Over a period of decades, cancer-causing solvents quietly seeped from a warehouse owned by Laun-Dry Supply Co. into the groundwater underneath dozens of homes and businesses near downtown Albuquerque. Today the plume of contamination stretches a mile and a half across the city, putting hundreds of people at risk of chemical exposure.
And government records show that employees of Laun-Dry were exposed to toxins from the plume.
"When we collected the first soil vapor sample, we were digging and you could smell it, almost like an airplane glue kind of smell," said Baird Swanson. Today he’s a private environmental consultant, but back in 2005 he was an investigator for the New Mexico Environment Department. He was digging for soil samples at Laun-Dry Supply Company, after discovering a leaking chemical tank there.
"So it had a pretty strong smell to it, and it would make you feel a little bit nauseated and a little inebriated, kind of like the effect of a glass of wine or something," he said.
The implications of that smell were big. If the chemicals were shallow enough, and in a high enough concentration, they could be wafting back up into the building as toxic vapors. Employees could be breathing it throughout the workday. So Swanson and his team decided to take samples inside the building. The results showed the air in Laun-Dry’s warehouse and front office was contaminated with poisonous chemical solvents called PCE and TCE–and a lot of them.
Swanson says the state was concerned about the health effects this contamination could have on people in the building. But at that time, New Mexico didn’t have any laws in place to deal with airborne toxins like this, so Laun-Dry didn’t have a legal obligation to fix the air its employees were breathing.
Internal environment department emails do show that as early as 2005, staffers there had serious concerns about dangers the spill posed to the health and safety of people in the area, at one time saying the chemicals could lead to “unreasonable injury” to people exposed.
"You know, I just felt like if I ran a business and I was exposing my employees, I mean, these are my friends. I would tell them and provide them with a respirator if they felt like they needed it," Swanson said. "I mean, you do one of two things—you get it out of the building or you put a mask on."
Laun-Dry did eventually install a groundwater pump to suck up the chemicals underneath the warehouse. But it took the company eight years to install that system after learning about the air hazards.
Why did they wait so long? Did they understand the risks, or tell their employees about the air they were breathing at work? We don’t know because they wouldn’t respond to our interview requests for this story.
"Up until right now I knew nothing of this," said Robert Starkey, a former sales rep at Laun-Dry who worked at the business in 2003. "So those of us who worked there, do we need to be concerned with health issues? Do we all just go through life until further notice?"
"There really isn’t much to do at this point. They’ve already been exposed," said Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health who specializes in community health effects of toxic exposures.
"For the people in the area, it’s a kind of environmental disaster," Ozonoff said. "To the extent that there are any health effects from it, it’s sort of like the man who jumps out of the Empire State Building–when he passes the 14th floor it’s all so far so good. Hopefully it’s all so far so good for all of these people too."
Dr. Ozonoff says the important thing now is to figure out where else these chemicals are making their way to the surface.
And on that front there has been some recent progress. Since we started reporting on the toxic spill this fall, Laun-Dry has committed to developing a full -scale cleanup plan for the remaining contamination, and has agreed to pay for air testing in homes near the plume.
Those air tests are set to begin early next year.