SAN RAFAEL, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a big property in the heart of New Mexico with a messy history, and thought to be covered with more than quarter-million tires. A place where a small fire could erupt into an environmental nightmare.
The well-known problem is strewn across one man’s private property, just south of Grants. Neighbors have known about the issues on Sonny Small’s land for decades. The property has also been on state regulators’ radar as a major environmental hazard. As KRQE News 13 first aired a story about the property in 2010, state officials promised it would be cleaned.
But six years later, the state hasn’t made good on its promise. The property raises questions about what happened, who failed to do their job and whether or not the man behind what the state considers a major New Mexico illegal dumpsite will ever be held accountable.
The state identified illegal dump site sits south of Grants sits at the end of “South Small Ranch Road,” off Highway 53, west of San Rafael. A one mile long wall of tires lines the road leading up to the property.
It’s an area Andrew Wilson knows well. Wilson saw the property first-hand in October 2010.
“Huge piles of tires, junk cars, trucks, heavy equipment, boats, barrels laying around on the property, a lot of them looked empty had rusted through,” said Wilson, recalling his view of the property. “There was two or three appliance dumps or ‘white goods’ appliance dumps.”
According to initial surveys by state inspectors, an estimated 250,000 tires were dumped on the property, along with thousands of pounds of scrap metal, from old, junked appliances. State investigators also found asbestos-laden material and other trash.
“You could tell he’d been doing this for years and years,” said Wilson.
Wilson used to work for the New Mexico Environment Department as a food inspector in the Gallup field office. He also has experience with firefighting, having spent the last 20 years as the volunteer Fire Chief for the Ramah/Timberlake Fire Department. Ramah is roughly 35 miles directly west of Grants, or a 55 mile drive on Highway 53.
In 2010, the New Mexico Environment Department was looking to make the landowner, Sonny Small, clean his property. On September 23 that year, state inspectors served a search warrant on the property, which sits off South Small Ranch Road. Wilson was there as a food inspector. He says he was on-hand to deal with any potential issues involving food products coming from animals. Wilson says no animal-related issues were found at the property. However, investigators found plenty of types of waste, including several piles of tires.
“Environmentally, I could see that that was a really bad situation,” said Wilson, recalling what he saw during the 2010 survey of Small’s property.
A Grants tire shop told KRQE News 13 in 2010 that it was paying Small to take old tires from its shop in Grants. According to records obtained by KRQE News 13, Small admitted to the New Mexico Environment Department that he had been accepting tires from local shops, then dump them on his property.
Inspectors with the Environment Department expressed major concerns about tire dump turning into an inferno.
“Large amounts of tires, when they catch on fire, you just can’t put it out, there’s just too much fuel,” said Wilson.
There were also fears of possible contamination leaching out of the rest of the waste, and seeping into the soil and ground water.
“We saw asbestos pipes,” said Wilson.
Following the 2010 search warrant inspection of Small’s property, the hazards were very clear to the New Mexico Environment Department. The state agency began the process of making Small come up with a cleanup plan. Wilson said he was confident that state regulators would follow through with enforcement.
“I thought, you know, the state is going to step up and do their job,” said Wilson. “That was 2010.”
However, the reality today is far different than what Wilson had hoped for. KRQE News 13 surveyed Small’s property again in September 2016. Visually, the property appears to remain almost entirely unchanged from the way it was six years ago. Mounds of tires in the thousands are still visible, along with piles of old appliances, junk cars and more. The New Mexico Environment Department says there are no permits for any of the mounds of items.
While the Environment Department says groundwater hasn’t been contaminated at this point, a tire fire could potentially change that. A tire fire could also spew a plume of toxic smoke into Grants.
“The New Mexico Environment Department hasn’t been doing their job in the western part of the state,” said Wilson, who stopped working for the department in late 2015.
Wilson says he still has major concerns about the fire danger the tires on Small’s property pose. Wilson believes if the tires caught on fire, his volunteer department would likely be called out to assist, along with many surrounding fire departments in the Grants and San Rafael region. He think a tire fire could be potentially overwhelming
“I’m not even sure that they would be able to put it out because large amounts of tires when they catch on fire, you just can’t put it out, there’s just too much fuel, and there’s not enough water, especially in Western New Mexico,” said Wilson.
So what happened and why wasn’t the property been cleaned up? KRQE News 13 took those questions to the New Mexico Environment Department.
“It sounds like the state was working on this, and that somewhere along the way, work sort of stopped. Why did that happen?” asked KRQE News 13 Reporter Chris McKee.
“I would say you’re absolutely right, that did occur,” said Kathryn Roberts of the New Mexico Environment Department.
Roberts is the director of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Resource Protection, which in part, oversees solid and hazardous waste across New Mexico.
The Environment Department acknowledged to KRQE News 13 that property owner Sonny Small submitted two cleanup plans between 2010 and 2013, but both were rejected. KRQE News 13 has learned that the lead investigator who took on the case was forced to retire in 2013 because of health issues. Since then, the case has been passed from investigator, to investigator, but nothing has been done.
“Who dropped the ball here?” asked KRQE News 13 Reporter Chris McKee.
“Well, it’s a very good question,” said Roberts, in response. “Do we have some responsibility here? Yes, we absolutely do, but what I can say is that we are working very diligently to move forward.”
KRQE News 13 obtained a July 2016 email correspondence between Environment Department officials and Ramah/Timberlake Fire Chief Andrew Wilson that was even more telling of the state’s role in the cleanup of Sonny Small’s property. In an emailed response to Wilson, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Butch Tongate was blunt in explaining his take on what happened.
“Obviously, we dropped the ball on this matter,” wrote then Deputy Secretary Tongate, in part. Tongate continued with a description of the state’s record of event’s, writing, “as described below, we intend to resume efforts to have abatement of the site occur as expeditiously as possible.”
The New Mexico Environment Department also acknowledge to KRQE News 13 that a risk to health and safety remains on the property.
“They pose … what I would consider a wet and a dry risk,” said Roberts. “What I mean by that is tires that are piled up in this way can accumulate water, they can become a breeding ground for insects, which is pretty notable health issue.”
Roberts also acknowledged what she considers the “dry risk” – the continued fire danger the tires pose on the property.
“These tires if they were to catch fire can burn… for years,” said Roberts
The New Mexico Environment Department now says it has once again ordered Small to come up with a new cleanup plan. Roberts said the department remains, “optimistic” as Small now has a list of criteria, or benchmarks that he has to meet in order for a cleanup plan to be accepted by state regulators. Roberts also added that so far, Small has been cooperative.
“I do want to stress that Mr. Small and his family have been much more cooperative this go-round than they have in the past,” said Roberts. “It’s our experience that when a property owner is willing to work with us, you’re going to get to that end goal faster.”
Small’s next cleanup plan proposal is due in October 2016. No matter what comes of it, cleanup of the entire property could take years, according to the state.
“There’s a huge amount of tires on that site, and that’s going to take… considerably more time,” said Roberts.
Roberts also told KRQE News 13 that in all likelihood, the appliance-based scrap metal could be the first thing to be removed.
“His scrap metal, is very easily picked up and hauled off site to an appropriate disposal facility, so I would suspect that’s going to be one of the first things,” said Roberts.
The entire project could cost Small a lot of money. While the Environment Department told KRQE News 13 that there is no current cost-estimate for cleanup of Small’s entire property, the agency says similar cleanup projects can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s money Small may not have, however, the Environment Department says it also doesn’t know the extent of Small’s finances.
However, according to Roberts, Small will ultimately pay for all of the cleanup work.
“He is the responsible party and we’re going to hold him accountable for his actions,” said Roberts.
Miles away in Ramah, Fire Chief Wilson hopes this time the state Environment Department keeps its promise.
“They had better clean it up, OK? They have to clean it up,” said Wilson. “If they don’t do it, you know, they’re hurting themselves.”
In the past, the New Mexico Environment Department said it could fine Small or take him to court if Small failed to comply. However, the state has never done that in the past. Recently, KRQE News 13 asked the Environment Department again about what happens if Small fails to clean-up the property, or pay for it. The state responded with the following statement:
“The Environment Department is responsible for the protection of all New Mexicans from environmental hazards, which is why we hold polluters accountable. If Mr. Small fails to comply with the Department’s cleanup requirements, he could be facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and penalties.”
–Kathryn Roberts, New Mexico Environment Department