Pollutants lurk under 10 acres of Albuquerque’s Southeast side, contaminating the groundwater. But no one knows how fast they’re moving toward the city's aquifer. The Four Hills drinking water well is within a mile of the site.
From 1956 to 1979, Gulton Industries operated a military and aerospace electronics plant in the mouth of Tijeras Canyon, east of Four Hills. The company etched metal wafer boards with caustic chemicals, then rinsed the wafer boards with a mixture of chlorinated solvents.
The process released heavy metals, such as copper and chromium, into the rinse liquid. According to Environment Department documents, Gulton discharged that rinse into septic tanks, leach fields and unlined evaporation lagoons for 23 years.
Today, the caustic chemicals continue to find their way through the fractured bedrock around the site. Fifty-five years after the plant first started dumping its toxic rinse, the New Mexico Environment Department is preparing to seek federal Superfund classification for the area.
In the late '70s, Gulton sold its east Albuquerque land and moved production near Jefferson and I-25. In 1986, Gulton Industries was bought by New York-based Mark IV Industries. About a decade later, BF Goodrich bought Gulton but did not assume any environmental liability, which left the Tijeras Canyon site in Mark IV's lap.
In the mid-’90s, Mark IV dug out the original lagoon and discharge sites, and also removed contaminated soil and replaced it with clean earth. The Chant Corporation redeveloped the property into the Tijeras Business Park, home base for several technology businesses.
But the groundwater remained a problem. In 2002, the Cañón de Carnué Land Grant filed a lawsuit to force Mark IV to speed up its efforts. That lawsuit claimed polluted water had migrated onto land grant property. In 2003, State Engineer John D'Antonio began advising people requesting well permits in the area of a toxic underground plume. The Carnué community is working with the Water Authority, state water agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency to hook about 800 residents into the city/county system.
In 2008, during a second state-monitored effort, Mark IV began injecting a hydrogen-releasing compound into the groundwater to assist microbial degradation of the contamination. The last injection was in December 2008, when Mark IV Industries, Inc., announced it was going to file bankruptcy.
Mark IV filed its federal bankruptcy petition in New York in spring 2009. A few months later, the company asked that its cleanup obligations be classified as a debt. The company sought to be relived of that debt. The state Environmental Department and the EPA protested. In October 2010, Judge Stuart Bernstein decided Mark IV could not shirk its obligations.
Bernstein also said New Mexico could seek compensation for what it had paid for the cleanup. The state said it had spent more than $1.2 million.
Dana Bahar is the program director of the Superfund Oversight Section for the Environment Department. She says despite last year's ruling, plans are underway for the possibility that Mark IV will leave the costly and lengthy cleanup to the state.
“We are trying to settle with Mark IV as to what they will do at the site,” Bahar says. “If they abandon, then we can petition the Environmental Protection Agency to place it on its National Priorities List” of polluted areas.
This is what brought Bahar to a January Albuquerque City Council meeting. She was there in support of a memorial that would declare the site bad enough to make the list. Bahar says this is the start of the process to have the 10 acres declared a Superfund site, which is an abandoned hazardous area eligible for federal assistance. It would be the fourth in the Albuquerque area.
There are two Superfund sites in the South Valley and one near Downtown. The jet fuel spill at Kirtland Air Force Base is not considered a Superfund site. It has not been abandoned, and the base is starting its own cleanup process.
Bahar says no matter who rehabs the Gulton site, it will take a long time—perhaps up to 30 years—and it will be expensive due to its geology. With numerous underground pockets and pathways formed by the subterranean cracked rocks, fractured bedrock makes for less predictable water seepage paths. It becomes a hit-or-miss venture, she says, with an uncountable number of pocket areas where contaminated groundwater could collect.
According to well records, groundwater can be found in this area as shallow as 60 feet and as deep as 400 feet.
The groundwater pollution consists primarily of trichloroethylene, along with other volatile organic contaminants such as dichloroethylene and vinyl chloride. Exposure to high concentrations of the chemicals can increase risk of cancer and cause nervous system problems, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma, and death, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Boiling the water doesn’t help.
The state has 14 active monitoring wells punched into the 10 toxic acres. The wells are used to keep track of contaminant levels. Federal maximum contaminant levels for trichloroethylene in drinking water are 5 parts per billion. One monitoring well at the site registered 180 parts per billion, according to the state's Environment Department.
Bahar says a comparison of samplings taken in December 2008 and February 2010 shows the contaminants migrating downstream toward the Tijeras Arroyo. According to the 2009 Water Quality Report issued by the Water Authority, there are no significant findings of trichloroethylene or other volatile organic compounds in the Four Hills well, about a mile from the Gulton site.