Espanola, N.M., Waste Site Gets Cleanup Funds

An Espanola Superfund site, considered a top priority by the state, is getting federal funding for cleanup after more than five years on the federal toxic waste priority list.

Dec. 14—ESPANOLA, N.M. — An Espanola Superfund site, considered a top priority by the state, is getting federal funding for cleanup after more than five years on the federal toxic waste priority list.

State environment chief Ron Curry hailed the funding of the Railroad Avenue plume site as an important step toward protecting the health and safety of people in Espanola and nearby Santa Clara Pueblo and promised the money would be put to work quickly.

Department spokesman Jon Goldstein would not disclose how much the Superfund program awarded the state for cleanup. He said the department plans in the coming weeks to put out an invitation to companies to bid for the cleanup and didn't want to bias the cost of the proposals by releasing the available funding.

State officials have in the past estimated cleanup costs at about $10"million.

Construction of the cleanup system — which will pump the contaminated water to the surface where it will be treated -is expected to begin in early March.

City officials hope the cleanup will help spur an Espanola downtown revitalization plan.

"This cleanup will be very helpful in the entire revitalization effort of the downtown area," said City Councilor Joseph Maestas, noting that the contaminated site was once a center of Espanola commerce.

First discovered in 1989, the Railroad Avenue plume is contaminated with pollutants from a former dry cleaners. Investigations in the early 1990s discovered the groundwater was contaminated with tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE) from the top of the water table, about four to five feet below the surface, to about 260 feet down.

The site was placed on the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund priority list in 1999, but was overlooked for funding until this year.

"We yelled and screamed so much they (federal officials) were getting input from everybody," said Espanola mayor Richard Lucero, who said the funding was long overdue.

State environment officials have estimated as much as 300 million gallons of water are contaminated with the cancer-causing pollutants, which form a plume about three-quarters of a mile long and 800 feet wide to the Rio Grande.

Because the contaminants are so diluted by the time they reach the river, tests have not found any of the contaminants in the river.

Lucero said his biggest fear was that the plume would contaminate the river.

"I hope we are going to catch it on time," he said.

Two city wells were shut down when contaminants from the plume were discovered. Some monitoring wells recorded contaminant levels as much as 20,000 times above the EPA drinking water standard of 5 parts per billion, though most readings ranged between 4,000 times and 10,000 times above the standard.

When the Railroad Avenue plume site in Espanola was overlooked by the EPA for funding last year, Curry blamed Bush administration funding cuts and promised a vigorous campaign to win funding this year.

Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he was appalled when the site went unfunded last year and promised to help the state secure federal funding this year.

Espanola city officials considered the failure to fund cleanup an environmental justice issue, because the contamination primarily affects low- to moderate-income minorities who tend to live in the area around the plume.

"We were simply at a loss as to why the federal government was not giving that site its attention as a top priority," Maestas said. "The impacts were tremendous and immediate."

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© 2004, Albuquerque Journal. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.