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Environment Department Demands Corrections To Our Toxic Plume Coverage. Here's Our Response.

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KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project has been reporting on a plume of toxic chemicals in Albuquerque’s groundwater for over six months.

We obtained public documents from the New Mexico Environment Department that show the groundwater plume has been spreading underneath a mile-and-a-half-long swath of Albuquerque’s Sawmill and Wells Park neighborhoods. Our investigation shows the contamination has the potential to reach people on the surface and could pose a serious health risk to people living and working in the area.

After we broadcast the 7th story in our coverage, NMED spokeswoman Allison Majure emailed us on Feb. 4, 2016, with a list of objections to our reporting about the plume. (You can read the full email and our email response here.) She said there were multiple errors and asked us to retract a map of the contamination we published in October 2015 as part of the investigation.

We are always open to receiving critical feedback on our stories, and we correct our errors. In this case, we reviewed the department’s objections and found no inaccuracies in our reporting. No corrections are warranted.

We have provided additional information so people who are interested in the map can review how we made it using the Environment Department’s own data.

NMED objected to the following passage of the story we aired on Feb. 3, 2016 – “Testing Begins In Homes Near Toxic Plume”:

Decades ago a chemical business called Laun-Dry Supply Company leaked poisonous dry cleaning solvents into Albuquerque’s groundwater. In the years since, nobody has investigated possible health impacts to people living near the contamination.

NMED’s Objection: “This is incorrect. With the public announcement and NMED’s investigation in 2005, sampling and testing work began to define the area of groundwater contamination which was not found, at that point, to extend to the residential areas. The affected public was invited to come forward with concerns, and no residential concerns were then expressed as evidenced by the full record, which you possess from your earlier IPRA request. The earlier tests did not indicate expansion to residential areas.

Sampling, and indoor air testing at the Laun-dry site and at nearby commercial establishments occurred years ago. Levels were well below OSHA standards.”

Our Response: The Environment Department’s 2005 public announcement (which we reported and linked to in two of our stories here and here) does not constitute an investigation of possible health impacts to people living near the contamination.

In fact, the announcement makes no mention of health impacts or the potential for health risks at all, nor did it invite people to “come forward with their concerns.” Rather, NMED’s announcement told people that if they wanted to “review the Stage 1 Abatement Plan they could do so by contacting the Project Manager.”

The sampling and testing the Environment Department performed in 2005 did not constitute an investigation of health impacts to people living near the contamination, either. KUNM’s investigation found—and NMED representatives confirmed—that the department was first trying to characterize the extent of the spill.

The two monitoring wells in nearby residential areas were not tested until 2013, according to the data the Environment Department provided to KUNM.

And the sampling for vapors that was performed at the Laun-Dry facility was not performed in the homes of residents living nearby until February 2016, more than 15 years after the contamination was first discovered and four months after KUNM published the first report in our coverage of the spill.

NMED’s Objection: “The assertion in your October 26th story that ‘NMED has been silent’ about the spill is incorrect.”

Our Response: KUNM never reported on-air, online or in interviews with other media outlets that “NMED has been silent” about the spill.

KUNM reported that decades after the discovery of potentially dangerous groundwater contamination, NMED had not investigated the health impacts to people living in the area near the plume.

To this day, NMED has not issued a public notice or opened an official public comment period seeking input about the mile-and-a-half-long plume of contamination. Majure told KUNM in an interview the department had not warned citizens of the plume, because, she said, doing so before the plume was fully characterized would be premature.  

NMED’s Objection: “In addition our website’s mapping tool… provides a wealth of information to reporters and the public on contamination, environmental oversight and cleanup throughout the state.”  

Our Response: The scarcity of available public information about the Laun-Dry spill is part of what prompted KUNM to investigate further.

Last fall, NMED’s cleanup database displayed only the following. That site has since been updated.

Credit New Mexico Environment Department
New Mexico Environment Department

The NMED mapping tool of active remediation sites showed a dot at the site of Laun-Dry’s building, with the same information as the cleanup database (above). There was no further information available on the mapping tool.

We certainly wouldn’t call what has been available to the public online a “wealth of information.” 

Credit New Mexico Environment Department
New Mexico Environment Department

NMED’s Objection: “The map posted at: http://kunm.org/post/no-cleanup-plan-abq-dry-cleaning-spill#stream/0 is incorrect. Please take it down. NMED’s GIS specialist noted:

a)   They [KUNM] did not link to the original report on their website.

b)   They did not state the date of the collected data, and it changes drastically through the years…

c)    Their map doesn’t show the samples themselves, just a ‘heat map’ or plume of TCE interpolated from them…

d)   They didn’t list the NMWQCC [New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission] allowable threshold for TCE, which is 100 µg/L, although it is in the original report.

e)    Their legend shows concentrations going from 20 µg/L to 1800 µg/L, but the range of samples was actually 1 µg/L to 1500 µg/L, at least for the latest 2015 round of data gathering.

f)     They appear to be extrapolating outside the sampled area… Interpolation is by definition interpolation, and can’t be done outside of the sample area.”

Credit Rashad Mahmood-Public Health New Mexico

Our Response: Our objective with the map of the Laun-Dry plume was to create a simple visualization to show where there is known contamination from the plume. The Environment Department didn’t have anything like that available online for the public.

For our map, we used NMED’s own data—the most recent measurements available at the time of the story’s publication—to create a heatmap and to draw an outline of where TCE had been detected. (Download the data here.)

We had an expert source review our map, and we did not add information or interpolate. We did make it clear in our map that the boundaries of the plume are not well-defined.

During some years of NMED groundwater testing of the Laun-Dry spill, not all wells were tested. The 2015 data alone would not have created a comprehensive image of the plume. So we used the most recent data from each well and that meant using measurements from 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The potential health risks from the Laun-Dry plume come from what’s called vapor intrusion—chemicals evaporating underground and coming to the surface as gas. The Environment Department’s policy states that vapor intrusion should be investigated when TCE contamination is at levels much lower than the groundwater standard. The fact that some of the TCE contamination from the Laun-Dry plume doesn’t violate the state’s groundwater standards is irrelevant to our coverage.

We used ArcGIS Online to create the heatmap of the plume and some of the lower TCE concentrations didn’t show up. However, all concentrations of TCE from the department’s data we used are reflected in our outline of the extent of the plume. We pulled the data from NMED’s report and created this spreadsheet for the map.

We have added more explanation to the online caption on the map, and we are confident that the information in this article would allow anyone to re-create it using NMED data.

We stand by our reporting on Laun-Dry and the image of the contamination that we created.

Over the course of our investigation of the Laun-Dry spill, we have parsed hundreds of pages of documents and Environment Department emails. We didn’t link to all the documents we used, so here they are. We hope citizens and other media outlets will use them and raise the profile of this important story.

In the course of our reporting, we found that many of the people living and working in the neighborhoods near the Laun-Dry contamination had no idea that the plume existed or that there were potential health risks from breathing vapors from the chemicals underground.

Early on in our investigation, the Environment Department allowed us to interview the state employees who are working on the spill. Now, the department’s spokeswoman is refusing interviews, forcing us to file public records requests for basic information like whether recent tests found toxic vapors in homes near the plume.

This is unfortunate. Our commitment as a news organization is to the public, and to the people in Sawmill and Wells Park who could be at risk of chemical exposure and whose health has not been adequately assessed.

We will continue to cover this story. And we expect to be able to interview NMED staff about what is being done to protect public health and address the Laun-Dry contamination. We also expect the Environment Department to fulfill its responsibility of providing the information the public needs.

Elaine Baumgartel was KUNM's News Director from 2013 to 2019. She was local Morning Edition host from 2007 through 2012 and she regularly hosted the station's live news and public affairs show for some years. Elaine originally came on board at KUNM as a volunteer and student employee in 2003.
Ed Williams came to KUNM in 2014 by way of Carbondale, Colorado, where he worked as a public radio reporter covering environmental issues. Originally from Austin, Texas, Ed has reported on environmental, social justice, immigration and Native American issues in the U.S. and Latin America for the Austin American-Statesman, Z Magazine, NPR’s Latino USA and others. In his spare time, look for Ed riding his mountain bike in the Sandias or sparring on the jiu-jitsu mat.