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No federal funding for Socorro toxic cleanup

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The cleanup of contamination caused by a long abandoned battery plant just north of the Socorro city limits – expected to take two to three decades once underway – has been put on hold due to a lack of federal funding.

And that comes after the Environmental Protection Agency declared the closed Eagle Picher Carefree Battery Plant a Superfund site 12 years ago.

“EPA Region 6 has not received any Congressional funding for the Eagle Picher site,” EPA spokesperson Jennah Durant told the Journal. “The federal budget and available funds affect the pace, scope and duration of fund-financed cleanups. In a given fiscal year, the Superfund construction budget is typically insufficient to pay for both ongoing cleanup projects and all the new shovel-ready projects.”

The New Mexico Environment Department is working with the EPA on the cleanup, but NMED spokesperson Maddy Hayden said there were no other options available for funding.

The EPA and the NMED have a plan in place to clean up the contamination of TCE (trichloroethylene), and smaller amounts of PCE (tetrachloroethene), DCE (dichloroethene) and DCA (dichloroethane) from years of discharge of waste by the plant from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s.

NMED Project Manager Sabino Rivera said during a meeting at Socorro City Hall last October that four injection wells and six extraction wells are expected to be constructed to pump the contamination from a groundwater plume that extends 9,000 feet from just south of the Eagle Picher Carefree Battery site and just north of the Socorro city limits to an area that includes the northern part of the New Mexico Tech golf course. The plume is 2,000 feet wide.

It’s a process, he said, that could take between 20 years and 30 years to complete.

And it’s a process that could cost about $13.8 million to complete, Durant said, if the project gets the funding. More than $12 million of that is needed for the groundwater cleanup. The rest is needed for soil and debris removal.

“We have many Superfund sites around the nation,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. said. “They need attention and funding. It’s appalling that an administration would recommend cuts to the overall Superfund because there’s so much work to do. I’ve always fought to see that there’s adequate funding.”

Durant said if an immediate risk develops at an unfunded site, such as the one in Socorro, the EPA would take immediate action.

There is a hope for funding in October for the cleanup around the Eagle Picher plant site that would include the demolition of buildings, but Hayden said that’s only preliminary.

“NMED is requesting bids from contractors for the removal of the contaminated soils and building materials, including lead-based paint and asbestos-containing building material,” Hayden said. “Through the cooperative agreement, NMED would oversee the contractors conducting the removal. If the contractors submit a bid lower than the costs stated in the Record of Decision, then our understanding is the EPA will attempt to make some funding available.”

Rivera has requested assistance from the city of Socorro with the demolition, should the funding become available.

But Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker told the Journal the real problem was with the groundwater.

“The city in good faith already put down $200,000 a long time ago in hopes the federal government would in good faith fund the rest of the project,” Bhasker said.

Contaminated vapors have gotten into the soil and into some of the homes in the groundwater plume. But Hayden said City of Socorro wells that supply the area with drinking water are not affected.

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