Rio Arriba Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt (left) who also owns a private well that has been contaminated by the North Railroad Avenue Plume Superfund Site, chats with Mara Yarbrough, a third year UNM Law School student who has spent a year studying the plume at Wednesday’s EPA/NMED community meeting. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
EPA’s project manager for the North Railroad Avenue Plume Superfund Site Mark Purcell addresses a large crowd Wednesday at the Beatrice Chavez Senior Center in Espanola. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
In contrast to their last meeting in Española when only two members of the public attended, EPA and New Mexico Environment Department officials were faced with a full house Wednesday evening for a community meeting on the North Railroad Avenue Plume Superfund Site.
Participants had a chance to chat and ask questions informally of representatives of the two agencies for an hour before the main presentation and public comment section of the meeting which was held at the Beatrice Martinez Senior Center.
Cliff Villa, professor at the University of New Mexico Law School, whose law clinic represents Rio Arriba County and the City of Espanola, offered comments from his personal perspective as a native New Mexican during that portion of the meeting. He said he had heard a lot of good ideas about what to do with the site and contamination levels going down, but also some data about contamination levels particularly in the deep water aquifer, that are going up.
“I know that EPA is aware from reports that the remedy for the deep water aquifer was not operating as designed and I think there might be some confusion from people here this evening about this 10 years that we’ve heard about,” Villa said. Please understand that those 10 years only begin when the remedy is operating successfully or operational and functional. And EPA found that the remedy was not in fact operating as designed. So I think there’s a really good argument that the 10 years has not even begun.”
Villa is referring to the 10 years of long-term response action by EPA which EPA says ended in June, with NMED taking over the operations and maintenance of the remedy at the site. For the first 10 years EPA paid all the capital expenses and the operations and maintenance costs.
Villa said the question now, is what does the EPA do about that.
“There’s been a lot of data collected and you’ve seen presentations on that. The question now is what kind of alternatives are the ones that would be most effective to solve this problem confidently and most efficiently. Bioremediation is certainly one, but it is not the only one,” he said. “We talked earlier today about the process of your Superfund which begins with investigation, understanding the contamination, and leads into what’s called a feasibility study to identify alternatives and make a fair representation of those alternatives and then choose the best one.”
Villa said he thinks a lot of the existing information can be used to do that feasibility study and “get that answer that people are looking for and get it as efficiently as possible”.
“If anyone at EPA is telling us that we can’t do it, then tell us who that is. I have no doubt that there are people in this room including our congressional delegation staff who would be very happy to go to EPA Headquarters and say we need a final remedy. If there is anyone in EPA Headquarters that you would like to call out, not expecting that but if we can help you, I want you to know that we’re happy to help,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, Blake Atkins, remediation section chief for the state, said he wanted to point out foremost that if at any point in the process imminent substantive danger to human health is found immediate action will be taken to mitigate any risks. Those measures could include providing bottled water or putting a tap treatment on domestic taps or putting in a vapor mitigation system to take care of that risk.
Atkins said in this case there is a long time to address the groundwater contamination and groundwater containment sites.
“It typically may take two, three, four decades to clean up. Once contamination gets into an aquifer it disperses quickly and it’s all over and it takes a long time to mitigate those risks,” he said.
Mark Purcell, EPA project manager in his presentation said as of now EPA doesn’t know of any exposure that is occurring to the community at the site.
“We know of no injury from the contaminated groundwater. We have city water and that water is completely safe to drink,” he said. He said private wells have been investigated as well as the potential for vapors coming up through the ground and potentially getting into homes.
“We didn’t find any levels of any of the site-wide contaminates that would be above a health-based level that was a concern for us. That’s really good news,” Purcell said.
The Norge Town Dry Cleaners, which was the source of the contamination, was located at 113 N. Railroad Avenue and that’s where chlorinated solvent used for dry cleaning was released and entered into the ground and moved through the ground and entered into groundwater.
The release is characterized in EPA documents as chlorinated solvents including PCE and its degradation products; trichloroethylene (TCE), cis-1,2 dichloroethene (cDCE), and trans-1,2 DCE (tDCE). Of these contaminants, PCE and to a lesser extent TCE, are the primary contaminants of concern (COCs). The ground water contamination was first discovered after PCE and TCE were detected in two municipal drinking water supply wells in 1989. The wells were taken off-line and have remained removed from the drinking water supply system.
Under the law, EPA had to look at nine different criteria before they could make any decision on the remedy. Purcell said the two most important criteria were to be protective of human health and the environment and to comply with all applicable, relevant and appropriate requirements.
The EPA selected bioremediation and in 2001 it was estimated that it would take 30 years to clean up these aquifers.
Angelo Ortelli, NMED’s budget manager for the Groundwater Quality Superfund Oversight Section, said bioremediation was introduced in 2008 about 1500 feet south of the source area and treatments were applied periodically over 10 years from 2007 to 2017. There were 30 injection wells and 30 extraction wells were drilled and utilized. NMED has been monitoring since 2006. From 2006 to 2009 testing was on a semiannual basis and then from 2010 on, annual.
Asked what has happened since 2001 to make sure people are not using wells where contamination was found and what can be done to be sure that people actually are not using that water, Purcell said that is a hard thing to police.
“We will test people’s wells even if we tested them in 2001. we will test them now within a reasonable distance of where the contamination is. That’s our policy,” Purcell said.
Rio Arriba County Commissioner Leo Jaramillo asked that the EPA is going to be the new plume they have identified. He asked if the timeline starts now with Year #1 – 10 years into the new plume.
Purcell said NMED is going to be looking at the new plume.
“They will be looking for the source and who’s responsible. That’s not part of the Superfund Site right now and it does not mean that this 10 year period for federal financing gets restarted. The way the agency looks at it and the law’s pretty clear, EPA looks at it as the remedy for this site was implemented, it was effective, in most places,” he said. “There are areas where we’re still trying to improve it but that benefit to New Mexico is why we’re not going to kick the can down the road by extending the 10 year period. We talked to EPA headquarters in Washington, DC, and that’s pretty much what’s been told to us.”
Purcell said if people want to have that discussion with the heads of EPA, they can have that discussion but as far as EPA is concerned right now, that 10 year period is finished. He noted that EPA talked about getting involved when they discovered the second issue.
“We have a number of sites where we will find additional contamination coming from different sources. We hope the State of New Mexico will find the responsible party that caused that contamination initially and go to them. If we find a liable responsible party, that’s what we do. We negotiate with them to clean up the sites”, Purcell said. “The plumes are not coming from the same source. Ultimately, if there is no responsible party, that could possibly be brought to the EPA’s attention.”
Mara Yarbrough, a third year UNM Law School student who spent a year researching the plume, also questioned the EPA representatives. Yarbrough discovered that while the EPA used a “pump and treat” technology to successfully a similar plume in Albuquerque, they opted for a much less expensive and less effective remediation in Española which involved injecting vegetable oil into the groundwater to encourage bacteria to break down the chemicals.
Mary Farsega asked Purcell when the last public health assessment was conducted by the EPA, what the assessment entail and why there has there not been another one for 18 years. Purcell responded that the assessments are done by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) are the folks that will help with the health assessment issue. He said their conclusion in the 2001 report was that they would come back and do another assessment if there was new information.
“And if we request that they look into this and consider another assessment and also come out and do a consultation with the community. If that’s what he community would like, we would be very happy to come out. I almost think that’s a great idea because it’s been 20 years and a lot of people that were here 20 years ago, they’re just not here anymore,” Purcell said. “So to be able to sit down with these people and find out what they think and know – the State Health Department and the ATSDR would be the two groups to set this up and we could do that.”
Yarbrough asked where the water comes from for the remediation process.
“Does it have to come from Espanola’s water supply which is very limited already, and further limited by the fact that the deep plume isn’t cleaned up?,” she asked.
Purcell responded that the EPA is looking for alternatives but there are some things they have to do. He said the City’s drinking water was used and that the EPA gets the same complaint all over the country. He said EPA gets this complaint all over the country.
Yarbrough responded that with all due respect, the fact that has happened in other places does not make it any better.
“We do need a source of water and we have to come up with that water,” Purcell said.
Yarbrough asked what the plans are for using Espanola’s water. She said the possibility of drilling supplemental wells is limited on the west by uranium, on the east by arsenic and also by a nitrate plume. She said the deep plume that’s not being investigated also limits the water supply. She said the remediation design did not call for the use of uncirculated water.
Purcell said EPA would have to look at that, that if there was a way that they would not use the city’s vital and limited resource, that would be a good thing.
Purcell was also asked why the EPA did not delineate the whole area of contamination before deciding on a remedy. He said the shallow area was pretty well delineated.
“With the deeper zones, even today I feel like there’s some characterization that we need to do and to me we would want to characterize before the remedy is selected. That is the objective but I find with a lot of sites you think you have it characterized when then you start to try to design the remedy and then you collect new data and lo and behold, maybe it’s over here and not there,” Purcell said. “So things kind of change. I feel with the deeper zones areas here there are still some areas that we have to put wells in. We should have had it characterized before we started the original remedy. I would agree with that, but that did not happen.”
Espanola City Councilor Peggy Sue Martinez discussed the fact that some people in the contaminated area do not get their mail at their street address but at a mailbox. She said a better way needs to be found to communicate with those who are most affected and suggested possibly using door hangers or more advertising.
“Concerning the second site, when you are unable to connect in your mapping, I’m curious as to why that has not been considered as a completely separate Superfund Site. If you’re not even able to connect these in any way shape or form, and you’re looking at the possibility of a different source, possibly even numerous sources and we’re not really even aware of what it is at this point and what is the process for that?” she asked.
Purcell responded that EPA typically get a referral from the state to consider a site and if that comes to us them there’s a process that they have to go through.
“We assess the site using preliminary data – we call it our preliminary assessment site inspection. We have a whole program that deals with that. Then there’s a ranking process that’s implemented and if it scores enough then it’s added to the (National Priorities List),” he said. “One thing it does is it looks at the receptors, how many people are being exposed and I’ll tell you right now that this secondary plume would never list because we don’t have the receptors. We’re hoping that the state can evaluate the cause of this additional source and work through that process with the state program.”
Martinez commented that she would hope this type of meeting would come a little more often.
Purcell said EPA can come out to the community once a year.
“We tend to fall back to the position that if there’s news, we’ll come out here. We have sites we visit quarterly and some monthly. My question is what do you want to see from us. We thank you for your efforts to stay involved and help us with that,” he said.
Martinez responded that what the public wants to see is the area cleaned up. Purcell said that’s what they’re trying to do too, but that the thing to remember is length time involved for this cleanup is normal for underground water.