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Big, Toxic and Still Not Cleaned Up

Rashad Mahmood-Public Health New Mexico
Monitoring well readings taken in the Laun-Dry plume investigation. Some wells have measured chemical solvents orders of magnitude higher than state standards. The size of the bubbles on the map correspond to the amount of contamination measured.

A plume of toxic dry cleaning chemicals has been moving through Albuquerque's groundwater for at least two decades. At 35 feet deep and at least a mile and a half long, it's closer to the surface and covers more distance than the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill. And the chemicals in the groundwater, called TCE and PCE, cause cancer, birth defects and neurological problems. 

Experts say the Laun-Dry plume is shallow enough to evaporate and come to the surface as gas. That could pose health risks to people living and working in the area. But the cleanup process has stalled out over the last ten years, and even though state and federal guidelines call for it, no health assessment or comprehensive air testing has been carried out.

KUNM's All Things Considered host Chris Boros sat down with reporter Ed Williams, who broke the story, to talk about the plume and the concerns it raises for public health. 

HOST: So how does something like this compare to say the Kirkland Air force Base jet fuel spills? Any similarities? 

REPORTER: Well in terms in the distance of the plume, this thing might be bigger than the jet fuel spill. We don’t know for sure because the New Mexico Environment Department hasn’t figured out exactly how far east it goes.

But we know that it stretches from 12th Street and Aspen to at least to Sunset and Memorial Cemetery, which is about a mile and half away.

But it’s also much closer to the surface. The contamination is about 35 feet deep and the chemicals involved are in this case really are especially dangerous.

HOST: Well, what are the chemicals?

REPORTER: They are called PCE and TCE which are known carcinogens. They cause really nasty birth defects, and other health problems. PCE is commonly used in dry cleaning.  The EPA is trying to faze that out, but to get technical it breaks down into TCE underground. And that’s why the Laun-Dry plume is primarily made up of TCE.

But it’s no joke, this is the stuff that caused a rash of cancer at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. There was a case in San Antonio where a construction crew was knocked unconscious because they were digging into a pool of TCE that had leaked from an air force base there.

The levels in this plume here in Albuquerque are pretty high.

HOST: How high are we talking?

REPORTER: One monitoring well picked up a reading of 8,500 times higher than the legal ground water limit for PCE. But you know, most readings are a lot lower than that, but they’re still much, much higher than state standards.

HOST: So this a problem for drinking water? There’s got to be health risks, right?

REPORTER: No, no. There aren’t any drinking water wells in the vicinity, so that’s really probably not something to worry about.

But what happens with these chemicals is that they vaporize. They evaporate under ground and turn into gas, where they then can come up to the surface. And if that gas makes its way into buildings and homes that can be a real problem for people.

HOST: What should the government be doing about this?

REPORTER: Well first, they are supposed to be working with the people responsible for the pollution to figure out exactly what the plume looks like, what the best way to get rid of the contamination is. 

In this case, that process has taken 10 years. But the Environment Department says they hope to move more quickly towards a comprehensive cleanup very soon.

And also with these levels there should be air testing and human health risk assessments going on to see if anyone is in danger of breathing the TCE. But the way the rules are written, that really can’t happen until the state moves to the next phase of the clean up process.

But just to be clear, there might not be any danger at all to people here, we just don’t know for sure until more studies happen.

HOST: But why has it taken 10 years for the state to start looking at the health impacts?

REPORTER: Well, the Groundwater Bureau is certainly frustrated with the pace of this thing. They say they want it to move faster. But they’ve had some serious financial constraints, also there’ve been some interesting legal maneuvering going on behind the scenes. We’ll get into all that in our next report on this story.

Also this issue of vapor intrusion, you know, the gases coming up from groundwater contamination, it’s really a pretty new area of study. We’re just now recently starting to learn how dangerous it can be. 

The EPA, the New Mexico Environment Department just released their guidelines on handling this kind of situation in the past year. So I think this case shows just how hard it can be for the government to get the gears turning on a new environmental health policy. 

Editor's note: this text has been modified to reflect that the plume is longer than the Kirtland jet fuel spill.

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