EPA devotes some federal cleanup funds to two toxic sites in NM

People in Roswell and Socorro should see remediation efforts start on old hazards in 2022

By: - January 3, 2022 6:00 am

A monitoring well in Española, N.M., at another Superfund site created by a dry cleaner that threatens a population’s water supply. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

Former battery sludge lagoons in Socorro and a dry-cleaning chemical spill in Roswell were chosen by federal officials as destinations for cleanup funding, decades after the areas were contaminated. 

Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker said the funding’s been a long time coming, as cancer-causing manufacturing chemicals were first found in city water in the late 1980s.

“In our small town, it’s important for the future and people’s psyches, that they’re getting this thing cleaned up, because people were pretty afraid of it,” Bhasker said. “But it took a lot of lobbying from us to try to get this on the list. I mean, we weren’t that effective. It took 15 years to do it.”

The backlog of Superfund sites

The Environmental Protection Agency heralded a $1 billion investment — part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November — to fund the cleanup at 49 toxic sites around the country. There are more than 1,300 Superfund sites around the U.S. contaminated by illegal dumping, improper storage of hazardous spills that require federal intervention.

It’s unclear how much money the two sites in New Mexico will receive. The New Mexico Environment Department and EPA are still in talks to figure it out. 

The impact of these toxic sites is unrivaled. Research dating back decades shows that residents with low incomes and people of color live closer to Superfund sites and bear more health and safety risks.

Monitoring wells puncture a dirt lot in Española, N.M., where another plume of toxic chemicals was left by the Norge Town laundromat, according to the EPA. The contaminated groundwater is the source of drinking water for the city and for Santa Clara Pueblo. This Superfund site is not one of the two chosen by the EPA for this funding, though it is in the long process of remediation. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

Superfund cleanup has been backlogged for decades, wrote Carlton Waterhouse, deputy assistant administrator at the EPA, in a Dec. 17 letter to lawmakers. The federal agency has been chronically underfunded since 2000, he said. Many of the 49 projects slated for cleanup funding in the infrastructure bill were part of the backlog, he said, waiting on the money for years.

The EPA will receive a total $3.5 billion infusion from the infrastructure bill. The measure’s passage in November also restored the agency’s power to tax chemical and petroleum companies to fund cleanups, a power defunct since 1995.

Unlike most Superfund projects, the federal cash for the 49 sites does not require states to also pony up for projects (usually split 90% federal funds, 10% state money).

Why Roswell and Socorro?

Cleanup at the New Mexico sites will start in 2022, said Anthony McGlown, the remediation team leader at the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).

“These two sites are ready for the remedies to be constructed. A design is in place and ready to go,” McGlown said. “The only reason they haven’t started yet is funding.”

McGlown said the two projects stood out from the other 16 New Mexican Superfund sites, with some efforts already funded with other federal money and state dollars, or paid for directly by the polluters. Some are still under investigation and not ready for cleanup.

“While there aren’t really any examples of sites that are severely lacking, or lagging behind due to a lack of funding, we’re certainly hopeful that EPA will be willing to commit additional funding to accelerate these cleanups,” McGlown said.

A 2022 ask for the NM Legislature

NMED is dedicated to cleanup efforts but remains understaffed, said John Rhoderick, a division director.

“I’d like to say we’d be fully staffed. I can’t do that,” he said. “We are actively pursuing, becoming fully staffed. But in New Mexico there is a shortage of qualified people, both in government and in private industry and we’re competing for the same ones.”

Rhoderick said he’s received verbal support from state legislators to make agency salaries more competitive in the upcoming legislative session.

Cliff Villa, a professor in environmental law at the University of New Mexico’s School of Law, and a former lawyer at the EPA. He said he hopes to see more investment from both NMED and EPA.

“This work clearly needs to be done at these two sites. It’s also important to understand that these are not the only two sites in New Mexico where work needs to be finished,” Villa said. “I look forward to not just this announcement of these two sites but what may come next.”

Villa said the solutions at the two New Mexico Superfund sites are estimated to cost less than $20 million, well below the price tag for other Superfund sites costing on average between $50 million and $100 million.

We're not talking about a lot of money, but we are talking about a lot of people who are being affected sitting right on top of these contaminated plumes.

– Clifford Villa, environmental law professor at UNM

The places, the contamination, the stallouts

Without funding, decades-long efforts to clean up both Socorro and Roswell stuttered to a halt.

In Roswell, dry cleaners in the 1960s dumped chemical solvents called Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and Trichloroethylene (TCE). Both were found in a 2-mile plume of water stretching under the city and also in soil and indoor air.

Exposure to TCE and PCE poses risks of cancer to kidneys, liver, cervix and lymphatic system, and can heighten risks of miscarriage and birth defects.

The EPA added the McGaffey and Main groundwater plume to its National Priorities List in 2001. After the lengthy process to study solutions, a remedy was proposed in 2008, and action to pump and treat groundwater, and remove contaminated soil started in 2012.

A groundwater treatment remedy was installed in 2013, but hasn’t been implemented yet, according to the most recent EPA documents published in 2017. The old dry cleaning locations had targeted groundwater treatment from 2015 to 2017, but more treatment is required for the plume. The remediation project has awaited additional funding since 2017.

A five-year review of the clean-up efforts published in 2017 found the plume of pollution expanded, requiring additional testing to see if chemicals had spread to private wells.

Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh could not be reached for comment. We will update this story if we hear back.

Down in Socorro, officials discovered TCE in the municipal water supply in 1989. The chemicals and some heavy metals — which can threaten brain development — leached into groundwater from unlined ponds used by a battery manufacturer EaglePicher Technologies.

The city leased the land to the company, which filed for bankruptcy first in 1991 after exposing communities to asbestos, and then again in 2006. The EPA added Eagle Picher Carefree Battery site to its National Priorities List in 2007. Additional testing starting in 2010 revealed 11 homes had vapor intrusion, and the agencies expanded the scope of the remedies.

The project has been waiting for funding to pump and treat the contaminated water since 2018.

Bhasker, Socorro’s mayor, said taxpayers were on the hook for some of the damages, as the city settled with the EPA after the agency brought a lawsuit to pay for cleanup since the city owned the land and leased it to the manufacturers.

“We paid $200,000 in that settlement, and another $150,000 to build a fence around the site,” Bhasker said.

Socorro residents organized to push officials to fight the pollution. Cheri Lerew, Vicki Kelsey and Rebe Feraldi started a community action group in 2021 as a way to keep citizens informed and ask officials tough questions about the cleanup process.

Feraldi, a scientist in industrial ecology, said the community group has pushed for additional testing for toxic vapors at an elementary school, developed a Facebook group, and started holding public hybrid virtual and in-person meetings every second Thursday of the month.

“If you look at successful cleanups across the nation, almost all of them had community advisory groups,” she said. “It’s a really seminal piece to this process. It’s transparency and accountability.”

She said she’s excited the project is fully funded, but she is still working to inform the broader Socorro community about the Superfund site.

Many people, they've never heard of it, even though this seems like a pretty small community. And some people I talk to think it's already been cleaned up.

– Rebe Feraldi, scientist in industrial ecology and co-founder of a community action group in Socorro

“Problems don’t get solved in the ether,” Feraldi added. “People have to come up with solutions.”

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.