Poisoned Waters: New Mexico Danger Zones

A four-month KRQE News 13 Investigation

Larry Barker

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – They are ‘danger zones’ hidden away, lurking all over the state.  Most are the result of toxic environmental mishaps — literally underground rivers of poison.

As a ‘danger zone’ the rugged foothills east of Española are unique. Stand among the broken sandstone landscape of cliffs and arroyos and you will be at ground zero of a public health menace that is affecting the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Uranium in the Española basin
Uranium in the Española basin

The culprit? Uranium. No, not the stuff from Los Alamos. This uranium occurs naturally in the sandstone beds of the Española basin. If you put an old fashioned Geiger Counter next to the yellowish rock, the Gamma counts will be off the scale. Radioactive uranium leaches out of the rock and seeps into the ground water contaminating private wells in an 80 square mile ‘danger zone.’

“Most of the people (in this area) are served by private domestic wells. Half of them have dangerous levels of uranium,” says State Environment Department Chief Scientist Dennis McQuillan.

Anyone who drinks water laced with uranium is at risk.

“The primary risk of uranium in drinking water is kidney toxicity. Uranium is far more dangerous as a heavy metal and a kidney poison than it is as a radioactive element,” McQuillan says.

Laun-Dry Plume Map
Laun-Dry Plume Map

The Española basin environmental threat is created by Mother Nature. However, you’ll find the culprit responsible for another toxic ‘danger zone’ in Albuquerque lurking at 12th and Aspen, NW. The offender is Laun-Dry, a dry cleaning supply company. Decades ago, tons of toxic solvents spilled from the dry cleaning warehouse and ended up in the shallow ground water contaminating the aquifer in the Wells Park and Sawmill neighborhoods.

Just below the surface, a poisonous plume of chemicals stretches in a narrow band a mile and a half east from 12th street to Edith. “This is a very serious groundwater contamination site,” says Ground Water Quality Bureau Chief Michelle Hunter.

At this northwest Albuquerque ‘danger zone’ the ground water is very shallow, approximately 37 feet below the surface. Scientists say the contaminants detected are perchloroethene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE) and dichloroethene (DCE).

“I think the people who live here are alarmed. I’ve spoken with them in neighborhood meetings and I understand their concern. I’m concerned,” adds Hunter.

Even though there are no known public or private drinking water wells impacted by this massive spill, the toxic plume must be cleaned up as mandated by Federal and State laws.

“Laun-Dry has to pay for everything. They pay for all the drilling, of all the monitoring wells and their consultants and they pay for all the ground water testing,” says Bureau Chief Michelle Hunter.

And Laun-Dry is not the only Albuquerque area offender.

9917 Benton

Take a stroll along Benton Street, NW. This is a quiet residential neighborhood surrounded by a grassy park, a playground for kids and well-kept southwest style homes. The only evidence of a major industrial mishap is at 9917 Benton. On the outside it may look like a typical Albuquerque home but that’s a deception. You see nobody actually lives at 9917 Benton. The exterior is a disguise. Inside the facade is a sophisticated ground water treatment plant. Over the past 17 years the plant has removed 8 tons of cancer causing chemicals from the ground water beneath this neighborhood.

According to the Environment Department’s Dennis McQuillan, “This is just one of several many areas around the state where people live on top of contaminated ground water.”

Hundreds of homeowners in Albuquerque’s Paradise Hills are impacted. A vast chemical laced plume has reached the aquifer. The ground water beneath the neighborhood is contaminated with trichlorethylene which is a known carcinogen.

The offender is an electronics manufacturing company called Spartan Technology. Spartan operated for 30 years at a site on north Coors near Cottonwood Mall. The electronics firm shut down in 1999 and the building was demolished to make way for commercial development.

“Spartan manufactured printed circuit boards and other electrical equipment. And they used TCE to degrease some of the products they made. It was discharged on site into the soil, seeped into the groundwater and created a contamination plume half a mile long,” says Dennis McQuillan.

State Environment Department scientists say the TCE plume does not endanger the city’s drinking water supply. A Federal Court ordered Spartan to pay for the clean-up. Even though that process began nearly two decades ago, it will likely be another 10-20 years before the ground water in the Paradise Hills neighborhood is free from toxic contamination.

And in Veguita, New Mexico, the negligent use of fertilizer threatens the health of hundreds of local residents. Like Olivia Camacho.

“My stomach was feeling badly when I drank the water from the faucet,” Ms. Camacho told KRQE News 13 through a Spanish translator.

The rural Socorro County community of Veguita is a ‘danger zone’ where many of the resident’s private wells are polluted with high levels of nitrates.

“We’re very concerned about the people and the drinking water in Veguita,” says the Environmental Department’s Michelle Hunter.

“Many Years ago there was a vegetable farm in Veguita. And over fertilization for many years created ground water contamination that moved into this neighborhood,” Michelle Hunter said.

Because the farmer who caused this mess disappeared years ago, there is no one around to clean it up. The state Environment Department does not have regulatory authority over private domestic wells. Veguita residents are urged to have their wells tested for contamination. Olivia Camacho and her neighbors are faced with either paying for well site water treatment systems or, drink bottled water.

Not all of New Mexico’s ‘danger zones’ are linked to the misdeeds of private land owners. An underground environmental fiasco in Roswell is courtesy of the U.S. government.

The former Walker Air Force Base is located 3 miles south of the Roswell business district. Opened in 1941, Walker was active during World War II and during the cold war. The air field closed in 1967 and the sprawling property was turned over to the City of Roswell. Today the former military installation is home to an airplane graveyard, the Roswell airport, and, a massive toxic chemical spill.

When the Air Force abandoned the property, it left behind an environmental disaster. Now some 50 years later the U.S. government and the City of Roswell are still squabbling over who is going to pay for the cleanup.

Walker AFB Map
Walker AFB Map

Michelle Hunter calls the ground water contamination at the former military base, “significant.”

Hunter says, “They degreased engine parts and cleaned airplanes using a chemical that we know is really bad and it’s soaked into the ground. It contaminated the ground water beneath the site.”

Below the aging runways is a river of cancer causing toxic waste. High concentrations of trichloroethylene have been detected in the ground water at three separate locations.

Everyone–the federal government, the state and the city– agree the poisonous plumes must be cleaned up. However the City of Roswell and the Army Corps of Engineers have been arguing for 25 years about who is going to pay for the expensive clean-up.

“As the City of Roswell we want to protect the taxpayers,” says attorney Pete Domenici, Jr who represents Roswell in negotiations with the feds.

“We don’t want to take money away from another project to clean up the United States government’s mess. We want to assure that this is a safe site and we want to get the money from the United States, Domenici said.

As Roswell and U.S. Government officials argue over the clean-up price tag, it’s taxpayers who will ultimately be on the hook for this multi-million dollar ‘danger zone.’

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