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State Plans To Keep Trying Vegetable Oil at Española Superfund Site

Simon Law via Wikimedia CC
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Dangerous dry-cleaning chemicals leached into the soil and the aquifer under Española decades ago. The Environmental Protection Agency pulled out recently after working on cleanup for 10 years, but some of the contamination remains. Now, the state’s taking over, and ignoring investigators’ recommendation to use a different cleanup method.

The EPA was using bioremediation—that’s injecting vegetable oil into the ground to attract micro-organisms that break down the harmful chemicals. Reviewers looked at results mid-cleanup and said the vegetable oil method was not working in the deep parts of the plume. Their report says instead, the EPA should pump the groundwater out, clean it, and put it back.

Angelo Ortelli, New Mexico Environment Department project manager for the site, said he disagrees. "Well, we’ve seen success using the bioremediation that’s been applied to this deep zone," he said. "Over the 10-year period, we’ve seen a 50 percent decrease in the concentration in three of the four monitoring wells that monitor that progress."

Ortelli said pumping the water out isn’t viable in this area. The state plans to move forward next year with a new kind of vegetable oil he said should work better. 

Dry-cleaning chemicals can cause cancers and birth defects. The toxins vaporize and come up out of the soil and into buildings. That’s happening in Española, including at Las Cumbres Community Services, a spot for children and families. NMED said the chemical concentrations in the vapors found in Las Cumbres do not exceed EPA safety standards. Ortelli said they’re keeping an eye on it.

Copyright 2019 KUNM

Marisa Demarco is a reporter based in Albuquerque, N.M. She's spent almost two decades in journalism, founding the New Mexico Compass, and editing and writing for the Weekly Alibi, the Albuquerque Tribune and UNM's Daily Lobo. She began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and has covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice.