot to learn about truly and meaningfully involving the public in decision-making, the public nonetheless made a great effort to bridge the gap and be heard.

We at Tri-Valley CAREs will continue our efforts to obtain a full and complete cleanup of all toxic and radioactive materials in the environment, on-site and off-site. Further, we will keep up the pressure to ensure that the public has a voice in decisions that affect their lives.

To help, download our Superfund petition and ask your friends and neighbors to sign it.

Or, contact us for additional volunteer opportunities.