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Tainted soil threatens Rio Grande

BY HEATHER | Los Alamos, NM | June 28, 2000

In the wake of huge wildfires in Los Alamos, officials are trying to stave off erosion that could send radioactive-contaminated soil onto Native American

lands and into the Rio Grande River.

After last month's wildfires charred more than 47,000 acres, workers are digging up truckloads of contaminated dirt along Los Alamos Canyon and shipping

it to a waste storage site at the Los Alamos laboratory. Seasonal rains could soon bring heavy flooding to areas left without trees and vegetation to hold soil

in place.

Officials reported that the excavation should be finished by Friday, and that the radiation levels are low.

Meanwhile fire-stricken residents are trying to restart their lives -- and revive their beloved forest.

Displaced families are moving into trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Between 40 and 80 families are moving in so

far, and the numbers are expected to increase as FEMA brings in more trailers next week.

Bobb Barnes, a Church World Service disaster resource consultant, said the number of requests for help from faith-based groups has not been as high as he

had anticipated.

"About 98% of the community is fully insured," said Barnes.

Barnes added that local clergy will meet early next week to decide on their next step. Leaders of faith-based and other response groups are urging people to

send monetary donations, rather than material goods, since groups are handing out vouchers to meet specific needs of survivors.

The American Red Cross still has a temporary National Service Office set up in town until the end of the month, when the local chapter will take over.

Interim Chapter Manager Carolyn McAboy said they have had over 1,500 families come in for assistance.

Volunteers are also working to repair the damaged forest.

The Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) team began its cleanup work over a month ago. One of the biggest worries after a wildfire destroys a

forest is flash flooding caused by the soil erosion. The BAER team is working steadily on soil stabilization, erosion barriers, mulch spreading, and hazardous

tree removal.

While the BAER team is a federally funded and ordered team, there is also a local group lending a hand. Corporal Al Toth of the Los Alamos County Police

Department heads up the volunteer side of the forest rehab project. Toth said local and federal officials kept getting requests from residents about what the

residents could do to help clean up. Toth said they all got together -- including FEMA, the Department of Energy, National Park Service, National Forest

Service, Los Alamos Laboratory, and National Resource Conservation Service -- and started organizing.

"Logistically speaking, this was an unbelievably huge task because we had to think about safety and all kinds of other factors in dealing with a potentially

huge number of volunteers," said Toth. "But we still got the word out and wanted to see what happened."

Toth said he was amazed by the response. He has been organizing over 500 people every Saturday since May 27 to help out with the BAER team forest

rehabilitation. So far, Toth said they've topped 15,000 volunteer hours spent raking, seeding, and mulching 500 acres; laying down 14,000 bales of straw;

placing 75,000 sandbags in flood-prone areas; and cleaning out culverts and ditches.

Toth said that while handling 500 acres out of 47,000 may not seem like much, it is truly an enormous amount of flood mitigation. And that's not the only

part Toth is impressed with.

"We did all that over a month with no injuries whatsoever," said Toth. "There weren't any sprained ankles or anything. The only hurt we had to deal with

was blisters."

Beyond getting the federal organizations to bend their rules to even allow volunteers into the forest, Toth had to procure quite a bit of equipment.

"We had to get 1,000 hard hats and 1,000 pairs of safety goggles, and we had to organize transportation and food for all these volunteers," said Toth. "Yet at

the same time, this program is almost completely 100% a volunteer program. Just about everything was donated to us, including almost all of the tools."

Toth believes that this kind of volunteer coordination has never been done before on such a level. Nearly 2,500 people are involved in Saturday cleanups.

Most of them are local citizens, but Toth said he also met people from as far away as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, helping out on their way

through the state. Toth thinks the volunteer group's work was also valuable because they freed up many of the 'experts' on the federal level so they could

work on higher-level critical work.

The volunteer group's work is winding down right now as Toth and the other government agencies try to set up the next step. They expect to be back out

in the forest by mid-July to start on trail restoration.

"We have one to two years of work ahead of us here," Toth added. "We want to set up a long-term program that includes community education and


Through all this volunteer mulch-spreading and seed-planting, Toth thinks they've set a precedent for national disaster management. "It's been quite an

experience," he said. "People are really pumped."

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