The Environmental Protection Agency announced that it’s done funding the cleanup of a superfund site of toxic chemicals in Española, saying that after 10 years, it’s no longer legally obligated to keep trying. The plume is as big as 75 American football fields, spreads under downtown Española, and reaches the neighboring Santa Clara Pueblo and the Rio Grande.
The EPA’s records show their cleanup methods didn’t work the way they were supposed to and left the worst contaminants under residential areas. KUNM spoke with Rio Grande Sun news editor Austin Fisher, who’s been covering this.
AUSTIN FISHER: The plume originates from the former site of what’s called the Norge Town Dry Cleaners. According to the EPA’s own measurements, the plume itself has gone down 260 feet deep underground and has penetrated at least three layers of the groundwater.
There are houses. There is Española’s downtown main drag, which is called Paseo de Oñate, which includes the Española Community Market, which is a food co-op, the Española Fitness Center, Las Cumbres office is there, where children go to class, where people go to get services.
KUNM: What are the health effects from the kinds of chemicals that are part of the spill? And what’s at stake for people living over it or living near it?
FISHER: So in 2018, the EPA did an assessment of the actual gas that’s coming up out of the soil in the plume, and they found concentrations of a chemical called TCE that exceeds EPA standards for cancerous substances by 175 times. TCE can cause various kinds of cancer: kidney cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer.
There are actively these gases coming up out of the soil into people’s homes and into people’s workplaces. Very little testing has been done of these gases that are penetrating these buildings.
KUNM: So, from your story, the cleanup that the Environmental Protection Agency was doing was working OK where the plume is shallow, but the plume was spreading in the deeper parts, right? And some of the worst of it is under these neighborhoods. Have you heard from the folks living in those neighborhoods?
FISHER: Well the general sense from people living over the plume has been: We didn’t know about this. People in these strange suits, you know, came in and did some kind of testing, but they did not actually know what the testing was for, and they have not gotten any followup contact about what were the results of those tests.
Right now, the working theory from the EPA, is that there is a second source of contamination that has not been identified.
KUNM: Has the state’s Environment Department stepped up to the plate or offered a plan?
FISHER: The closest thing to a plan that I’ve seen from the New Mexico Environment Department is moving the Railroad Avenue plume into its investigation division. So that seems like a real step toward putting resources into figuring out what this other source of contamination is.
But it’s not clear to really anyone right now whether this new contamination is actually within the city limits of Española or on Santa Clara Pueblo land.
KUNM: So we’ve got 19 superfund sites here in Albuquerque, and one of them is a dry cleaning plume near Albuquerque’s Downtown. How does the EPA’s response stack up in both those cases?
FISHER: When environmental regulators made the actual decision on how they would try to clean up the North Railroad Avenue plume, they chose the cheapest option. It’s called bioremediation. And it’s basically injecting vegetable oil into the ground in the hopes that it breaks down these toxic chemicals.
You know, this method is basically one step above doing nothing—just waiting and seeing what happens. It cost about $5.8 million. Contrast that with in Albuquerque, they chose the most effective method. It’s called pump and treat. It’s literally where you pull the water out of the ground, you treat it, and then you put it back into the aquifer. That method costs about $11.4 million.
That remedy offers the highest degree of protection to human health in the shortest time frame. And if you look at that neighborhood today at the corner of Lomas and Second Street, there’s a lot of money being poured into that neighborhood, because there’s no threat to public health like there is in Downtown Española.