City warns business about chemicals seeping into Rio Grande

AutoZone Chemicals
Motor oil, hydraulic fluid and other chemicals found behind an Albuquerque AutoZone. (Kim Holland/KRQE)

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Nearly three dozen cans, containers and buckets sat on the ground by the dumpster behind AutoZone near the intersection of Fourth Street and Bridge SW on a recent rainy morning.

Remnants of motor oil, hydraulic fluid and other chemicals were flowing with the rainwater, across the roadway and into a near-by drain.

That drain leads straight to the Rio Grande, just two blocks away.

“That should be illegal,” John Sandoval told KRQE News 13 one morning as he drove by the leaking chemicals.

It is, in fact, illegal — a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Trouble is, there’s no one locally who has the authority to enforce that law and punish polluters.

Two Albuquerque residents, who have driven by the AutoZone in recent weeks, told News 13 that they called the city of Albuquerque’s all-purpose help line, 311, twice in early September to complain about chemicals running from the AutoZone parking lot into the drain. Those calls netted no rersults, the residents said.

News 13 recently paid a visit to the AutoZone to get a first-hand look at what was going on in the parking lot behind the store. A photographer spoke with a clerk.

“As soon as one of our guys comes, he’s supposed to be cleaning it real soon…The next 10-15 minutes,” the woman said.

An hour later, liquid with the tell-tale, rainbow-colored sheen of chemicals could be seen spilling into the drain. There had been no clean-up.

News 13 left messages for the AutoZone district manager and the company’s regional manager. Our messages were not returned.

After News 13 called the city’s Municipal Development department, two employees arrived at the auto parts store in less than an hour.

“It’s very concerning to me,” Melissa Lozoya, chief engineer at Municipal Development, said while looking down at the chemical stream.

Last week’s rain exacerbated the problem, ushering the liquids across the pavement and sending them into the drain in a steady stream.

“It doesn’t rain a lot in Albuquerque,” Lozoya said. “You have a lot of fluids from vehicles, or maybe even trash, that sit on the roadway or on public roadways or public property. You know, dog waste and things like that can sit for long periods of time, and when it does rain all, of that gets washed into our river.”

The city employees talked to a manager at AutoZone about the fluids.

“It’s people who drop them off, we try to keep up with it every day,” an employee of the 4th and Bridge AutoZone told the engineer.

Lozoya said the business is responsible for any liquids on its property, regardless of who dumps them there.

City employees pressed the manager about when the containers would be cleaned up.

“At least by Saturday,” the manager said.

Lozoya replied: “That’s not good enough. It has to be right now… Because of the rain.”

About an hour later, an AutoZone employee hauled chemical containers inside the store.

“Any type of container that contains any type of fluids other than rain water should be under cover and removed,” Lozoya said.

The engineer issued a warning to the store. Mark Motsko, spokesman for the Municipal Development department, said the city doesn’t have an ordinance under which it can punish polluters like the South Valley AutoZone store.

The city is in the process of drafting such a law, Motsko said in an interview. That process, according to published reports, has been ongoing for more than a year.

In the meantime, city officials have the option of calling in federal officials to enforce the Clean Water Act. Motsko said he couldn’t recall an instance of that happening.

And the city itself has been warned at least twice by the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to take steps to address violations of the Clean Water Act.

Motsko said he didn’t know why the two residents who called 311 about pollution at the AutoZone went unanswered. He said the city is looking into it.

The residents who contacted News 13 said they were told their complaints went to the Zoning Department.

City staff promised that city employees would return to ensure the area stays clean.

When News 13 went by the AutoZone on Thursday, the containers were no longer in the parking lot. But there was still a visible stream of chemical-laced water running into the drain.

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