LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — A team of specially trained workers has been busy excavating plutonium-laden dirt one bulldozer load at a time along rugged canyons in the shadow of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The work is part of a $3 billion clean-up effort at the northern New Mexico lab where the atomic bomb was developed decades ago. There is still contamination lingering from weapons and engineering programs that went on during World War II.

The atomic bomb program led to waste that contained materials such as mercury and chromium. The materials would often be piped off the edge of nearby canyons.

Doug Hintze, who oversees cleanup for the Department of Energy at Los Alamos, said there is no immediate hazard to the public.

“It’s not to downplay the concerns that the public has on this,” Hintze told Albuquerque’s KUNM-FM (http://bit.ly/2ctYTH3).

The most hazardous sites have already been cleaned up. Now, the focus is on restoring more remote polluted areas so they are safe, Hintze said.

The tedious clean-up process unfolds six times every workday. It begins with every load of dirt being bagged and then tested for radioactivity levels. The bag is then put on an 18-wheeler and be transported to disposal site in Utah.

Other ongoing tasks include pumping out a contaminated aquifer and building new stormwater systems.

Department of Energy officials failed to meet a completion date of last year because of a budget shortfall.

Advocacy groups have challenged the validity of the clean-up process. Some say the polluted water is still doing damage and making animals sick.

“The Department of Energy and Los Alamos Labs, they need to have their feet held to the fire,” said Jay Coghlan, director of anti-nuclear weapons group Nuke Watch New Mexico.

His group recently filed a lawsuit, calling for a judge to void a new clean-up agreement between the state and federal government.

New Mexico Environment Department officials have also criticized the clean-up proposals but call the lawsuit “frivolous.” The state is trying to block it in court.


Information from: KUNM-FM, http://kunm.unm.edu/