ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Federal authorities are investigating employees at a New Mexico school district for possible charges of illegally dumping toxic, dangerous and potentially deadly waste.
Employees at the Gallup-McKinley County School District tipped off the New Mexico Environment Department that the district buried tons of industrial equipment, chemicals and drums full of powders and liquids.
“Considering the magnitude, yeah, it’s significant,” said Benny Kling, who led an investigation of the dumping for the Environment Department. “Just shock.”
The illegal dump was hidden behind the district’s maintenance and operations facility, just feet from where students attend school.
In 2012, the state started digging up the items from a 35-foot-deep pit. Investigators found large underground fuel storage tanks, one of which was leaking. Vapors from the dump caused officials to shut down the excavation until they were at a non-explosive level.
According to the state’s investigation, there were also school chairs and desks, compressed gas cylinders, leaking freon containers and a large, stainless steel ball containing an unknown yellow powder substance that brought out a Hazmat team. The haul continued: asbestos, car batteries, industrial kitchen equipment and an unknown white powder.
There were also students’ records from 1966 and 1982.
The Environment Department says the dumping has been going on for nearly three decades.
“I couldn’t understand a school district allowing that to continue,” Kling said. “I mean years and years ago, years ago it was different, but to have that continue on and the quantities were just amazing.”
But Gallup-McKinley County School District Superintendent Frank Chiapetti questions how dangerous the dump really is. He says he’s never seen an EPA report or a remediation plan.
“I can’t see it being tremendously dangerous stuff. If the state of New Mexico found something that dangerous it seems like we would be taking the steps already for the safety of the students,” he said.
Chiapetti has only been in charge of the Gallup-McKinley County school district for just under a year. He says even though he’s been a district employee for 21 years and lived within eye-site of the land, he never saw or knew about the illegal dumping.
“We have so many superfund sites in this area that haven’t been cleaned up in the first place, I’m wondering why the EPA is targeting something as this when they have so many more jobs that they haven’t even taken care of,” Chiapetti said.
But plenty of people did know about the illegal dump on district grounds. Employees who buried the materials tipped off Kling and helped the Environment Department with the investigation. The clean-up cost to the district: a quarter of million dollars and $30,000 more to produce thousands of documents to the state.
And the investigation is not over. Phase two of the dump still needs to be cleaned up.
That’s another 10 acres.
“It extends beyond the fence and all along the arroyo where’s there’s school desks, chairs, old file cabinets, gas lines, pieces of gas tubing,” Kling said.
Phase two clean-up was put on hold, Kling says, because phase one was so expensive for the district.
“They needed a rest period between phases and to recover some of those costs. It’s been very expensive for them but it’s not over,” Kling said.
The state is monitoring the cleanup. A spokesman for the New Mexico Environment Department says there have been no reports of kids getting sick, and regular testing of Grant’s drinking water have tested normal.
But the state confirms it handed the case to the feds for possible criminal charges. It’s unclear who may be held responsible since so many people have be involved and so many people have come and gone from the district. No federal agency would confirm an investigation or comment on the case.
The superintendent believes his district has been unfairly targeted. He says he was told this case is just Benny Kling’s “claim to fame” as he retired.
“I see it as a witch hunt, I hate to say,” Chiapetti said.
Kling denies that, saying he never got to finish the investigation because he had to abruptly retire because of health reasons.