University of New Mexico law students are assisting Española community members with legal advice as the town faces water contamination through the Environmental Law Clinic.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated a remedy a decade ago but has reported that the fix was inadequate at cleaning the deeper portions of the aquifer, which remain contaminated.
"This is not something that most people can or should try to comprehend," said UNM School of Law Professor Clifford Villa. "There is a real role for educational institutions, like the University of New Mexico, to try to help local communities understand some really complex issues including complex matters of regulation."
In the late 1980s, a local dry cleaner contaminated the water supply in the area when chemicals leaked into the soil and then the aquifer lying below it. According to Villa, a "conventional treatment" for this level of contamination involves pumping up the contaminated water, treating it and re-injecting it back into the ground.
Instead, the EPA used a different treatment — bioremediation. According to the EPA, bioremediation is the use of microbes to clean up Superfund sites. The growth of microbes that feed off of the contamination is prompted, leading them to essentially eat away the contamination and leave clean water behind.
New microbes are not introduced in the site, but rather the microbes already in the soil are stimulated — thus growing their population.
"It sounds like a really interesting idea," Villa said. "It’s sort of using the power of nature, harnessing nature, except that now you have to find the right bugs to eat the contamination. Maybe they’re not hungry."
The second five-year review of the site conducted by the EPA in 2015 said that the remedy "has not functioned as designed and has not been effective in reducing contamination" in the deep zone aquifer, as reported in the document.
Bioremediation was first implemented at the site ten years ago.
In August 2019, the EPA sent a letter to the New Mexico Environment Department informing them that the Long-Term Response Action will be transferred to their oversight, meaning this problem becomes the state’s responsibility instead of the federal government's.
The 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) mandates that the EPA must review Superfund sites every five years, up to ten years after a site becomes functional after a remedy.
Villa first became interested in the Española Superfund site about a year ago when one of his students, Mara Yarbrough, presented the problem as a class project highlighting the injustice to the area’s community.
Yarbrough continues to gather information and work with people in the community of Española and Questa, helping them navigate legal issues and spread awareness of the situation in general.
"In that ten-minute student presentation (from Yarbrough), I learned a lot about not just environmental problems, but the real apparent environmental injustice that that site represented particularly in contrast to another very similar site in Albuquerque," Villa said.
That contrast dates back to 1989, when contaminated sites were found in both Albuquerque and 90 minutes north in Española. The contaminated sites were caused by the same source — an old dry cleaning business.
"They were the same chemicals from dry-cleaning contamination," Villa said. "And yet for some reason, they chose the pump and treat technology in Albuquerque, but for Española they (the EPA) chose a very different technology."
Before coming to UNM in 2015, Villa previously served as an attorney and legal counsel for the EPA for 22 years.
Last month, Villa led a group of UNM law students — which included Yarbrough — on a trip up to northern New Mexico to learn more about the contamination plume in Española. They also visited another Superfund site in Questa.
"I thought it would be a wonderful learning experience for our law students to go and see those sites themselves," Villa said. "Particularly to be there and have an opportunity to talk with members of the local community and the local government and hear their concerns directly, interact with them."
"It’s important that the students understand not just the law in abstract or on the front page, but how that law is applied in the real world (and) particularly the real world around us," Villa said.
In addition to providing legal advice to the residents of Rio Arriba County, the Environmental Law Clinic also deals with a range of other environmental issues — from urban environmental justice communities that are experiencing disproportional pollution impacts to work with land grants and acequias in rural communities.
Gabe Pacyniak, the faculty supervisor of the Natural Resources and Environmental Law Section of the clinic, said roughly 70% of the clientele they work with live in rural parts of New Mexico. The clinic often helps with property disputes, land grants and managing individuals’ water rights.
"A lot of the work deals with the complicated legal issues in New Mexico," Pacyniak said. "Including some very significant pollution issues including hazardous waste and the kind of Superfund site issues that we see in various locations throughout the state."
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