Behind The Toxic Plume Story

Mar 14, 2016

This week is Sunshine Week, when reporters and editors across the country celebrate government transparency and access to public information. 

KUNM has been using public documents to investigate a plume of poisonous chemicals that has been moving in the groundwater underneath two neighborhoods in Albuquerque for at least several decades.

HOST: Public Health New Mexico’s Ed Williams is here to tell us a bit about that investigation. Thanks for being here, Ed.

REPORTER: Glad to be here.

HOST: Ed, you’ve been working on this story for six months now. Give us quick recap of what you’ve found.

REPORTER: Back in the '90s state Environment Department workers were taking groundwater samples in Albuquerque near where Tractor Brewing Company is today, in Wells Park just north of Downtown. They found a chemical called TCE, which is a really dangerous solvent that causes cancer and birth defects. They didn’t know where it was coming from, but a few years later, they traced it to a chemical distributor called Laun-Dry Supply Company on 12th Street.

Then, in 2005, the state ordered the company to develop a cleanup plan to get the chemicals out of the ground, but that process ended up stalling out. That left people living and working near the plume at risk of exposure to TCE, but hardly anyone living there knew there was any risk there at all. 

HOST: How would they be exposed?

REPORTER: Through the air. These chemicals evaporate underground and come into homes and buildings as gas. Until we reported on the plume, NMED hadn’t done any investigation into the health risks to people living nearby.

In the past few months, the company has submitted a full cleanup plan to the Environment Department, and they’re testing homes for chemicals with state supervision.

The Environment Department has been a lot more proactive since the story aired, too. There’s a new Groundwater Bureau chief there who's held meetings on the plume at neighborhood associations, and at city and county water meetings.

HOST: I’ve heard you guys talking about IPRA's and spreadsheets. Explain how you used public documents to do your reporting on this story.

REPORTER: We leaned heavily on public documents for this story. We initially found the story by looking at the active state cleanup sites, which you can download on the Environment Department’s website. Those documents showed there was an unresolved chemical spill but didn’t have much more information. 

So we requested more records to get the hard data. We got like environmental site assessments with monitoring well measurements, and emails from Environment Department employees. Those documents showed just how bad the contamination was and gave us a good foundation to start writing some stories.

HOST: But the Environment Department sent you an email saying there were multiple errors in the coverage. Did you get anything wrong?

REPORTER: No. We didn’t get anything wrong. We took some time, and we went through all of the items on their list, and we confirmed that there were not inaccuracies in any of our reporting.

They said we were wrong to report that nobody had investigated the health risks of the plume, but until testing began in homes last month, they hadn’t looked at the health risks for people living nearby at all.

They said there was a ton of information available to the public, but the lack of information is part of what spurred us to investigate in the first place. There were some other things, too. We’ve posted all of it and our response on our website.

And they asked us to take down the map of the plume that we created.

HOST: Are you going to take it down?

REPORTER: No. There’s nothing inaccurate about the map. My colleague Rashad Mahmood created it with the Environment Department’s own data, but we didn’t put all of our methodology online, so the department couldn’t figure out how we did it. All of that information’s online now, so if anyone wants to recreate it themselves, they can.

We’ve also put all our source documents—emails, environmental assessments from the spill—that we got through public records requests. We put that online as well. We really think this is a big story and it would be great if other outlets started to report on it as well.

HOST: So, what’s next?

REPORTER: Well, unfortunately, things have gotten a lot more difficult as our coverage has continued. When we started reporting this story the Environment Department was pretty open to talking with us, but in recent weeks they have blocked us from communicating with any of the people in the department who could help us keep the public informed.

We want to see the company’s cleanup plan we want to know what they’ve found in the air testing of homes, and we want to know whether they’re testing enough homes to get a comprehensive answer about risk.

We’re in radio, and we’d prefer to do taped interviews with Groundwater Bureau staff. They’re the ones who know what’s going on. But now we’re having to file public records requests for every bit of information, and the state is responding slowly.

And let me reiterate, this is public information. It belongs to the public.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is this: This is a story about real risks to public health in the Sawmill and Wells Park neighborhoods, risks that still haven’t been fully assessed

We have a responsibility to tell that story, and we’ll keep covering it in the future.

HOST: Thanks, Ed.

REPORTER: Thank you.