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To avert further harm in the wake of the May 2000 Los Alamos wildfire, DOE is taking emergency actions with potentially significant impacts, without preparing an EIS. Instead, DOE is proceeding under "alternative arrangements" to comply with NEPA, as provided under 40 CFR 1506.11, a section of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) NEPA regulations that deals with emergency circumstances. The specific alternative arrangements were established in consultation with CEQ, as discussed further below. DOE’s post-fire emergency activities include constructing a 70-foot-high water retention structure in Pajarito Canyon to protect Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) nuclear facilities and the downstream communities from flooding due to summer rainstorms and possible contaminant transport.

Agencies seldom have invoked the emergency provision of the CEQ regulations, only about 30 times in 22 years, in cases that demanded immediate action to respond to threats to life, national security, or an important resource. Based on DOE records, this is only the third time DOE has used these procedures. The other cases involved the Bonneville Power Administration’s actions to save the endangered sockeye salmon on the Snake River and the threatened failure of the Par Pond Dam at the Savannah River Site, both in 1991.

After consulting with CEQ on the Los Alamos wildfire, DOE published a Notice of Emergency Action and is now preparing a Special Environmental Analysis to evaluate the environmental impacts of the completed and ongoing emergency actions. This analysis is a major component of DOE’s NEPA compliance for the emergency actions extending through November 2000.

Emergency Actions Have Net Beneficial Impacts

The fire began on May 4 when high winds caused a prescribed burn within the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico to spread out of control.

DOE and other agencies immediately took action to contain and extinguish the fire and limit its damage – establishing clearings for fire lines, clearing access roads and improving existing roads for heavy transport equipment and fire trucks, cutting down trees to protect utilities and structures, setting small backfires to protect buildings and utilities, and dropping water and fire-retardant slurry from low-flying helicopters and airplanes. These actions taken during the fire had relatively minor environmental impacts that were primarily beneficial.

Recovery Team Undertakes Broad Range of Post-Fire Actions

By the time the fire was brought under control two weeks later, it had burned almost 43,000 acres, including 7,650 acres on LANL. The fire’s destruction of vegetation cover left the area vulnerable to soil erosion and flooding from summer rainstorms. LANL hydrologists estimated that runoff could be significantly greater than before the fire, potentially threatening the property and well-being of the 10,000 residents located downstream of the DOE lands in White Rock, the Pueblo of San Ildefonso, and the Pueblo of Cochiti. Soil erosion and flooding also could threaten to release hazardous and radioactive contaminants from 168 potential release sites and two nuclear facilities at LANL. It may take years to decades in some locations for enough vegetation to become established on hillsides and canyons to deter soil erosion and flooding.

Post-Fire Emergency Actions at LANL

  • Environmental Damage Assessment: On-foot and aerial surveys; repairing and replacing air and surface water monitoring stations; contaminant monitoring 
  • Potential Release Sites: Stabilizing and protecting damaged or vulnerable sites; treating, removing, and disposing of contaminants; excavating canyon bottoms 
  • Cultural Resources: Assessing, protecting, and stabilizing damaged or vulnerable sites 
  • Threatened and Endangered Species: Assessing fire and post-flood impacts on threatened and endangered species and their habitats 
  • Utilities and Infrastructure: Protecting and repairing buildings, structures, roads, and utilities; decontaminating or demolishing contaminated buildings 
  • Hazard Reduction Actions: Stabilizing soils and reseeding; improving, replacing, and installing culverts; retaining or diverting stormwater runoff; relocating hazardous material and special nuclear material; removing dead and damaged trees 
  • Other Recovery Actions: Staging and storing equipment and building materials, installing temporary housing 

Because July and August are peak months for rainstorms, the post-fire conditions justified taking further emergency actions without sufficient time to prepare an EIS. These emergency response actions have a net beneficial impact, although potential environmental impacts to specific receptors range from beneficial to adverse. The actions most likely to result in adverse impacts include removing potential contaminants, especially in canyon bottoms and floodplains. Although these actions would reduce the potential spread of contaminants, by removing additional vegetation they would also increase the potential for soil erosion. Flood control mechanisms, such as berms, dams, sediment traps, and catchment basins, alter local drainage patterns and also could cause adverse environmental impacts. 

DOE Consults with CEQ, Commits to Public Involvement

In May and early June 2000, officials of DOE and the other Federal agencies represented on the Cerro Grande Fire Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation Team consulted with CEQ regarding environmental review for the emergency actions. In a June 15 letter documenting these consultations, Henry Garson, NEPA Compliance Officer for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Defense Programs, described DOE’s plans and commitments for alternative NEPA compliance. DOE would issue a Notice of Emergency Action, provide a range of public involvement opportunities, monitor the effectiveness and environmental effects of emergency actions, make monitoring results public and consider any resulting comments, and modify actions during implementation to mitigate adverse effects. DOE also committed to prepare a Special Environmental Analysis, to be issued in September 2000, to evaluate the environmental impacts of the completed and ongoing emergency actions. 

These alternative arrangements for complying with NEPA proved satisfactory to CEQ, as stated in the June 15, 2000, response from Dinah Bear, General Counsel: "We commend DOE for its commitment to provide for continuing public involvement, including soliciting comment on the Notice of Emergency Action, the Special Environmental Analysis, and on monitoring results and prospective mitigation." CEQ requested a brief report summarizing the conduct of the alternative arrangements and identifying any lessons learned or recommendations that DOE thinks would be useful to consider in future emergency situations, which DOE agreed to provide when the alternative arrangements are concluded. 

DOE Publishes Notice of Emergency Action Required under 10 CFR 1021.343

DOE then issued a Federal Register Notice (65 FR 38522; June 21, 2000) that listed past, current, and planned DOE emergency actions from the beginning of the fire through November 2000. The Notice also addressed the potential environmental impacts of these emergency actions and possible mitigation measures, and DOE’s plans for continuing public involvement and preparation of a Special Environmental Analysis. DOE has held weekly public meetings (until recently broadcast on local radio) and uses a Web site, press releases, telephone information line, and informal consultations to provide continuing information to stakeholders. DOE and the other agencies taking emergency actions have consulted with the affected Pueblos, and have accommodated their requests to preserve locations of cultural value. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State Historic Preservation Officer, and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also were consulted. In addition, DOE established a Public Advisory Group to focus on communications issues as they relate to potential runoff and flood mitigation activities.

Cerro Grande Fire Burned-Area Emergency Rehabilitation Team Members

Federal

Department of Energy

Forest Service

Natural Resources Conservation Service

National Park Service

Bureau of Indian Affairs

State and Local

State of New Mexico

County of Los Alamos

University of California

Pueblos

Santa Clara Pueblo

San Ildefonso Pueblo

Information Sources

Additional information, including photos and the Rehabilitation Plan, is available on the Web site of the Cerro Grande Fire Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation Team at www.baerteam.org/cerrogrande/. The Notice of Emergency Action is available on the DOE NEPA Web at tis.eh.doe.gov/nepa/ under DOE NEPA Announcements (and also at the LANL Web site, www.lanl.gov/ worldview/ under Cerro Grande Fire). When issued, the Special Environmental Analysis will be available on the DOE NEPA Web under DOE NEPA Analyses. 

For information on the role of the wildfire scenario accident analysis of the LANL Site-wide EIS in prompting mitigation actions, see Lessons Learned Quarterly Report, June 2000, page 1. LANL’s Wildfire 2000, August 2000, provides a more detailed comparison of the EIS postulated accident with the actual fire and is available on the LANL Web site at http://lib-www.lanl.gov/la-pubs/00393627.pdf. DOE issued an EA on the Wildfire Hazard Reduction and Forest Health Improvement Program at LANL (DOE/EA-1329) in August. For further information, contact Elizabeth Withers, NEPA Compliance Officer, Los Alamos Area Office, at ewithers@doeal.gov, or phone 505-667-8690.

Thank You, Elizabeth Withers

The Office of NEPA Policy and Compliance extends its appreciation to Elizabeth Withers, the Los Alamos Area Office NEPA Compliance Officer, for her hard work in coordinating NEPA compliance for emergency actions taken by DOE in response to the Cerro Grande Fire. Under difficult circumstances, Elizabeth kept affected parties informed of fast-breaking events, while managing the preparation of NEPA documents and coordinating the Department’s efforts with other agencies, particularly on matters pertaining to endangered species and protection of cultural resources.

Water Retention Structure Challenged

The Army Corps of Engineers is constructing for DOE a 70-foot-high water retention structure in Pajarito Canyon to protect the residents of White Rock and LANL facilities, including Technical Area 18, which contains nuclear facilities. Runoff control will be needed for several years until the groundcover regenerates. The structure, to be completed in September, will not hold back water permanently like a conventional dam, but instead is designed with a free-flow outlet structure to completely release impounded floodwater at a controlled rate within 96 hours. Forest Guardians, an environmental organization based in Santa Fe, questions the need for the "dam" and has filed a Notice of Intent to sue the Corps of Engineers for alleged violations of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.