Albuquerque's Toxic Legacy
Area groundwater hosts an array of hazardous chemicals resulting from years of industrial contamination
By Jessica Cassyle Carr
One night in May 2003, ConocoPhillips spilled nearly 40,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline fuel at one of its fuel storage facilities along Broadway between Gibson and Rio Bravo, only 8,000 of which were recovered; the rest seeped into the ground. This spill, which was the result of human error, was one in a string of South Valley spills dating from the mid '80s, and is an example of the type of hazard and potential extraneous industrial pollution that South Valley residents fear to this day.
Albuquerque contains 36 Environmental Protection Agency regulated industrial sites that work with hazardous chemicals. Thirty-two of those sites are located in the Mountain View Neighborhood in the South Valley, which is bound by I-25 and the Rio Grande and stretches south of Gibson to Isleta Pueblo.
The city also monitors three Superfund sites, two of which make their homes in the Mountain View Neighborhood. Superfund, a federal program established in 1980, deals with substantial contamination of soils and groundwater which affect or pose a threat to the public or local ecology. An inventory of the major polluting industry sites in Mountain View, as listed in the Albuquerque Journal last year, include: "Public Service Company of New Mexico's Persons Station, seven petroleum fuel bulk terminals, Rek Chemical, and 35 other hazardous waste facilities that include a water treatment facility, a dairy, more than 25 auto recycling yards, five gravel and concrete companies, a solid waste landfill, a fertilizer factory and a chicken farm. In addition, there are 16 major air-polluting industries and 66 smaller polluting industries in the area." Albuquerque's three Superfund sites include the Fruit Avenue Plume, Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad site and South Valley site, which is at the top of the EPA's priority list for cleanup in New Mexico (see below).
All three contaminations are the result of improper disposal of hazardous materials, a problem which the EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) say is prevented now by regulations and oversight. However, those who live in the South Valley are uneasy about the long-term health threat of these Superfund sites, combined with the concentration of other polluting industry and an additional push for more industry to locate in the area. They worry that the area faces further contamination.
Kitty M. Richards, a program manager with the Bernalillo County Office of Environmental Health who works with Mountain View community groups, says she sees more permits issued and more industry moving into the South Valley, particularly the Mountain View neighborhood, with little consideration for environmental fallout.
"There's very little done in looking at the impact on the community for all the sites put together," Richards says, adding that while the regulations for industry exist, what is lacking now and has lacked in the past is enforcement. She says she sees inspection sweeps of sites as erratic, and notes that many business owners seem to be unaware of the strictest regulations.
The disproportionate number of industrial sites located in the South Valley leads some to point to discriminatory practices in a historically socioeconomically depressed and politically disorganized community. Lauro Silva, a Mountain View community member, points out that the area has a high minority concentration, being largely Hispanic and closely located to African-American communities in the South Broadway area.
"These communities are already saturated with industrial sites and we can't afford any further contaminates on our quality of life, health and our local environment," says Silva.
In addition to the EPA monitored sites, Silva says the multitude of additional junkyards in the area, some of which are not monitored, where cars are dismantled or crushed without having fluids properly drained or batteries removed allowing more oil, gas, acid, mercury and other chemicals to seep into the ground. He says the neighborhoods need better quality monitoring for pollution and more information from government officials.
"We have a bunch of open questions that need to be answered," says Silva.
According to Greg Lyssy, EPA senior project manager for the South Valley Superfund site, groundwater in the South Valley area exceeds maximum contaminant levels, but he says the pump and treatment system (as the name suggests, the system pumps out contaminated water, treats it and injects it back into the aquifer), which has been in use since 1996, has cleaned 3.7 billion gallons of water in the Superfund resulting in a substantial decrease in the contamination plume.
"Our goal is to eventually get all of the contamination out of the environment," says Lyssy. "The industries that move in, they're responsible for meeting the strict environmental regulations that are in place right now." Lyssy adds that he visits the site four times a year and estimates that the NMED visits it about five times a year.
Bart Farris, an environmental scientist with the Groundwater Quality Bureau of NMED, says that when it comes to growth in the Mountain View area, NMED requires permits for facilities that have intentional discharges.
"Those facilities that have spills or dumping of water contaminants, NMED requires them to take corrective action and clean it up," says Farris. "Also, NMED is working closely with the community to address these problems."
Farris says the water quality distributed to all Albuquerque residents meets federal and state standards. "We're working very hard to serve the public, because that's our purpose, we really are committed to that."
The EPA plans to release a five-year review of Albuquerque Superfund sites in September. According to the EPA and the NMED, the status of Albuquerque's three Superfund sites will conclude they are on track to being cleaned up, with the plumes removed from the aquifer.
South Valley Superfund Site
The South Valley site, located at Broadway and Woodward just south of Gibson, was established in 1983 after two Albuquerque municipal wells were found to be contaminated with chlorinated solvents and were shut down two years prior. The contamination is primarily the result of a General Electric aircraft engine degreasing operation, and Unibar, a company that handles, mixes and distributes various chemicals.
Since 1996, a groundwater pump and treat system has been in place and, according to the EPA, the plume (the concentrated area of contamination) is in remediation due to the clean-up effort, paid for by GE and Unibar. Both companies continue to operate in the area.
AT&SF Superfund Site
Between 1907 and 1972 the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF), located at 3300 Second Street SW, treated wood, namely railroad ties, with creosote and a number of other chemical compounds, disposing of the chemical waste in unlined pits. Creosote, a dense, nonaqueous phase liquid, is heavier than water. This is problematic because the chemicals run into layers of clay, travel laterally and continue sinking, making it hard to track. AT&SF became a Superfund site in 1994 and its status is still under investigation. The cleanup process is being paid for by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad who merged with AT&SF in 1997.
Fruit Avenue Plume Superfund Site
Located Downtown at Second and Marquette, the Fruit Avenue Plume was designated as a Superfund site in 1999 and is the result of Elite Cleaners, a dry cleaning facility that operated between 1940 and 1972. According to the EPA, the contamination plume is currently moving eastward. Ways to remedy the contamination are currently being studied. Because there is no viable responsible party, the federal government is paying for 90 percent of the cleanup with the state covering the rest.
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