ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's top environmental regulator says it could take the federal government another decade and more than $4 billion to clean up the hazardous waste and contamination remaining at one of the nation's premier nuclear weapons laboratories.
Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn provided the estimate Wednesday to state lawmakers as he outlined proposed changes to a consent order that guides cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
It's been more than a decade since New Mexico and the U.S. Energy Department first signed the order. Flynn told lawmakers that it's time to move from investigating contaminated sites at the northern New Mexico lab to doing real work.
"Everyone is very eager to move forward and I think the priorities of the department as well as the communities are all in line," Flynn said. "We want to accelerate cleanup and we want to try to leverage more funding for cleanup. How we get there, there are differences of opinion, but I think we all share those same goals."
The Environment Department is reviewing roughly 30 public comments received over the last 60 days, but it's unclear when a final decision on the order will be made.
The state estimates there are hundreds of individual sites on lab property and around the town of Los Alamos that are still home to tons of waste and contamination left behind by decades of nuclear research and development.
Since deadlines were missed under the old agreement, the state wants to make the proposed order more flexible by establishing a work plan that's updated each year. If the federal government and its contractors fail to meet the annual expectations, there will be penalties.
Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richards, a Democrat whose district includes the lab, and other lawmakers said they appreciate the new approach. Garcia Richards said the proposal allows for the state to make decisions as new information becomes available, whether it concerns the threat of wildfire or a new plume of contamination.
Other lawmakers questioned whether the federal government would adequately fund cleanup in the future.
Flynn expects funding to remain steady, but he said additional money is more likely if the state and DOE can clearly articulate the work that will be done each year.
State officials have suggested dedicating $255 million a year to environmental work at Los Alamos, much more than the request of $189 million for the next fiscal year.