I was a competitive swimmer as a kid.  In fact, I held a state record in one of my events.  Impressed?  Don’t be.  ‘Cuz it twarn’t nuthin’.  It was as insignificant a state record as anyone could ever hold.  Why?  Because I won the first event run in the first 25-meter pool in the state (before that, they were 25 yards).  That day, the competition was not fierce in my event, and it ended in a tie for first place.  My name was entered in the record book.  And a week later, it was gone for good.

So, you see?  It’s perfectly true that I held that state record.  But it’s equally true that upon closer examination, its significance is underwhelming.  All too often, crucial government pronouncements need to be examined closely to see if they have any more substance than my state record.

One of the better classes I ever took in college was something called Data Analysis.  I use its lessons regularly.  In it, amongst other things, we learned that one of the seminal, oft-cited scientific papers proving that salmon navigate by magnetic orientation was fatally flawed.  The prof contacted the authors, and got them to send him their raw data.  They used two tanks for the studies, located in the field.  And, as it turns out, the effect was only seen in one of them – the one closest to their campfire.  Those ever-fascinating fish were orienting towards the light!  But the paper’s still cited today.  Looks like their sense of smell – shown in some other studies involving water diverted for a power plant – is much more what it’s about.

If you were giving a presentation, and that prof showed up with his calculator, it was enough to rattle you, no matter how well you knew your stuff.  If only more of our journalists had been required to take a similar class!

Like this damned business of deaths in Iraq.  Now, it’s only sectarian violence if they’re shot in the back of the head?  It’s garden variety criminality if they’re shot in the face?  Nice fiction.  And it’s not really a new game: The Nixon Administration (or was it James Watt under Reagan?) instituted a new legal definition of old growth forest, that trees of a much younger age were now defined as mature (aka “Old Growth”).  The arrogance of it all is breathtaking.  Like if you call something by a different name, then it doesn’t really count.

Of course, with the deaths in Iraq, it’s not spin, it’s lying!!  With the forest?  Maybe willful ignorance.  But maybe lying, too.

There are some laws you just cannot break, not even if you’re Dick Cheney.  Gravity for one.  And, unintended consequences for another.  And when it comes to dismantling the planet’s natural systems, no amount of legislating and pontificating will negate the reality on the ground.

I’ve had to deal with the Environmental Protection Agency through my work over the years.  Including in 2000, the year that a mega-forest fire roared through Los Alamos.  Let me say: The EPA is founded on a good idea.  Like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, etc. – all positive legacies from the Nixon years.  But it got maimed and mutilated during the “go-go” Reagan years.  They couldn’t abolish it, so they did the next best thing (from their POV) – they mired it down in red tape and bureaucratic ineffectiveness.  Unlike the Republicans, who start cutting agencies they don’t like off at the knees right out of the starting gate, the Clinton Administration didn’t rush in to reverse the damage.  That presidency was drawing to a close – well into its 8th year –  when Los Alamos was burning.  And the EPA was still, in important ways, a travesty.  The case of the Cerro Fire, the one that burned Los Alamos, is a good illustrative example.

Los Alamos was where the first atom bomb was invented.  They tested it a few hundred miles away, down south, not so far from Socorro.  (The Trinity Site is open to visitors twice a year, for those who would like to consider an unconventional vacation destination.  And Roswell’s not far from there!  But I digress…)

All the lead-up experiments were here amongst the norteƱos, on a bunch of finger mesas overlooking San Ildefonso Pueblo along the Rio Grande.  In the early days of the Manhattan Project, they dumped all their waste – from motor oil to plutonium-contaminated material – in open unlined pits.  Sometimes, they set off small explosions which embedded uranium shrapnel in the Ponderosa pines which dominate the forested landscape around the Lab.

It’s hard to fathom why the neighboring Bandelier National Monument started up their “controlled burn” back in spring 2000.  Because it had been a very dry winter, and we were having one hellacious windy season, too.  It’s no gentle breeze that makes for a smoke plume like this:

But the folks at Bandelier had their reasons.  Arguably good ones, looking at the big picture.  The entire area was ripe for fire, and stewardship agencies had been racing against time to thin and do controlled burns reduce just the kind of fire that they inadvertently set loose across the landscape.  From the excellent Bill deBuys, in a High Country News essay that summer:

The physical culprits are well known: grazing, which removed the fuels that powered forest-thinning light burns, and fire suppression combined to jack up stand densities. The fire-starved pine zone shrank as pinon and juniper crept upslope and mixed conifer species crept down. Logging probably accelerated both trends; by removing big trees, it speeded establishment of over-dense, weedy cohorts. These were not accidental outcomes. The ultimate culprit was a way of thinking: the impulse to simplify.

Strontium shares many chemical characteristics with calcium, which is one row above it on the periodic table of the elements.  (The link is to a LANL full periodic table: clicking it could alert them to this diary.) Strontium-90 is a radioactive isotope, a product of the decay of uranium-235, and is common in spent nuclear fuel.  Because it is chemically similar to calcium and only slightly larger in size, it enters the same biochemical pathways as calcium – which is to say, into numerous metabolic processes, as calcium’s a central player in all sorts of cell signalling.

Strontium-90 had been taken up by the trees around Los Alamos over the years, from the shrapnel and from the soil.  It was in the smoke while the fire was burning through the lab, along with all kinds of other nasty stuff deserving big “Mister Yuck” labels.  But such things are classified…  This is a rural area, so not a whole lot of people were exposed, but I was one of the ones who was.  Home is right under that plume.

But, if you ask the government, there was nothing to worry about in that smoke.  I’m told there’s a general principle of emergency management that long-term effects take a back burner to the dictates of the emergency at hand.  Just like at the World Trade Center site after the towers fell.  The claim of “nothing to worry about” is less robust than my state record in swimming.  Such claims should always be doubted in crisis situations.  Actually, not just during crises, if you consider what’s happened to former uranium miners from Acoma & Laguna Pueblos who worked at (or lived downwind from) the Jackpile Mine.  Often, it seems best to be cautious with anyone from the government at all.

Here’s how it went down: After the fire started, EPA spent a few days on logistics, arranging for a mobile air quality lab to be brought in (from Alabama or Mississippi, IIRC).  But by the time it arrived, the fire had moved on, burning with a fury up around the Puye ruins above Santa Clara Pueblo.  The Lab’s contribution to the smoke was minimal by then.

I was working in a tribal environmental program, and so had the ear of EPA people available to take my calls.  The densest part of the smoke had been going over Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (then known as San Juan), Picuris Pueblo, and right over Jicarita Peak, the highest point in the Pecos Wilderness, the southernmost part of the Rockies.  There was still plenty of snow left up above the timberline, and abundant soot had deposited thereon.  So, I suggested that EPA send people up to take samples of that blackened snow cap as the best way to find out what we’d all been breathing.  No dice!  These were air quality technicians, and they didn’t do snow, melted or otherwise.  That was a job for the water quality people, who had not been dispatched to this emergency.  So they sent dozens of people out (including plenty of “community relations” types), but neglected to collect the samples from the one place that could have told ’em what had gone on.  And they could have formed advisories about what would be in the water rushing down the mountains in the spring melt.  Water used for agricultural irrigation throughout the region.

So, no one sampled the smoke while the Lab proper was burning.  But an oft repeated scientific maxim is this: Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.. The EPA emergency responders at Los Alamos pretended otherwise.

Oh, but wait!!  LANL had worked cooperatively with tribes and communities in the area, and there were sensors installed to record various “parameters” of interest.  And, as it happened, the one at Ohkay Owingeh/San Juan had just been checked, calibrated and certified as working properly just a few weeks before the fire.  Lo and behold, it recorded a big spike of radioactivity.  And the “experts” consulted and decided that the monitoring station was broken and didn’t work properly.  That data point was just discarded, La-Dee-Dah.  It never appeared in any articles or presentations about the fire from the authorities.

That fall, and the next year, there was some “unusual” stuff, like friggin’ Americium fer chrissakes, found in agricultural produce under the plume area.  Americium is a “synthetic” element, not known to occur in nature.  But no one was ever advised against eating locally-grown produce.

There was a public information meeting that spring, while the fire was still smoldering a little.  The Forest Service (USFS), the EPA and the NM Environment Department (NMED) all gave presentations. 

  • The forest service reviewed the air quality data from another fire, focusing on all the unhealthy stuff dumped into the air by any garden-variety forest fire
  • NMED gave us a standard litany related to domestic hazmat.  400 families lost their homes in that fire – homes full of synthetic carpet, paint, and various commonly used household products that put all kinds of toxic particles and fumes in the smoke.
  • Last was someone from EPA, and they reported the data from analysis of the air sampling they’d done.  They had found that there was nothing in the air samples to worry about.  They neglected to mention that they had taken no samples while the fire line was racing through the Lab.  Which makes their statement more disingenuous than my swimming record.

Clearly somebody wasn’t thinking about how these arguments would come across, strung together like that.  I’d heard all I needed to for my job, and was getting disgusted.  I almost walked out the door, but turned back as soon as left the room.  I raised my hand, and was recognized right away.

Your presentations would have us believe that bad toxic materials are released when a ponderosa forest burns, and when private homes burn.  But that the smoke that came out of Los Alamos was “clean”.  My question?  Do you actually expect that to pass the laugh test?

I didn’t really get an answer – they just changed the subject ASAP.  But that’s OK – it was a rhetorical question, after all.

DeBuys closes his HCN essay like this.  Always, it would seem, the people with valuable insights are much more modest in putting them forth than overconfident, strident ideologues:

Nevertheless, the debates will rage, and it will be interesting to see if anyone acknowledges the 600-pound gorilla frowning in the background of every discussion.  That gorilla is our ignorance. We don’t have complete answers to the conundrums we face. We really have not learned how to live in this place. Our land-management infrastructure (in which I include environmental and industry interests) is presently incapable of dealing effectively with the fuel and fire challenge. This inability is perfectly mirrored by the sustained lunacy of mortgagors, insurance companies, and the general citizenry.

How else should we characterize subdivisions and second homes in the piney woods – frame houses with shake or tar-based roofs, pine straw lawns, and doghair yards? Enforcement of a fire-savvy building code might have cut the losses in Los Alamos by half, but a town that leads the world in Ph.Ds per capita never thought the matter through. Good luck to the rest of us.

If we were to acknowledge the gorilla of our ignorance, we might start by putting aside the language of “land management.” We rarely manage; we mostly shove and bludgeon, or we walk away. A few noteworthy individuals have learned to nudge, and go with the flow, and if the rest of us wanted to be like them, we would approach every land treatment as an experiment, and we would experiment explicitly with different approaches in different places. We would monitor everything. We would expect to be surprised. We would become compulsive learners. We would study humility. We would agree that we are all in this together.

Thoughtful management?  Good luck on that!  Four years later, the following story was held for a couple of weeks, released in the hubbub the weekend before the Presidential election, where it was picked up by few news outlets:

Looking for a place to grow marijuana and live, rent-free, in a cave with all the creature comforts of home? Why not a canyon, tucked away within the 40 square miles of the nation’s top-secret nuclear weapons research facility in Los Alamos?

That’s where Roy Michael Moore, 56, was recently discovered living in a cave equipped with a glass front door, a wood stove, a bed, electricity-generating solar panels with batteries to store the power, and lights.

And this happened with security-conscious Republicans in charge!

From all I know of our flagship top secret weapons lab (beyond this whopper), its security measures are way short of stellar.  They’ve added vehicle checkpoints when you’re entering Los Alamos since then.  But curiously, none for those departing.  In some places, one mostly worries about what people might smuggle in.  And so, we have metal detectors at federal courthouses, and so on.  But Los Alamos? All the WMD-related stuff is already there.  You’d think they might want to protect against it leaving.  But what would I, just an ordinary citizen, know about that sort of technical stuff?

For all the billions being spent on high end security, I’ve long figured that someone who wanted to mess up the U.S. could travel around through drought areas with a Bic Lighter, and do immeasurable damage.  For a bio-attack, you’d infect someone who enters the country (while incubating), and send ’em to a conference with people from all over the country.

Speaking of bioweapons:  In early 2001, Los Alamos held hearings around the region about their plans to open a Biohazard Level 3 lab, which would keep live cultures of various potential bio-weapons pathogenic agents (anthrax, plague, influenza – 7 in all).  Oh joy!  A new 400-pound gorilla in the neighborhood!  My boss sent me to that meeting, asking for a report.  It was a lively three-ring circus.  But it is also a story for another day.  Suffice it to say that had they found a lab like the Los Alamos BioLab in Iraq, it would have been proof of WMD’s, fer sure!



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    • LoE on September 13, 2007 at 03:27

    Can’t say “Here I am!!”  That’s reserved for The Boss.

  1. Were you able to get satisfactory snow readings at any point?  Is anyone testing for long term health parameters?

    Unholy smoke!

  2. who redefined “old growth” I did a little flash backing on that old bastard on the web. Ewwww how I have despised that man. Here’s a fun factoid from his wikipedia page that makes me want to puke, though it doesn’t surprise.

    For over two decades, Watt held the record for protecting the fewest species under the Endangered Species Act in United States history. The record was broken by Dirk Kempthorne, a George W. Bush appointee who, as of August 27, 2007, had not listed a single species in the 15 months since his confirmation. [3]

    This is a great story you’ve told LOE. The lesson here, as at Ground Zero, as in NOLA after Katrina, as with our public drinking water, as with our toys from China, as with our pet food from China, as with the commercially grown anything anymore…. can’t believe it is safe just beacause the government says so. Can’t believe it is safe just because the proprietor says so.

    The lesson is after living through Watt and his ardent worshipper Gail Norton, we certainly can’t trust the EPA. We have to take care of ourselves.

    This has given me an idea. I helped work on a book about simple chemical spot tests a while back, particularly on those tests to identify heavy metals.

    I think I might work on an essay for the weekend to provide info for people on how to do their own testing.

    Knowledge is power.

  3. each one has a little americium in it…but I’d say the vegetation and soil had the most.

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