Carson county PANTEX

PANTEX: Pollution in the Panhandle

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Pantex The Texas Toxic Tour stops this week in the Texas Panhandle--home to the nation's nuclear weapons disassembly and temporary plutonium storage facility. This is the story of Doris and Phil Smith, farmers living next to the plant, whose well water may soon be contaminated with the creeping plume of contaminants emanating from the plant. Watch the video interview with the Smiths to hear a moving and informative firsthand account of their fight against not only the weapons plant, but also against the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. "A farmer spends his entire life propagating life," muses Phil Smith in the video, "and right across the road we're combating a facility that has no other means than death."

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Nukes in North Texas

Just 17 miles north of Amarillo sits the Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant, a Department of Defense facility which formerly assembled nuclear weapons now dismantles old ones and maintains newer ones. "Pantex is scheduled to store in excess of 20,000 plutonium pits. At present there are 12,000 pits that are stored in above ground earthen bunkers that were used back in 1942 during the war times. They were used to store conventional weapons, they were not ever intended to store plutonium pits that have a half-life of 24,000 years," explains Doris. Designated as a Superfund cleanup site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1994 after years of contaminating the region, Pantex is currently regulated by the federal Department of Energy (DOE), along with statewide oversight by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).(1)

Aquifer at Risk

The Pantex facility rests on 16, 000 acres(2) directly above the Ogallala Aquifer, the primary source of water in the region. Local residents, some of whom are located within a half-mile of the facility,(3) get their drinking water from wells which tap into the Ogallala. The aquifer also supplies the City of Amarillo. Not only is the Panhandle rich farm country, but large numbers of beef cattle are raised there. "This 26-county area produces twenty-five percent of the nation's" fed beef," explains Phil. "Iowa beef [a local producer] is three miles from the Pantex site. The water they are using comes directly from the Pantex site... Over 5,000 cows are processed there each day," Doris adds.

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The aquifer is recharged, in part, by the many "playa lakes" in the region-playa lakes are large, circular natural depressions where water collects and seeps slowly down into the Ogallala Aquifer. For years, Pantex used the playa lakes to collect contaminated runoff and hold waste discharges from the plant. Pantex scientists claimed that the dense clay bottoms of the playa lakes would act as an "impermeable" barrier and prevent contamination from reaching the aquifer. Local residents, however, observed the seasonal drying and deep cracking of the playa bottoms and dismissed Pantex's "impermeable barrier" theory.(4)

Local skepticism over Pantex's activities was soon validated. In 1995 a nearby farmer discovered traces of explosives in his well water.(5) And in 1997, an off-site monitoring well on the same farmer's property showed high levels of heavy metals, including lead, which greatly exceeded drinking water standards.(6) On the Pantex compound itself, groundwater contamination is heavy-on the southeast side of the facility, explosives and chromium contamination were discovered over a three square-mile area that includes 1.5 billion gallons of groundwater.(7)

Frustrated with TNRCC's response to the contamination flowing off-site, Phil wonders, "If the TNRCC is going just continue to dig wells on Pantex rather than worry about the safety of the community" what are they there for? Somebody needs to be doing a little stouter job than their doing."

The Burning Grounds

"In order to decommission or take apart the weapons it's necessary for them to use solvents such as tricloroethylene or carbon tetracloride and several other chemicals, but they also use a burning treatment and they open air burn some of the materials in order to separate the materials". That burning ground is at the point where the contamination has reached the Ogalalla aquifer," says Phil. Recently, groundwater contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) was discovered in an Ogallala monitoring well located near the "burning grounds" on the north side of the Pantex plant. During three sample periods in May, August, and October, 1999, officials detected levels of TCE near of above the EPA's drinking water standard for TCE (5 parts per billion).(83) TCE is an industrial solvent used to degrease metal parts. Exposure to TCE through ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact has been linked to liver and kidney damage, immune system disorders, birth defects, and childhood leukemia.(9)

The "burning grounds" cover approximately 58 acres in the Pantex facility and the site is used to dispose of toxic chemicals such as TCE, toluene, benzene, and acetone.(10) The chemicals are dumped into unlined soil pits-3 feet deep and 20 square-feet in area-and set on fire or left to evaporate. Some estimates indicate that prior to 1988, up to 350,000 gallons of TCE were disposed of in these evaporation/burn pits. Direct seepage from the pit to the aquifer and run-off from pit overflow most likely resulted in the contamination found in the Ogallala monitoring well.(11)

Cover Up?

While local residents are worried about the contamination, they are equally angered by the fact that the monitoring information was withheld from the public-Pantex and the DOE did not notify the public of the contamination until March 2000, a full nine months after the discovery.(12) Pantex officials blamed the delay on "miscommunication"; meanwhile, TNRCC claimed that it too had not known about the contamination until the DOE announcement. However, Pantex officials pointed out that TNRCC inspectors had also tested samples from the well and had not publicly notified local residents about the contamination.(13) It is not clear whether TNRCC simply failed to detect increased levels of TCE in the water or knew about the contamination and was not forthright with the knowledge it had. In either case, the agency failed in its mission to protect the region's primary water resource.

Immediately following the DOE announcement of TCE contamination in the Ogallala, a coalition of public interest groups under the umbrella organization Save Texas Agriculture and Resources (STAR) issued a media advisory pointing out factual errors and misleading information in the DOE news release. On March 6, 2000, three days after the DOE's announcement, the STAR coalition issued another announcement citing other instances of contamination by Pantex. According to STAR:

  1. Pantex detected but failed to report the presence of methylene chloride, another common solvent, in two samples collected from Ogallala monitoring wells in October 1998. Methylene chloride was detected in concentrations that exceeded the federal drinking water standard of 5 parts per billion.
  2. In 1999 methylene chloride and acetone were each detected four times in the aquifer, although at concentrations below drinking water standards.
  3. High explosives were detected in an on-site well in May 1999 and at least a dozen times in off-site Ogallala wells since 1995. Pantex officials did not disclose this information or conduct follow-up tests.(14)

After the TCE reporting incident, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered an investigation by DOE to determine why the contamination was not reported sooner. A draft report by the DOE determined that Pantex's water monitoring methods are inadequate and that in this case, plant officials failed to follow proper procedures for reporting groundwater contamination.(15) Pantex responded with a promise to add more groundwater monitoring wells and improve their reporting procedures.(16)

Neighbors Suffer

Meanwhile, local residents continue to experience health problems, as well as decreased property values, which they attribute to toxic dumping by Pantex. A 1996 study by the US Department of Health and the Texas Department of Health found higher than normal cancer rates in the counties surrounding Pantex. Although the report failed to link the high cancer rate to activities at Pantex, local citizens believe otherwise. One resident keeps a map of the nearby city of Panhandle with straight pins marking the cases of cancer in the town between 1975 and 1994. For a town with a population of only 2,300, over 400 people have been stricken with some sort of cancer.(17)

For its part, the TNRCC cited the DOE for contaminating the Ogallala and for failing to notify the agency about it. However, to date no fines have been imposed.(18) Meanwhile, officials at Mason & Hanger, the engineering company that is paid up to $300 million a year by the DOE to operate the Pantex facility, say they are doing their best to clean up the site and comply with state environmental regulations. As part of their efforts, they built a pump to suck 150,000 gallons a day of contaminated water from the Ogallala, run it through a filter, then inject it back into the aquifer. Convinced of the effectiveness of this method, they plan to expand the system and pump up to 450,000 gallons a day. However, even if their filtering system works, at the expanded pace it would still take almost a decade to clean all the contaminated water in the upper Ogallala. And for the residents of Amarillo and nearby communities who rely on the Ogallala for safe, clean drinking water, that just may be too little, too late.

Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.

Sources:

  1. Mavis Belisle, "Meanwhile, back on the east side?" The Nuclear Examiner, February-March-April, 2000, p. 12.
  2. James Kimberly, "Pollution from Pantex causes Panhandle fears," Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2000
  3. Mavis Belisle, "Groundwater concerns expanding: TCE in the Ogallala," The Nuclear Examiner, February-March-April, 2000, p. 1.
  4. Mavis Belisle, "Meanwhile, back on the east side?" The Nuclear Examiner, February-March-April, 2000, p. 10.
  5. James Kimberly, "Pollution from Pantex causes Panhandle fears," Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2000
  6. Mavis Belisle, "Groundwater concerns expanding: TCE in the Ogallala," The Nuclear Examiner, February-March-April, 2000, p. 2.
  7. James Kimberly, "Pollution from Pantex causes Panhandle fears," Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2000
  8. Mavis Belisle, "Groundwater concerns expanding: TCE in the Ogallala," The Nuclear Examiner, February-March-April, 2000, p. 1.
  9. Jim McBride, "Pantex to provide water despite safety report," Amarillo Globe-News, April 21, 2000; "Pantex Issued Misleading Information on Toxin in Ogallala Aquifer," PANAL/STAND Media Advisory, March 3, 2000; "TCE Fact Sheet," The Nuclear Examiner, February-March-April, 2000, p. 9.
  10. Mavis Belisle, "Groundwater concerns expanding: TCE in the Ogallala," The Nuclear Examiner, February-March-April, 2000, p. 8; James Kimberly, "Pollution from Pantex causes Panhandle fears," Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2000.
  11. Mavis Belisle, "Groundwater concerns expanding: TCE in the Ogallala," The Nuclear Examiner, February-March-April, 2000, p. 8.
  12. James Kimberly, "Pollution from Pantex causes Panhandle fears," Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2000; Mavis Belisle, "Groundwater concerns expanding: TCE in the Ogallala," The Nuclear Examiner, February-March-April, 2000, p. 1.
  13. James Kimberly, "Pollution from Pantex causes Panhandle fears," Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2000.
  14. STAR, Inc., "Evaluation of Ogallala Groundwater (draft)," April 2000
  15. Jim McBride, "Pantex to provide water despite safety report," Amarillo Globe-News, April 21, 2000 [internet article: www.amarillonet.com/stories/042100/new_pantex.shtml].
  16. Ibid.
  17. James Kimberly, "Pollution from Pantex causes Panhandle fears," Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2000.
  18. Ibid.
 
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