LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (KRQE) - Unless you're a pigeon, most landfills are not very interesting.
But when the landfill is in Los Alamos--ground zero for the start of the atomic age--and contains pieces of the Manhattan Project, it becomes more intriguing.
The federal government is spending $94 million of stimulus money to clean up the landfill, which was used to store remnants of the effort to create a nuclear bomb. Waste, some of it contaminated with plutonium, was put into the dump between 1944 and 1948, said Gordon Dover, a deputy executive director of environmental programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
"What they did is dig a trench about 20-foot-wide and 18-foot-deep," Dover said. "And they would have a truck that would go around to the various laboratories and pick up this waste. And then they brought it out here and just tipped it into the landfill."
The kinds of items deposited in the old landfill include protective clothing, gloves, glassware, piping, construction debris, barrels of chemicals and even an old inline-six cylinder engine block, according to Dover and Fred deSousa, a LANL spokesman.
"The clothes [Robert] Oppenheimer would have worn into one of the laboratories, that's what we're digging up and shipping for disposal," Dover said.
Back in the '40s, Los Alamos was little more a complex of labs and barracks surrounding Ashley Pond in the center of town, and the landfill was far away from all that. Now, however, the town has grown and currently borders the old landfill.
"Our local newspaper is right across the road from us as we speak," Dover said.
The New Mexico Environment Department has long wanted the dump cleaned up. LANL began excavating the area in June and expects to be done digging by early summer. In the interim, massive metal half-dome structures have been placed over the area being excavated to protect the surrounding area from possible contamination by anything buried more than 60 years ago.
Nothing and no one leaves the site without being checked for radiation. The only person allowed inside the structures is the person who operates the excavator. That person must wear a protective suit and carry an oxygen tank in case of radiation contamination.
Technicians in a separate control room monitor both the material that comes out of the ground, as well as gauges that track radiation levels and other possible contaminants.
Officials say about 22,000 cubic yards of dirt and waste will be dug up, sealed in large, Dumpster-like containers and shipped off to authorized disposal sites across the country. When the site is clean, the lab will hand the land over to Los Alamos County.
Before digging began, lab officials heard stories about what they might find.
"The biggest mythical thing is anything from a Sherman tank to a fire truck from the Trinity test blast down in southern New Mexico," Dover said.
While those items remain in the realm of myth, workers did unearth a pipe contaminated with plutonium in August that set off alarms and stopped work for a couple weeks. Then, in November, fumes from a drum filled with an old solvent sickened some workers, though none were seriously injured.
Beyond that, it's the small things that have excited workers on the project. On the day News 13 visited, one particular item that had just come out of the ground caught a technician's eye.
"It was an old calendar dated February 1, 1948," said Brian Wentz. "It was about eight or nine sheets and each one had a day on it."
But that's not the most interesting thing dug up so far.
"It was a whiskey bottle with a label that still read Dan's Whiskey," said technician Amy Howard. "And I think people were more excited about that than anything they've seen so far."
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