EPA Admits Las Cumbres Was Exposed

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Las cumbres megan delano

“We were treated like we don’t matter and we don’t count,” Las Cumbres Executive Director Megan Délano said. “And that’s so much a rural, frontier, poor, minority narrative, and it’s unacceptable.”

Community members are angered over the New Mexico Environment Department and Environmental Protection Agency’s treatment of Las Cumbres Community Services.

Las Cumbres’ Hunter Street building, which is a childcare center, is located over part of the North Railroad Avenue Plume, a soil and groundwater contaminant plume that the agencies are working to clean up. The plume contains known carcinogens—Trichlorethylene, or TCE, and Tetrachoroethylene, or PCE and vinyl chloride.

The daycare has been operating since 1982, over a decade before the Plume was deemed a Superfund site by the agencies.

“Yeah, so, there were, unfortunately there was past exposure, and that’s awful,” EPA site project Manager Mark Purcell said in a Dec. 11 community meeting.

The EPA and the NMED began testing the indoor air in Las Cumbres in 2008 to determine whether people in the building were being exposed to the chemicals.

Las Cumbres Executive Director Megan Délano has questioned several aspects of the testing.

“I think really the problem that we’re facing is we actually don’t know how concerned we should be for our health and safety, particularly because we all were exposed for so long to these chemicals and the answers that they were giving just were all over the place,” Délano said.

She recalls NMED Site Project Manager Angelo Ortelli telling her that he was “not impressed” with the way the tests were conducted. In a Dec. 23 email, NMED Public Information Officer Maddy Hayden did not confirm nor deny whether Ortelli made the comment.

The agencies conducted the tests in the file room and the conference room—not the classroom, where the children are.

Délano said that when Las Cumbres staff asked several years in a row that the agencies also test the classroom, they said they could not deviate from their plan and offered little more explanation.

Hayden wrote in the email that the file and conference room were “the most accessible rooms to test and were representative of conditions throughout the building.”

The agencies have typically performed the tests in the summer each year, though sometimes, for unclear reasons, during other seasons.

EPA site project manager Mark Purcell said in testing indoor air, it is important to test in the winter, as windows are closed and “things are bottled up.”

Between 2008 and 2018, according to test results the agencies gave Délano, the agencies conducted tests in the winter once, in 2011.

When asked why the agencies did not conduct tests in both the summer and winter consistently every year, Hayden wrote, “NMED records do not describe the rationale for selecting the time of year of past vapor surveys at Las Cumbres.” 

Délano said Ortelli and Purcell told her Las Cumbres should have been offered a slab test—a test of the sub-slab air—though the daycare was never offered that test.

Hayden did not confirm or deny whether the agencies made this statement, but she did write, “A vapor survey beneath a slab would have been recommended if the soil survey had detected chlorinated solvents at appreciable levels. In this case, chlorinated solvents were not detected during the soil survey.”

Hayden first wrote that two soil surveys were conducted in 2001. Then she wrote that the surveys were conducted in 1999.

She wrote that soil sampling was not conducted in later years because PCE and TCE were not detected during the second test.

Délano recalls Ortelli and Purcell saying that moving forward, the agencies will conduct a slab test at the building.

Hayden wrote that “sub-slab testing is unnecessary, since the results from direct indoor air sampling supersede the need for sub-slab sampling”

Délano also recalls Ortelli and Purcell saying that outside ambient air tests should have been conducted each year around the building. Hayden did not confirm or deny whether the agencies made this comment.

Hayden wrote that the agencies have conducted outside ambient air tests annually at Las Cumbres since 2014.

Délano said she has never seen those results, though she has reviewed all results the agencies sent to Las Cumbres. The only outside ambient air results she has seen are for 2018.

Between 2008 and 2014, samples of the air in the two tested rooms in the building, the file room and the conference room, contained levels of vinyl chloride that reached the EPA’s Tier 2 revised screening levels. The samples also contained levels of PCE that reached Tier 2, until the EPA revised its screening levels in 2014—at which point the levels were considered to be in Tier 1.

When air tests into the EPA’s Tier 1 screening level, no further action is needed, according to EPA documents. When air tests into the EPA’s Tier 2 screening level, the agency should “evaluate the need for further sampling” and “perform additional sampling to establish concentration and trends and evaluate need for sampling at other nearby structures.”

When an area tests into the EPA’s Tier 3 screening level, the agency should “evaluate the need for mitigation measures at the structure such as sealing of cracks, soil vapor extraction or installation of sub-slab depressurization systems.”

But Las Cumbres’ population is vulnerable—composed mostly of young children and women who might be or become pregnant—and there is a question about whether, given this vulnerability, the EPA should have offered mitigation efforts while the daycare center was testing into the Tier 2 screening level.

“Considering that Las Cumbres has tested in Tier 2 level screening for PCE and vinyl chloride for many years, what mitigation could have been put in place, what mitigation efforts could have been put in place, to protect the children who receive services in our building?” Délano asked Purcell at a Dec. 11 community meeting.

Purcell described available mitigation efforts but did not explain why Las Cumbres was not offered those efforts.

Asked whether the EPA ever considers evaluating the need for mitigation efforts in Tier 2 if the population at the site in question is vulnerable, EPA spokesperson Jennah Durant did not directly answer the question.

“EPA and NMED developed this tier system for evaluating indoor air in buildings near the North Railroad Ave. site,” she wrote Monday in an email. “The tiers are based on EPA’s health-based risk range for residential indoor air. EPA is currently re-evaluating the tier assigned to the Las Cumbres Community Services building because it houses a daycare facility.”

The agencies have committed to performing indoor air sampling in the classroom, conference room and office complex in January and to performing outside ambient air sampling, according to Hayden.

“NMED recognizes that the health and wellbeing of the children at Las Cumbres is a concern of the community, and these additional testing activities planned for January 2020 are intended to provide data to allay those concerns,” she wrote.

She said that cleaning sites and protecting public health is a priority for the NMED.

Delano said the agencies have not done well by the community.

“They have not done a good job for our community,” she said. “And that’s just the bottom line. And our kids, our elders, our women, our men, everyone in our community, really deserves better.”

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