Nevada Lawmaker Calls on Feds to Clean Up Water Contaminated by Nuclear Test Site

A Nevada lawmaker is calling on the federal government to step up cleanup efforts at a nuclear testing site that is responsible for contaminating underground aquifers which supply drinking water to more than 44,000 area residents.

But the U.S. Department of Energy says it has already spent millions to conduct remedial cleanup and ongoing monitoring for minimal radioactive remains unlikely ever to reach the public water supply.

Republican Nevada Assemblyman Ed Goedhart said concern is growing that the contaminated water, currently contained on federal land, can prevent access to billion dollars worth of much needed water for nearby Nye County.

He testified earlier this month to the state Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining that the destruction of natural resources is estimated at between $18 billion and $48 billion.

"Some of the (nuclear explosions) were detonated directly into the ground, and in some cases, directly into the aquifer," said Goedhart, who is proposing a state resolution that calls on the federal government to mitigate any damage.

"It's like they've written us off as a wasteland," Goedhart told

The Nevada National Security Site, previously known as the Nevada Test Site, was used by the federal government for aboveground and underground nuclear testing from 1951-1992. Testing in the 1,375 square-mile patch of desert and mountainous terrain included 1,021 nuclear explosions,according to the University of Nevada Las Vegas report, "Nevada Test Site Oral History Project."  Nine hundred explosions took place underground.

In 2010, the Department of Energy confirmed the presence of low levels of radioactivity one mile off the Nevada testing site on adjacent federal land run by the U.S. Air Force.

The levels showed 12,500 picaqueries per liter of tritium -- a form of radiation that causes cancer, well below the 20,000 picaqueries per liter of tritium threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Department of Energy's Nevada site office said it has conducted thousands of tests over more than 20 years and the department has spent approximately $260 million in the past 10 years alone. That includes well drilling, sample collection analysis of water and soil and computer modeling to see if any radioactivity from prior underground nuclear testing has affected nearby counties.

"We've done a lot of work with that," said Scott Wade, who works as an assistant manager for the department's environmental management site in Nevada. He said they try to communicate annual test findings with the Nevada community.

"Every year we do groundwater open houses to share what we've learned so far," Wade said, adding that it's highly unlikely that water contaminated with tritium would reach the public water supply.

The Energy Department says the nearest public source for water isn't for another 13 miles and the low levels of tritium in the water took nearly 60 years to travel one mile. At its current pace, it says, the contaminated water that's moving wouldn't reach a public source of water for another 700 years.

"An important point with this measurement is that tritium has a very short half-life," Wade added. "Within the next 200 years, the tritium will have decayed."

But Gary Hollis, who worked on the Nevada test site during the 1980s as an underground core driller and currently works as a Nye County commissioner, is skeptical of the test results.

He's wants the federal government to provide $4 million for Nye County to conduct its own independent analysis, which would include drilling its own wells and conducting tests to see if the contaminated water is reaching the area.

"It's just common sense that you don't take everybody's word for everything that they say," Hollis said. "We're a rural county and sometimes my citizens don't trust the federal government."

Goedhart agrees with Hollis that an independent study is needed, but the pending resolution, which has no force of law, must first pass through the Nevada Assembly and Senate.

"We need to have our own independent scientific observers that could talk with the folks at DOE," said Goedhart. "If we let the DOE plan it they'll say 'nothing's wrong and everything is all good.'"