From: T.S. HopkinS, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.
Published December 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Plant Suspends Fertilizer Operations Near Las Cruces, N.M.

Dec. 2—Recurring concerns by Mesquite residents over possible ground water contamination and unhealthy air from a nearby chemical company have drawn a suspension order from the New Mexico Environment Department, according to a letter the department sent to State Rep. Joseph Cervantes.

Helena Chemical Company now has halted the dry fertilizer operation at its plant south of Las Cruces until it can meet with environmental officials.

Arturo Uribe and his family live across the street from the chemical plant, and the proximity has him worried about his family's health.

"When it's windy in the summer time, my baby has nose bleeds," Uribe said.

"There has to be something wrong with the quality of air in this area." There are three open bays on the south side of the Helena property that, according to the Environment Department, contain dry chemicals. The large utility doors are left open day and night.

The department checked Uribe's allegations that the chemicals were blowing around and required Helena to obtain an air quality permit.

According to department records, the company applied for the permit in March 2004, but the application was deficient in several respects.

In October 2004, Helena asked for an extension until the end of the year to do further testing. Operation of the plant without an air quality permit is a violation.

Company officials would not comment about the alleged violation.

In a faxed a statement to the Sun-News, Louis Rodrique, vice president of Helena's southern business unit, said, "In compliance with an order received Nov. 17, Helena Chemical Company has suspended dry fertilizer operations at its Mesquite facility. Helena is committed to protection of its employees, its customers, the community and the environment." Rodrique said he would be in Santa Fe today to talk with Environment Department officials.

In the statement, Rodrique said he could not predict a date for resuming dry fertilizer operations, but he anticipated it would be soon.

Cervantes said his understanding is that the company is still allowed to sell prepackaged dry products and certain liquid products that do not require mixing.

"I learned about the concerns with regard to Helena Chemical Company at a community meeting with Mesquite residents," Cervantes said.

He then asked the Environment Department whether they had investigated the Helena operation and the residents' concerns.

The department responded by outlining Helena's efforts to receive the air quality permit as well as the department's examination of possible ground water contamination. The Mesquite water system is fed by ground water, and nitrate pollution would be a serious problem.

The department said it had concluded that while Helena handles its hazardous waste properly, high concentrations of nitrates exist in subsoils on the facility property. There are three storage tanks on the property where ammonia nitrate and anhydrous ammonia and phosphate are kept.

The contamination could pose a source of nitrate pollution to the ground water. The department required Helena to do additional soil sampling to determine the extent of soil contamination and to install several monitoring wells to ascertain whether ground water is contaminated.

"The place they are talking about is right across the street from me," Uribe said. "They (Helena) think I am a trouble maker because I asked about the green junk in water that pools in the street after a rain." "My great grandfather built this house," Uribe said. "A lot of people were in Mesquite before the chemical company came. All we've ever been asking is for them to be a good neighbor." Cervantes said he is hopeful that by working with the Environment Department, Helena will get its problems resolved.

"We need to be able to strike a balance with agriculture and communities," Cervantes said. "There is a school across the road from the plant. Air and water quality are important factors."

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© 2004, Las Cruces Sun-News, Las Cruces, N.M. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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