University of New Mexico law student Mara Yarbourgh is working to bring environmental justice to the community members of Española, New Mexico and ensuring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is sticking to their primary goals of protecting human health and the environment.
Since giving a dissertation on the North Railroad Avenue Plume (NRAP) superfund site last year, Yarbrough said she realized there is a lack of communication and understanding between the people in Española and what the EPA is doing.
Yarbrough said while doing research for her dissertation, she would go to Española’s public library, where information on the Superfund site is supposed to be held and available to the public. It was when she was doing this she identified a problem.
“I realized what's there has a lot of gaps, there are not many documents at all, including some of the key documents. They’re not there,” Yarbrough said.
NRAP is comparable to other superfund sites in New Mexico, including the Fruit Avenue Plume site in Albuquerque. At both sites, dry cleaners were the source of contamination when dry cleaning chemicals leaked into the soil in 1989.
At the Fruit Avenue Plume in Albuquerque, the initial remedy that was chosen for the site was a pump and treat method. The contaminated water was pumped out of the aquifer and treated for contamination before it was pumped back into the ground.
This is in contrast to the remedy chosen for the NRAP site — bioremediation. Bioremediation is the population growth of microbes already naturally existing in the aquifer to naturally treat the contamination.
Blake Atkins, EPA chief of Lousianna, New Mexico and Oklahoma Superfund Remediation, said several factors go into choosing a remedy for a Superfund site, including cost analysis, time to complete the remedy and how tight rock formations are in the aquifer.
“We piloted bioremediation just in a small area (of the Albuquerque plume) to see if it would be effective. We found that it was far more effective than the pump and treat, and so we pursued that.” Atkins said. “And then we found bioremediation is being effective but the pump and treat...it was changing the chemistry of the water such that the bugs didn’t want to consume contamination, so we just shut-off pump and treat altogether.”
He said an analysis of the NRAP site in Española also found the pump and treat method wouldn't be effective in the aquifer's deeper portions while bioremediation would have a more spread-out effect.
Yarbrough said it is important to remain in contact with the people of Española and help them stay organized about their water.
“The next step is to intensify and focus these conversations with everyone involved, including the people at agencies that make decisions on how to go forward,” Yarbourgh said.
One such conversation occurred at the Beatrice V. Q. Martinez Senior Center in Española.
The community members of Española gathered on Wednesday, Dec. 11 to learn and voice concerns over contaminated groundwater underneath a portion of their city during a site status update meeting hosted by the EPA.
“(The) community turn out was amazing,” Yarbrough said. “I don’t think a lot of questions were answered properly by EPA or New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), but the fact that these questions and concerns are now out there means they need to be on their radars.”
A previous meeting held by the EPA in 2015 regarding contamination had two community members, compared to last week's full room meeting.
The concerns of the Española community surround the population's general health.
Before the meeting, attendees received handouts explaining the health effects of exposure to trichlorethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). An EPA toxicologist also attended to further provide insight on potential health risks and was primarily worried about the risks of the toxin to pregnant women and their fetuses.
Megan Delano, the chief director of Las Cumbres Community Services voiced concerns at the meeting that their facility was not offered mitigation efforts despite testing positive for PCE and vinyl chloride vapors for many years.
Diego Lopez, an Española resident who was born and raised in the area, was concerned about the health risks to himself as well as his family and neighbors who have been potentially exposed to the toxins for decades.
The EPA recommends that no one in the area drink from private wells, but said it is a hard thing to regulate. Edward Mekeel, the community involvement coordinator from the EPA, said if people who have private wells want to get them tested, the EPA will work with the state to test their wells if it is within a reasonable distance of the contamination.
“I don’t know if they’re drinking it or not, it’s something that’s hard to do,” Mekeel said. “We tried to get the word out that they shouldn’t be doing that, and that’s what we can do. But if they’re concerned with their well water and want us to test it, we can do that.”
In addition to the North Railroad Avenue Plume Superfund site, a second plume near the site was detected. Although the EPA has said that the source of the second plume has not been determined and is not currently thought to be connected to the first plume. The two are being considered the same site by the EPA currently.
Several questions remained unanswered from the meeting, including whether or not the plumes are connected to the same aquifer, or if there is a different source for the contaminant all together.
Looking into these investigations could take several months according to Clifford Villa, an Associate Law Professor at the University of New Mexico and former attorney for the EPA. He said the EPA has no limitation on the number of years they can work on a superfund site.
“I can say clearly that EPA has the authority to respond to the second source — there is no question about that, and the resources are there,” Villa said. “It seems a logical process for EPA to continue to do that work.”
The EPA officially transferred the financial responsibility of the NRAP site from the federal government to the New Mexico state government in August. Previously the EPA covered 100% of funds associated with the remedy of the site, after the transfer of financial responsibility, the EPA covers 10% of operation and maintenance while the NMED takes on 90%.
Atkins estimates this cost to be about a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, he said in an interview with the Daily Lobo.
“We want the states to have some skin in the game as well, so they will take over the expense of operations and maintenance, which we anticipate will be a much smaller expense year to year to operate,” Atkins said.
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