Over two decades ago, toxic dry cleaning chemicals seeped into the groundwater from a chemical distribution company’s warehouse near downtown Albuquerque. Today the plume spreads from Laun-Dry Supply Company about a mile and a half eastward towards I-25.
After a long investigation, the New Mexico Environment Department is poised to move forward with a full-scale cleanup of the chemical plume.
The Laun-Dry groundwater plume is made up mostly of TCE, a solvent which is extremely toxic to humans and can cause cancer and birth defects. It’s in a shallow aquifer about 35 feet below the surface, and in at least one case, the chemical has evaporated into gas and infiltrated a commercial building.
So when the state environment department held a meeting last month to present their long-awaited cleanup plan to the public, there was some tension in the room.
“It hasn’t been clear how significant to health is,” said one attendee. “They’ve had plenty of time to clean it up—like 20 years—and nothing’s happened,” said another.
The response from those spearheading the cleanup effort was emphatic. The plume has been there a long time, it’s potentially dangerous, but it can be cleaned up.
“We’re going to stop the plume, and we’re going to clean up the plume,” said Jay Snyder, an environmental contractor hired by Laun-Dry to run the cleanup.
In a nutshell, the plan is to build what’s called a soil vapor extraction system—basically a big underground vacuum to suck up the poisonous vapors from the plume. It’s then going to inject the soil with a special chemical that traps the plume in place to keep it from migrating. Over about ten years, Snyder says, the chemicals underground should naturally degrade until the groundwater is safe again. In the meantime the state engineer will prohibit any new water wells in the area.
The state says it’s a solid plan. But getting to this point has been a long, complicated process.
“It takes a really long time to characterize a groundwater plume,” said NMED Groundwater Bureau Chief Michelle Hunter, who told the audience at the public meeting that it took years to figure out where the pollution was coming from, and years after that to come to an agreement on a cleanup plan with Laun-Dry Supply Co.
“So it seems like this has been moving very slowly, but it’s very common for these types of investigations to take many years,” she said.
Even still, the fact that it’s taken so long to clean up the chemicals has touched a raw nerve for some residents in the area. It’s also led to a lot of uncertainty.
"We’re only two blocks from this laundromat and they say we’re not going to be affected and I don’t think that’s the case,” said Wells Park resident Adan Carriaga. “I know in our block, just in our block and a half, we’ve had about, I think one time we counted about 14 or 15 people who have died from cancer.”
Any questions about what possible past exposures to chemicals from the Laun-Dry plume have meant for public health will have to remain unanswered for now. There’s been no epidemiological study in the neighborhood, though Michelle Hunter said she would ask her colleagues at the Department of Health about getting one underway.
As it stands, the environment department says the plume does not seem to be posing any immediate health risks for people, but they’d like to do more testing. They knocked on doors, sent out mailers, and posted information in the paper, but only three people in the area agreed to have their homes tested. None of those homes showed dangerous levels of chemicals and no city drinking water wells have been affected.
The state says there are no health dangers for people in the neighborhood, as long as they can follow through with their plan to clean the plume up.
The cleanup comes as the state is grappling with a budget crisis. But NMED’s groundwater bureau has escaped budget cuts, and has even hired additional scientists on to the team. NMED says now that this cleanup is underway, it will be turning its focus to other similar sites around the state.
The New Mexico Environment Department will finalize its cleanup plan in a few months, after it’s reviewed public comments.
Sarah Trujillo contributed to this report.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find this story and more at www.publichealthnm.org.