Skip directly to content

Regional Coalition Of LANL Communities Tours San Ildefonso Sacred Area Above Chromium Plume

on October 28, 2017 - 5:28pm

San Ildefonso Gov. James Mountain hosted members of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Board Thursday at San Ildefonso Pueblo. From left, RCLC Executive Director Andrea Romero, Gov. Mountain, Espanola Mayor Alice Lucero, Los Alamos County Councilor Chris Chandler and RCLC Communications and Administrative Manager Scarlet Rendleman. Photo by Maire O'Neill/

Members of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Board and staff were guests Thursday at San Ildefonso Pueblo where they visited the Pueblo Sacred Area below Los Alamos National Laboratory with Gov. James Mountain, former Gov. Terry Aguilar, Pueblo Elders, officials and staff. Photo by Maire O'Neill/

Los Alamos Daily Post

When scientists released water used to cool towers at a power plant at Los Alamos National Laboratory into Sandia Canyon between 1956 and 1972, they didn’t realize the potassium dichromate used to stop corrosion of the tanks would leave a chromium plume some 900 feet below the surface.

That plume is estimated at a mile long by half a mile wide and 100 feet deep and 12 years ago, groundwater samples collected from a new groundwater monitoring well showed that it was traveling south at a rate slower than groundwater which flows at 31 to 60 feet a year in the regional aquifer below Mortandad Canyon. Samples from wells in the Canyon indicate that the chromium concentration exceeds the New Mexico drinking water standard of 50 parts per billion (ppb) so the Department of Energy is implementing an interim measure which it hopes will control chromium migration within the groundwater.

Monitoring wells near the Lab’s boundary with San Ildefonso Pueblo have shown steadily increasing concentrations according to an environmental assessment conducted in 2015 which means that if left unaddressed, the plume could be pushed on into Pueblo land rather than contained.

San Ildefonso Gov. James Mountain showed representatives of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) exactly how close the underground plume is to a Sacred Area of the Pueblo during a special tour Thursday, Oct. 26. Board members including Espanola Mayor Alice Lucero, Los Alamos County Councilor Christine Chandler, RCLC Executive Director Andrea Romero and RCLC Communications and Administrative Manager Scarlet Rendleman traveled to the Sacred Area accompanied by Pueblo Elders and staff as well as former Gov. Terry Aguilar.

“There are some theories about how this plume decided to migrate and all of a sudden decided to take a 90-degree turn towards the south but nonetheless it has a drastic potential impact in the entire region,” Gov. Mountain told the group. “That’s why I have invited you all to see it from San Ildefonso’s perspective and get a better idea of what we’re up against, not only in San Ildefonso but in the communities.

“About three years ago, someone made a statement that it’s a good thing we don’t have anyone living here, and I said although we’re not domiciled in that area it doesn’t mean that we don’t live here on a daily basis, not only our spiritual aspect but even as our people come and go here on a daily basis. It was very disheartening to hear that kind of an attitude and mentality.

“The Pueblo Elders have given us the guidance and ability to sit in leadership positions and have discussions with outside entities to start to educate the outside world about San Ildefonso so they can better understand where we’re coming from.”

Aguilar said there are two LANL monitoring wells in the canyon and another one below but explained that the unique relationship the Pueblo has with LANL is that the well at the Sacred Area is a San Ildefonso monitoring well on San Ildefonso land.

“What’s important about that is they were digging a well to sample it and they said we’ll use our water rights. Water rights are key up in this area. It’s a major issue because this is Indian land and they have to use Indian water rights,” Aguilar said.  

The aim of the interim control measure is to control the plume by using extraction and injection wells to hydraulically control groundwater flow, removing the chromium from the extracted water and injecting the water into the aquifer through eight injection wells. It is hoped that once hydraulic control of the plume has been achieved, intermittent operation of the extraction and injection wells would be used to maintain hydraulic control of the plume. This work is expected to take up to eight years or until a final remedy for the plume is implemented.

San Ildefonso officials find it hard to believe that the border of the plume magically coincides with the border of the San Ildefonso land with the Lab.

“We have been told that chromium has been detected right up to the three-strand barbed wire fence that marks the boundary with San Ildefonso land,” Mountain said. “We are expected to believe that the magic fence keeps it on that side and that it doesn’t come onto our side.”

He said that when higher levels have been measured north of the fence, it is hard to believe they are lower just 25 paces away within San Ildefonso land.

Fears also have been expressed that if the plume has already traveled further than has been identified, the injection wells have the potential to push it even further into the Sacred Area.

Mountain and Aguilar both spoke of the spiritual and mental pain Pueblo members are experiencing. Mountain said that over the last two years, Pueblo officials have had to learn very quickly about the issue.

“Our people don’t understand. They think that because we are contaminated we’re going to die tomorrow. It might sound extreme but if you come up here to the Sacred Area to hunt, to gather, to collect … I don’t think it’s overstated. They feel like life is coming to an end to some degree and they don’t understand it. Our task is to keep our people well-informed and educate them as best as possible,” Mountain said.

He said San Ildefonso has explained to DOE that the resources in the Sacred Area are not distinguished into types but are all considered as essential to the continued survival of the Pueblo. He said there are already spiritual, mental and emotional effects on his people because of concerns about contamination and that fears of contamination already affect their ceremonies and rituals.

Gov. Aguilar said the Pueblo asked DOE for a commitment to keep the Pueblo informed as to the levels of contamination identified by the monitoring wells.

“We told them you have to come to San Ildefonso and keep us informed because we aren’t going away and because of all the questions we have. We have advocates on both sides, but they’re still suspect about what information is truly getting to us,” he said. “This relationship is the only one of a facility of this kind with a tribal nation. Our resources are extremely limited and just the fact that it’s happening is a tough pill to swallow.”

Resources identified in the Sacred Area that contribute to its importance include the naturally occurring water, animals, plants, rocks and soil. More than 50 archeological sites have been identified within the area include cavate sites and Pueblo roomblock sites. There are 13 cavate caves along the south facing wall of Mortandad Canyon and more along the north facing wall. The cavate sites include plastered walls, sooted ceilings, vent holes, niches, rock art and viga holes. Roomblock sites have also been identified on mesa tops north and south of the canyon.

Pueblo officials are expected to be updated on chromium levels early next week.

Former San Ildefonso Gov. Terry Aguilar points out to Los Alamos County Councilor Chris Chandler Thursday the location of the main source of water for Los Alamos from a point above the Pueblo's Sacred Area. Photo by Maire O'Neill/

University of Texas consultant Susan Rogers listens as San Ildefonso Gov. James Mountain, left, and former Gov. Terry Aguilar explain the proximity of a chromium plume to sacred areas of the Pueblo during a Regional Coalition of LANL Communities visit Thursday to the Pueblo. Photo by Maire O'Neill/

San Ildefonso Pueblo Gov. James Mountain tries to convince Espanola Mayor Alice Lucero of the location of a huge elk Thursday morning while looking across the mesa above a sacred area on the Pueblo. Photo by Maire O'Neill/

A monitoring well for a chromium plume located almost 1,000 feet below the surface close to a sacred area on San Ildefonso Pueblo. Photo by Maire O'Neill/

View of Los Alamos National Laboratory from the top of a mesa above a San Ildefonso Pueblo sacred area. Photo by Maire O'Neill/

San Ildefonso Pueblo vehicles await members of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Thursday as they get perspective on the closeness of the Pueblo's sacred site to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Photo by Maire O'Neill/