Photo: Benny Rotlevy / unsplash

The EPA was formed in 1970, in response to heightened public concerns about environmental degradation. Through the 1970s, Congress enacted several key pieces of legislation that provided the EPA with authority to protect public health and the environment and to control hazardous waste. Yet, it was clear this wasn’t enough; unregulated dumping of hazardous waste led to several large toxic fires and the exposé of the tragic results of contamination of Love Canal. In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to address the dangers of abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste dumps. It developed a nationwide program for emergency response, liability, and cleanup, and established a Hazardous Substance Response Trust Fund (or ‘Superfund’) to collect taxes on petroleum and chemical feedstocks and to impose fines and penalties that would be used to finance emergency responses and cleanups.

As soon as the Superfund was established, communities across the US submitted proposals to fund cleanups. The agency was overwhelmed, and polluters did not contribute money to the fund as expected. Initially, businesses involved in making and selling chemicals were taxed to cover the costs of ‘orphan’ sites, those for whom responsible polluters couldn’t be identified to pay part of the costs. That tax was repealed in 1995, though, and by 2003, the Superfund was bankrupt. Since then, a small amount of money has been put in yearly by the Department of Interior.

The EPA keeps a National Priorities List (NPL) of sites with a high Hazard Ranking System score. Sites on the NPL are schedule for long-term cleanup. There are 15 sites on the NPL in New Mexico, of which four are in the mid Rio Grande.

Something can be learned by looking at each of the four sites. All have followed the two major studies required by the EPA before cleanup starts. A Remedial Study (RS) determines the extent of the contamination and its risk to the community. Then a Feasibility Study (FS) considers options for cleanup.

The South Valley site (1983) is a one-square-mile Superfund site in Albuquerque’s Broadway/Woodward SE area and consists of two properties, a Univar facility and the former Air Force Plant 83. Chemical distribution and military activities left Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the soil and groundwater, and the site was added to the NPL in 1983. Contaminated residential wells had to be capped and three city wells were shut down in 1987. The approach to mitigating the situation has been successful on three of the six operable units (OUs) on this massive site. Those portions have been removed from the NPL, but the other three OUs are still active.

The AT&SF site (1994) is 89 acres on 2nd St. SW in Albuquerque. The contamination here occurred from the creosote and oil used to manufacture pressure-treated wood products. Dense nonaqueous phase liquid (DNAPL) is found in both soil and ground water. There have been no updates from EPA since 2011, and no information on why this cleanup is stalled.

The Fruit Avenue Plume (1999) is in downtown Albuquerque and caused by decades of contamination from laundry and dry cleaning businesses. While there are still wells operating to monitor the plume, the cleanup of this site is considered a remediation success. A developer built green low-income housing over a part of this area after the cleanup.

The Eagle Picher Carefree Battery site (2007) in Socorro came to attention when TCE in the Olson municipal well was detected. The RS/FS studies were completed in 2014, and additional studies on volatile gas emitted from the plume were completed in 2016. So far, no cleanup has started, but one billion dollars in funding from the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will go towards cleanup of 49 previously unfunded sites, including this one. This EPA link has a timeline which allows one to see the very slow progress cleanup can take.

Less contaminated than NPL sites may be categorized as brownfields – these are properties on which continued or future use is complicated by the presence of hazardous substances. The EPA provides free assessments to communities through the Targeted Brownfields Assessment program. A Voluntary Remediation Program (VRP) provides incentives to voluntarily remediate and redevelop contaminated property. Revolving loan fund grants to redevelop such brownfields accept proposals annually. In the mid Rio Grande, grants have been awarded for cleanup at Hotel Andaluz, the Sandoval County Judicial Complex, the old Albuquerque High School, and the Luna Motel along Central in Albuquerque. The latter, when cleaned up, was converted to 30 low-income LEED-certified housing units.

The New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) has a division on Remediation Oversight which encourages cleanup of contaminated sites and offers a certificate if the project is completed to specifications. The previously mentioned brownfields sites had qualified for certification and that is why they could be built on or renovated.

The VRP program lists three high priority projects for cleanup in the mid Rio Grande: Spartan Technology on Coors NW, Sandia National Labs, and Kirtland Air Force Base. Their medium level lists three more in the mid Rio Grande: GE Apparatus Servicing Shop on Mcleod Rd NE, PNM Person Generating Station on Broadway, and Signetics Corp (Phillips Semiconductor) Pan American Freeway NE. Their lowest tier lists: Brothers Plating 4th NW, Eagle Picher Industries Socorro, Gulton Industries on Gulton Rd., Rinchemical Co. Edith Blvd., Safety Klean Corp Girard NE, and VA Medical Center on Ridgecrest Dr. SE. The amount of money in the Infrastucture Bill for these cleanups is unknown.

The NM Environmental Improvement Division estimates that ground water pollution from multiple contaminating events has affected twenty public supply wells and 450 private wells statewide. The Fish and Wildlife Service lists 32 sites of contamination in the Rio Grande Watershed. There is no doubt that we do not know the extent of ground water contamination.

One of the least talked about or recognized sites of contamination is landfills. The plastic ban bill which would decrease some of the overuse of landfills looks stalled in the legislature. Contamination of ground water is ongoing. Is there energy to do something now? The next issue of the will continue this conversation.