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City zeroes in on contamination sites

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Baxter, an English cream retriever owned by Phil Utigard, walks around Frank Ortiz Dog Park, the site of an old landfill and one of four contamination sites the city is monitoring. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s unclear how serious water and soil contamination threats from the sites of several former industrial concerns and landfills are to Santa Fe’s drinking water. And that’s a major concern for those charged with the safekeeping of area’s water supply.

“What the threat is we don’t know, and that’s a little disconcerting to us,” Bill Schneider, water resources coordinator with Santa Fe’s Public Utilities Department, said in a recent interview. “We would like to get a better handle on what’s out there as far as contamination.”

Schneider, city environmental compliance specialist Alex Puglisi and staff are involved in an ongoing effort to look at four sites being investigated for contamination levels. Puglisi gave a brief update on the situation to the city Public Utilities Committee earlier this month.

As part of developing Source Water Protection Plans (SWPPP) that the city is formulating with the New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau for the city’s water sources, Puglisi and Schneider said that a wellhead protection plan addressing known groundwater contamination and other potential sources of contamination will also be a major component of the SWPPP. The report is expected around the end of March.

It’s “a systematic evaluation of risk and uncertainty with respect to some of these sites … and how it may pertain to water quality,” said Schneider.

The wellhead protection plan will “look at where our water supply wells are relative to these sites and what risk may be derived from how we operate our wells,” according to Schneider.

The sites in question include a dry cleaner, a PNM Generating Station and two landfills – one a city-operated landfill and the other an informal dump – all of which are no longer in use.

The generating station, used to generate electricity until about the 1990s, has been under investigation for several decades, according to Puglisi.

It’s located near Baca Street and Cerrillos Road, close to the Railyard where Santa Fe Well No. 1, known as the Baca Street well, is also located.

“We the city actually put that site back on the radar in about 2013-14 when we asked (the New Mexico Environment Department) to go out and do wholesale sampling of the site,” said Puglisi.

In the 1980s and ’90s, that well was determined to be contaminated with several petroleum-related chemicals, including benzene, a known carcinogen. But a small plant treated the water before it was distributed to the public until the city shut it down in 2012 for several reasons, including the need for more sampling, said Puglisi.

A spill several decades ago from an above-ground bulk fuel storage tank on the generating station site is the suspected source of the contamination, but the site also had underground fuel storage tanks, Puglisi said.

“We wondered if the plume was moving in a different direction, but we also saw some increases in nitrate in our well, but not above (federal) standard,” said Puglisi.

The groundwater was treated to negate the petroleum chemicals present, but then increases in nitrate were detected, he said.

Nitrate can occur naturally in surface and groundwater, but high levels can be dangerous, particularly to infants and pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Concurrent investigations are ongoing by two state agencies: the environment department’s Ground Water Quality Bureau and the Petroleum Storage Tank Bureau, which uses gas tax revenues from a corrective action fund for cleanups. Water quality monitoring wells were drilled there in 2017 and a water bureau abatement plan report was expected to have been completed last week.

An environmental contractor submitted a groundwater monitoring report to the Storage Tank Bureau in January. The city has asked to submit comments and meet with that agency before the bureau accepts the report, states a city environment update from last week.

The city agreed with the contractor’s work plan request for two more quarters of groundwater monitoring, but that plan is yet to be approved by the bureau, said the environment update.

A spokeswoman with the environment department said state and city officials will meet to discuss the findings of the report and next steps. She said the work plan for future groundwater monitoring is under review.

A final abatement report from the contractor and PNM was expected to have been submitted to the state environment department’s Ground Water Quality Bureau earlier this month, according to the city’s environment update.

The agencies are trying to determine “the nature and extent of the contamination … and how far it’s gone,” said Puglisi.

Dry cleaner site monitored

Another site of city concern is the location of a former dry cleaners at what’s now the South College Plaza at Cerrillos Road and St. Michael’s Drive. The shopping center owners entered into a voluntary cleanup agreement several years ago with the state groundwater bureau to investigate and clean up a vapor plume of Perchloroethylene (PCE) from dry cleaning fluids, said Puglisi.

Long-term exposure to PCE, which is also found in household cleaners, adhesives, paint and shoe polish, can cause cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“The immediate concern about that is in soil that can cause vapor intrusion into buildings,” said Puglisi.

The shopping center’s contractor has installed a system to remove and treat soil vapors and the city has asked for further investigation “because they did find contamination in shallow groundwater (monitoring wells),” Puglisi said.

“We have some questions about the further extent of groundwater contamination; how far it’s gone and how deep it’s gone, how far horizontally and how deep vertically,” he said. “We want to know what the full extent of contamination is and whether or not it could be a threat to one of our wells because we have a well right there on St. Michael’s near the railroad tracks.”

“We somewhat disagree with the direction of groundwater flow that they (the contractor) are showing at the site because he is showing north and east, and groundwater tends to flow west and southwest,” said Puglisi.

A meeting is scheduled with the state environment department to compare notes.

If it’s determined the contamination has traveled further afield, the city would nix plans to drill another production well near Governor Miles Park that would replace the Baca Street Well No. 1, said Puglisi. Vapor intrusion is no longer believed to be a threat to the area buildings, he said.

Old dumps also scrutinized

Another contamination site in the city’s sights is an old dump covering about 35 acres, which is now a place for Fido and Rover to roam freely at the Frank S. Ortiz Dog Park at El Camino de las Cruces and Buckman Road.

The Frank Ortiz Dog Park, the site of an old landfill, is one of four sites the city is currently monitoring for contamination. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The city has added three groundwater monitoring wells for a total of four, and installed soil vapor probes to check contamination levels of nitrates and “low concentrations of volatile organic compounds” detected there, said Puglisi. Nitrates are common in landfills, he said.

A two-year period of quarterly monitoring started this week and will conclude with a report of what was found and how to abate it.

The city is considering installing a waterline for a dog watering station at the park after a request by the Parks and Recreation Division and Friends of the Dog Park, according to a city environmental update.

Another contamination site being looked at is the 110-acre Paseo de Vista Landfill between Buckman Road and Paseo de Vista, closed since about the 1990s, where methane gas releases and groundwater are currently being monitored.