Editor's Note: A spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department emailed with concerns about this story. We reviewed them and found no inaccuracies. We stand by our reporting. You can find a link to her email and read our response here.
There is a problem with the groundwater in Albuquerque—a big problem. A plume of poisonous dry cleaning chemicals is flowing beneath the Sawmill and Wells Park neighborhoods, just north of downtown. The contamination stretches farther than the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill, and is much closer to the surface.
But two decades into their investigation, state regulators are still waiting for a cleanup plan from the company that spilled the chemicals.
Walk into Tractor Brewing Company in Wells Park on any given afternoon, and you’ll see a room full of people unwinding over a craft beer, talking about football or work. What you probably won’t hear people talking about are the dangerous chemicals moving through the shallow groundwater nearby.
"We’ve never heard anything," said Skye Devore, one of Tractor’s owners.
The reason she hadn’t heard anything is because there’s been no public notice issued about the chemical plume—even though it has the potential to harm human health. Devore wasn’t exactly thrilled to find out about the problem.
"In business, you don’t want your property values to fall," she said. "You don’t want there to be a big thing that alerts the public or consumers to even the thought that there’s something wrong. It’s upsetting if it should have been cleaned up 10 years ago before we even bought the building. It shouldn’t even be our problem to be dealing with."
Ten years. That’s the amount of time that has passed since the New Mexico Environment Department first ordered a nearby business called Laun-Dry Supply Company to develop a cleanup plan, after state investigators traced the groundwater contamination to chemical tanks on Laun-Dry’s property.
In the years since, the company has stopped the source of the leak and installed a groundwater pump behind their building. They dug some monitoring wells to measure the chemicals, but they still haven’t developed a final cleanup strategy for the mile-and-a-half-long plume of chemicals still in the aquifer.
"I would say for the location and all the circumstances, I don’t think it’s a particularly slow pace," he said.
Pete Domenici Jr. is a well-known name in Albuquerque. The son of former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici Sr., he was a one-time Republican candidate for governor—and for the past three years, he was a member of the local Water Protection Advisory Board, where he instructed the county and city on which water pollution issues needed attention.
Domenici says the chemical plume never came up during his time on the water advisory board, but either way, he says, there’s really not much more that needs to be done to fix the pollution from Laun-Dry.
"This has a very good potential to get to a point where it will naturally attenuate and clean itself up," he said.
But Michelle Hunter, who took over as head of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Groundwater Bureau a few months ago, disagrees.
"This was absolutely one of my top priorities when I became bureau chief," she said.
Hunter said the science she’s seen puts the Laun-Dry plume on par with some of the state’s EPA Superfund sites—places so badly polluted they’ve been singled out by the federal government as needing immediate cleanup to protect human health and the environment.
"I think it could be a Superfund site. I think it’s bad," she said.
Toxic dry cleaning solvents have been measured in the groundwater at hundreds, even thousands of times higher than state standards. At those levels, the chemicals could be coming to the surface as gas people could breathe.
But even though the state’s guidelines say more health monitoring needs to be done in this case, Hunter says the Environment Department has to wait until the company submits a full-scale cleanup plan for any health studies to happen.
For Albuquerque City Councilor Isaac Benton, whose district includes the neighborhoods impacted by the contamination, that’s too long to wait.
"It’s flabbergasting to see it’s been sitting like this for this long," Benton said. "But knowing what we know now, I want the city’s environment department to get involved as well, doing outreach and getting this thing done. Sounds to me like the state totally dropped the ball."
To be fair, state lawmakers cut the groundwater bureau’s budget by almost half several years ago, and the agency hasn’t had the money or staff to enforce the laws. But Hunter says the Environment Department isn’t willing to wait much longer for a cleanup plan. Either the pace picks up, she says, or the gloves come off.
“Like we said, if it just keeps going on, we will be exploring other options,” Hunter said.
Those options could include going on the legal offensive to force Laun-Dry into a cleanup agreement, or maybe even making this New Mexico’s newest Superfund site.
Public Health New Mexico is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.