When environmental law student Mara Yarbrough gave a presentation on the North Railroad Avenue Plume in Española in August, she was surprised to discover just five of the roughly 40 people present knew what she was talking about.
Then again, it had been 30 years since environmental agencies discovered the contaminated groundwater plume below the now-defunct Norge Town laundromat and dry cleaners in a historic section of the city.
“This kind of thing is like running a marathon, not a sprint,” said Yarbrough, now in her third year at the University of New Mexico School of Law. “There’s been continuous activity of some kind on the project for years, and if people don’t know or have forgotten, that points to a lack of meaningful involvement at certain agencies.”
On Wednesday, representatives from both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Mexico Environment Department will hold a community meeting in Española to provide an update on efforts to treat the plume and answer questions.
At stake, said a community health leader, is the economic and physical well-being of people living in the neighborhood where the toxic leaks occurred.
“We still have multiple fears,” said Lauren Reichelt, Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services director.
“One fear is that these are highly carcinogenic chemicals. Another concern is that the groundwater to the west is contaminated ... and to the east we have problems with arsenic, so there is no place for the city to drill wells if we don’t clean this up.”
She added that it’s difficult for city leaders to encourage new development in an area known for toxic leakage.
Though federal and state environmental agencies have been working to assess and address the contaminants, Reichelt and Yarbrough question whether enough has been done.
Yarbrough, 49, grew up in Española and lives near the city. She was enrolled in her second year of law school when she was asked to complete a project based on a case of environmental law in New Mexico. She remembered the Norge Town story and knew it had been designated as an EPA Superfund site for cleanup.
She said that while officials at both the state and federal levels were initially helpful by phone with her research efforts, her efforts to obtain a May environmental report on the deeper aquifers affected by the contamination were stymied. She said it would be helpful to have that report at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I feel like they are holding their cards close to their chest,” she said. “If the report shores up their arguments that their goals are being met, that this thing is being cleaned up, then hallelujah, that’s what we want.”
The dry cleaning establishment, which closed more than a decade ago, is now the site of an auto paint business, Yarbrough said. She said she’s concerned for the health of the workers and customers.
In June, the EPA transferred long-term oversight of the project to the state Environment Department. That means the EPA will no longer provide 90 percent of the funding to operate and maintain the project.
Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the Environment Department, said in an email Tuesday: “The state will be 100 percent fiscally responsible” for the site now.
“We understand that there are concerns surrounding this site and are looking forward to hearing form the community, updating the public on the progress of the site and laying out our path forward,” she said.
“NMED has and continues to be committed to cleaning up this site expeditiously and thoroughly.”
Reichelt said she is grateful to Yarbrough for her dedication to uncovering what’s going on with the site.
“That was one hell of a class project,” she said of Yarbrough’s research.