Española city councilors are lawyering up and calling for oversight by federal lawmakers after they learned that some parts of the toxic chemical spill beneath the city’s downtown district have only become worse since the Environmental Protection Agency started trying to clean up the site.
Mara Yarbrough, president of the Association for Public Interest Law and environmental justice chair for the Environmental Law Society at the University of New Mexico School of Law, summarized her findings to the City Council Nov. 12 after a year of research into the North Railroad Avenue Plume.
The cleanup effort has so far seen some positive results in the shallow part of the plume, from the surface to about 30 feet underground, where the cleanup has been working as designed, Yarbrough said.
However, according to an EPA review of the cleanup in July 2015, “contaminant trends are increasing” in the intermediate part of the plume between 30 and 180 feet underground. And between 180 and 260 feet deep, the cleanup has not functioned as designed, has not been effective in reducing contaminant concentrations and has left the highest contaminant concentrations beneath a residential area.
The EPA wrote that the current method of cleanup should be “vastly expanded,” or a different type of cleanup method should be considered.
Despite all this, an Aug. 27 letter from the EPA to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) states that the EPA is no longer funding the site and further clean-up will be the responsibility of NMED.
The last local health assessment was conducted in 2003 and was supposed to project health concerns in the community into the future, Yarbrough said.
“There hasn’t been one done since that,” she said. “There are a couple generations of people that have been potentially exposed and no health studies have been done,” Yarbrough said.
She told councilors she has not discussed the issue with state or federal lawmakers. Mayor Javier Sanchez said that would be the city government’s next step.
“We will have to pursue at least the potential for legal representation,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Manny Martinez went a step further saying city officials should not only lawyer up but should get federal lawmakers involved.
“We got the short end when it comes to our federal government, and the way they handle things,” he said. “They basically discriminated against us when it comes to the way they handled this cleanup. I think it is very important that not just legal, but we do have to get a hold of our delegation in Washington and put them on this. We need to make sure the federal government does the job that they promised that they would do.”
Councilor John Ricci said Yarbrough was showing a very different picture of the cleanup than what EPA and NMED officials had brought to the City Council the previous year.
“At the last meeting, it was beds of roses, of what was happening,” he said.
In a Sept. 11, 2018 meeting with councilors, NMED Project Manager Angelo Ortelli and EPA Region 6 Remedial Project Manager Mark Purcell provided a presentation that included a slide that stated, “90 percent contaminant decrease observed in individual injection wells.”
Ortelli said during the meeting that there was a second source of contamination which was affecting the deep part of the plume.
“Overall the deep zone PCE concentrations have been stable or decreasing, but still remain above the cleanup levels,” Ortelli said.
“Cleanup levels” refers to the specific concentration of the chemicals deemed acceptable in the EPA’s original Record of Decision for the cleanup.
Yarbrough said Nov. 12 that after she started asking questions and getting city and Rio Arriba County officials involved, the EPA cannot move fast enough to get the documents online.
“The administrative record, when I started looking into this, for this site, there were zero documents, one year ago,” she said.
She said the week before her meeting with councilors, EPA officials uploaded 319 documents to the website, and an additional 62 documents the day before.
“We need our federal legislators, that’s where the hammer’s gonna come down on the EPA, is our federal legislators,” Ricci said. “You’ve enlightened everybody. It seems you’ve caught them sleeping, and now they’re producing all the documents, an example that they got caught.”
Councilor Peggy Sue Martinez said the City Council was hearing the true account of the cleanup for the first time.
“The more you read, the more disturbed I got and rightfully so,” she said after Yarbrough’s presentation. “I really feel like this governing body has been given misrepresented information on that plume for a long time. And this is probably the first true information that we’ve heard, and that really makes me upset.”
Councilor John Ramon Vigil said the topic troubled him because it affects the future potential development of downtown Española.
“Any sort of future construction would be impacted because of the contamination of the groundwater,” he said. “It’s imperative that this injustice, which is like the EPA is trying to kick the football down the road, that we have community dialogue and get the community engaged again.”