Sandia LabNews

Sandia's Classified Waste Landfill project uncovers artifacts of Labs' early days

There’s a fascination in uncovering things long-buried, an eager anticipation, a sense — a hope? — that uncovered objects brought into the light have within them the power to shed light — on who we are, where we come from, why we’re where we are. .

COLD WAR WASTE — Paul Putelli, a contractor woking at Sandia’s Classified Waste Landfill cleanup project, examines Cold War artifacts excavated from the one-and-a-half-acre site. The project is working its way back through time; diggers are in the 1970s now. Eventually, objects from Sandia’s earliest years will be excavated. (Photo by Randy Montoya)
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Given that fascination, it comes as no surprise that Bob Galloway (6133), a 14-year Sandia veteran, and contractor Paula Slavin, who has been working on Sandia projects for several years, consider their current project — overseeing the excavation of Sandia’s Classified Waste Landfill — the most interesting of their careers.

The driver for cleaning up the Classified Waste Landfill wasn’t philosophy or history, it was pure unadulterated weapons-lab-brand pragmatism: "We’ve got a situation — buried classified wastes pose potential problems of an unknown dimension — and we’ve got to address that situation." And the solution? Pure Sandia can-do engineering: characterize the site, dig it up, sort out, identify, and characterize the buried material, and "demilitarize" and recycle as much of the material as possible. That, in a nutshell, is what the project is all about. Straightforward. No philosophical musings; no pondering of historical significance. But still, it intrigues.

Back in the old days of Sandia — from the late 1940s or early 1950s through the 1980s — nuclear weapons researchers and engineers had a persistent problem: What do you do with the classified residue of your work once its usefulness has been exhausted? You’ve got these shapes. These materials. These data. All this stuff that you really don’t want to fall into the wrong hands. What do you do with it? That’s easy: you bury it somewhere where prying eyes can’t see it. That’s the genesis of the Classified Waste Landfill. A one-and-a-half-acre site in Sandia’s Tech Area 2 that is the repository of a lot of Sandia’s past. The prologue of Sandia’s present. The foundation of its future.

But why, one might ask, dig up this stuff at all? With regards to classified materials, what better place for them than to remain buried, out of sight, safely nestled in the secure embrace of tons of New Mexico soil? That argument would make sense except that no one was quite sure what was buried there. Some of the materials might pose environmental hazards. Then again, the location is right on some prime real estate. If that ground could be recovered, it might be put to more appropriate use than as a legacy waste site. Besides, the site is just yards from Tijeras Arroyo, which drains into the Rio Grande. If there were problem materials, seepages, leechings, or emissions at the site, you wouldn’t want them carried downstream.

Designated an ER site

For these reasons, the Classified Waste Landfill was designated an environmental restoration (ER) site in the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, some characterization had been conducted. Some bore holes were run in 1993; a passive gas survey was conducted and surface radiation measurements were made. The tests showed no signs of serious environmental threats. Though no one was quite sure of what was actually buried at the site, the preliminary tests indicated it would probably be safe to start excavations. "Paula (Slavin) and I came to the project in 1997," Bob recalls. The two worked up a project plan that called for excavating the site, starting with the most recently buried material first, and working back through time. The last materials to be exhumed will ultimately be the first material that was buried.

In developing the excavation plan, Paula says she and Bob sought old records that would provide some clues as to what they’d find in the site.

"Finding records was a challenge, to say the least," says Paula. In an ironic turn of events, it seems that many of the records related to the site may have been discarded in response to requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act. In any event, she says, there were apparently few records kept in the early days of the landfill. Nearer to our own time, she adds, documentation got a bit better. Lacking solid records for much of the landfill’s history, Bob and Paula reviewed interviews that had been conducted in the early 1990s with a lot of old-timers. Their recollections were helpful, Bob says, but at the end of the day, to find out what was buried in the landfill, you just had to go out and dig it up.

A sense of going back through time

"We broke ground in March 1998," Bob says, "and we’re now about halfway through the site." That means that in the latest excavations, the team is uncovering materials buried in the early 1970s. The landfill was organized in a series of parallel trenches, clearly discernible on false-color electromagnetic imagery. Areas with higher concentrations of conductive metal show up in the images as the most intense colors.

"It’s fascinating to see what’s in there," says Paula. "You definitely get a sense of going back through time."

About 30 workers — mostly contract associates hired specifically for this project — have been involved in the actual excavation of the site. On the site, they are required to wear "moon suits," not because of concerns over radioactive materials — that hasn’t really been an issue at this site — but because of concerns over exposure to cadmium dust and other heavy metals.

A suite of special challenges

Digging at this site poses a special suite of challenges, Bob says. Because it is filled with materials that were at some point classified, everything that comes out of the landfill must be carefully characterized. Bob and Paula must ask, "Is it still classified? If so, can it or should it be demilitarized — that is, cut up, melted down, or otherwise altered so that its classified characteristics no longer exist?"

"A lot of classified materials used precious metals," Bob notes. He estimates that his team is recycling about 90 percent of the metals at the site.

Although demilitarizing and recycling has assumed a central role in the Classified Waste Landfill project, not everything can be dealt with that way. Where there’s any uncertainty about what to do with a particular item, it ends up in a container, which subsequently ends up in storage at a Manzano bunker facility.

So, what has come out of the site so far? Because of the nature of the material buried in the landfill, there’s a lot that can’t be talked about. But, among things that can be discussed are full-scale nuclear weapon mockups such as the B14, the B53, and the W53 — minus their nuclear parts and explosive components — used for testing or training military personnel. The B53 from the landfill has been sent to Los Alamos for use by a group training personnel to respond to nuclear and explosive incidents. The B14 ended up at the KAFB Defense Nuclear Weapons School museum. Likewise, Bob says, a number of components from the site will eventually end up at the National Atomic Museum, where they will serve as reminders of where Sandia came from, why it did the work it did, and — yes — maybe even shed some light on where Sandia’s future may lie.