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Feds Pulling out of Toxic Spill Cleanup

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Mara Yarbrough (left) and Professor Chris Villa are working to understand a confusing statement by the EPA.

Students from the University of New Mexico School of Law assembled Nov. 1 in the Plaza de Española to learn from fellow student Mara Yarbrough about a contaminant plume, which, at its deepest, extends 260 feet into the ground.

The contamination, present in both soil and groundwater, spreads from the southern part of North Railroad Avenue to the Plaza, to the section of Paseo de Oñate between the Plaza and the Rio Grande, to Calle Chavez and into Santa Clara Pueblo. The site of contamination became a Superfund site in 1999, meaning that the federal government agreed to fund clean-up of the area.

City of Española and Rio Arriba County officials, including Cristina Caltagironi, special projects manager for the County, and interim city manager Xavier Martinez also attended Yarbrough’s presentation.

“This is not a sexy site,” Yarbrough told listeners after they had gathered in a circle. “We don’t have a mountain with a big gash in it from mining. We don’t have a pipe spewing green chemicals into a river. We have invisible contamination under our feet, right now.”

Yarbrough, who began researching the plume a year ago, and her professor Cliff Villa have been trying to understand a confusing statement from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): the remedy the EPA selected for clean-up was ineffective for part of the site, according to an EPA review performed in 2015, but an Aug. 27 letter from the EPA to the New Mexico Environment Department states that the EPA is no longer funding the site and further clean-up will be the responsibility of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).

Yarbrough led the group to North Railroad Avenue and explained the history of the plume and the confusion behind the EPA’s decision.

Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, the lint trap of Norge Town Laundry and Dry Cleaners, a laundromat operating at 113 N. Railroad Ave. between 1970 and 2007, began contaminating the ground with the chemicals that were deposited in the trap, according to EPA records. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division (now the NMED) found chlorinated solvents in the groundwater and soil.

Among those solvents were trichloroethene (TCE), which, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, can cause kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and cardiac defects, and which may cause leukemia, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, end-stage renal disease, Parkinson disease and Scleroderma; and tetrachloroethene (PCE), which can cause bladder cancer and which may cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and end-stage renal disease.

In 1999, the EPA added the site to the National Priority List, designating it a Superfund site—the North Railroad Avenue Plume Superfund Site.

Following the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the government must review a Superfund site every five years if contaminants remain at the site above a certain level despite the remedial action. In instances of groundwater contamination, the government will implement a Long-Term Response Action, continuing to fund the clean-up for up to ten years after the selected remedy becomes “operational and functional.”

The 10 years of funding began for the site in 2009. But the second five-year review of the site, which occurred in 2015, found that although the selected remedy worked for a shallow part of the plume, it was failing for a deep section of the plume: “Follow-up actions are needed to achieve long-term protectiveness because the current remedy for the Deep Zone aquifer is not expected to meet the Remedial Action Objectives and Remediation Goals for the Site based on the findings of a remedy optimization review conducted in 2014 and 2015 by EPA,” the review states.

Later, the review states, “The LTRA ​performed ​in the Deep Zone aquifer has not functioned as designed and has not been effec​tive in reducing contaminant concentrations.”

Yarbrough and Villa believe that the ineffectiveness of the remedy should cause the 10-year clock to restart, as according to the law, the 10 years begins “after the remedy becomes operational and functional,” and an ineffective remedy is not operational or functional.

“If the remedy hasn’t been effective in the deep plume, then isn’t that like having no remedy at all?” Yarbrough asked Tuesday.

Villa, who served as legal counsel for the EPA for more than 20 years before becoming a law professor, said Tuesday, “It’s important to understand that the 10 years only applies when the remedy has been constructed, when it’s operating properly and successfully, and then EPA will pay for ten years.”

But Angelo Ortelli, the project manager of the site and a staff member of the NMED Ground Water Quality Bureau, said Tuesday that the EPA and NMED considered the remedy operational and functional even though it was not entirely effective for the deep part of the plume. He also said that NMED and the EPA agreed in 2009 that the funding would only last until 2019, and that legally the EPA can transfer the project to the state.

“It’s dictated in the Superfund law,” Ortelli said. “It’s not just EPA saying, ‘Oh yeah, we’re trying to hold back now or we’re trying to save our money.’”

Whether the transfer is dictated by law is up for interpretation. Further murkiness surrounding the extent of community exposure to the chemicals and a possible other source of contamination in the area will be discussed in a later article.

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