LANL cleanup modifies fieldwork to protect threatened species

March 31, 2021, 3:01PMRadwaste Solutions
The Mexican spotted owl, which finds a home in northern New Mexico’s canyons and forests, is a threatened species that the DOE strives to protect. Photo: Don Ulrich, taken in Flagstaff, Ariz.

To protect a treasured ecological species of northern New Mexico, the Los Alamos Field Office (EM-LA) of the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management and its contractor N3B this month began their annual task of modifying legacy waste cleanup activities at Los Alamos National Laboratory ahead of the Mexican spotted owl breeding season.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the owl as a threatened species in 1993, when population numbers were decreasing drastically due to the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of their habitat.

Breeding grounds: In 1999, the DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration coordinated with the USFWS to create a habitat management plan to safeguard protected species at LANL.

In compliance with that plan, since 1999 the EM-LA and N3B modify fieldwork each year during the owl’s breeding season in locations identified as core habitat areas and buffer zones. Such areas—typically rocky, steep-walled canyons and old-growth conifer and pine-oak forests—contain ideal nesting habitats for the owls, which generally return to the same nests each year. The buffer zone, which extends 400 meters past the core habitat area, provides further protection.

“In addition to experiencing habitat degradation, spotted owls, which typically have the same mates for life, have a low reproduction rate, so survivability of their offspring is incredibly important,” said N3B environmental specialist Don Ulrich.

Preservation work: Activities that EM-LA and N3B modify include those that cause habitat alterations—or changes to the soil structure, vegetation, prey quality and quantity, water quality, or noise and light levels—regardless of whether or not survey crews identify owl nesting pairs.

In areas where nesting pairs are found, so-called disturbance activities are also avoided, and areas with known spotted owls remain restricted through August 31. In areas where owls are not detected, regular fieldwork may resume as early as May 31.

“Project managers know the closures come every year, so they plan ahead and prioritize other projects,” Ulrich said. “The owls’ existence is valuable, and we strive to protect and create space for other species.”

With USFWS’s concurrence, all sampling and monitoring of groundwater, surface water, stormwater, and sediment will continue during nesting season. These activities ensure EM-LA maintains compliance with the 2016 Consent Order for site cleanup.

Cleanup activities: LANL, located in Los Alamos, N.M., was established in 1943 as Site Y of the Manhattan Project. Today, EM-LA investigates hazardous chemical and radioactive materials contamination from past LANL operations and remediates sites where such materials are found above acceptable regulatory levels.

Cleanup locations include sites of former LANL buildings, hillsides, canyon bottoms, and old landfills. Mission activities include surface and groundwater monitoring and remediation, removing contaminated soil, and decontaminating and decommissioning surplus process-contaminated buildings.

More than 2,100 contaminated sites at LANL were originally identified for action, and over half of them (1,100) have been closed, ranging from small spill sites with only several cubic feet of contaminated soil to large landfills encompassing several acres.

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