Eagle Picher site to get EPA’s attention


Socorro residents may be startled next month to see men walking around north of the city in HazMat suits. Almost 2-1/2 years after being listed on the National Priorities List, the Eagle Picher Carefree Battery Superfund Site is about to get some attention.



“The wheels have been grinding for some time, but now the rubber is about to hit the road,” said Michael Torres, remedial project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency, in a March 9 telephone interview.

Torres will oversee a Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study at the site, scheduled to begin in mid-April.

The property in question, approximately 2 miles north of Socorro, has been owned at various times by the federal government, the State of New Mexico, the City of Socorro, and Eagle Picher Industries.

From 1936 to 1956, it was used as a tuberculosis sanitarium by the State of New Mexico. According to the NPL Site Narrative, septic waste from the sanitarium was discharged into unlined lagoons. The state then gave the property to the City of Socorro, who sold it to Eagle Picher in 1964. Eagle Picher ran a printed circuit board manufacturing plant there until 1976, and discharged industrial waste into the unlined lagoons. Eagle Picher then gave the property back to the city, which used the arroyo on the north side of the property as a municipal landfill and used an arroyo west of the site to dispose of liquid waste, including sewage and waste oil, for three years.

In 1980, the city leased the site back to Eagle Picher for a lead-acid battery manufacturing plant. Industrial waste from Eagle Picher Carefree Battery was discharged into two lined evaporation lagoons on the site until 1989.

Questions about the site were raised as early as 1981, according to an organization called the Center for Public Integrity, which says on its Web site that information compiled from EPA databases indicates that site inspections were done in 1981, 1993 and 1997. Potential groundwater contamination was periodically tested, using monitoring wells, prior to 2005, when the EPA began a search for potentially responsible parties who could be held financially accountable for clean up costs.

Two volatile organic compounds have been identified in the groundwater, trichloroethylene or TCE, and 1,1-dichloroethylene, or 1,1-DCE. High levels of exposure to both compounds, or VOCs, are considered to pose a potential health risk.

In 2006, flooding exposed additional potentially hazardous materials, and in 2007, the EPA added the site to the list of Federal Superfund sites.

The term “Superfund” implies that large reserves of federal money are available to clean up hazardous waste sites. In practice, before Superfund money can be accessed, the EPA has to track down the responsible parties and try to force them to pay for the cleanup.

“Enforcement issues needed to be resolved,” Torres said. “Two potentially responsible parties have been identified.”

One of the responsible parties is Eagle Picher Industries, which declared bankruptcy early in the proceedings. Litigation has resulted in the EPA being awarded approximately $360,000 from Eagle Picher for past response costs and a further $9 million for future response costs.

The City of Socorro has also been identified as a responsible party, and Torres said that they’re close to reaching a settlement.

“Discussions are still under way,” Torres said.

El Defensor Chieftain was unable to reach Pete Domenici Jr. for comment, who is the attorney representing the City of Socorro in this matter.

Torres has earmarked $250,000 to begin the study, and estimates that completing the study will take approximately 18 months and cost close to $2.5 million.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, published a Public Health Assessment for the Eagle Picher site in February 2009. The health assessment says the site was put on the Superfund list “as a result of groundwater and soil contamination.” An initial review by the registry agency of exposures to site soil found that they were “below levels of health concern and that soil exposures could be further reduced by implementing dust management and suppressions methods.” A second review, after flooding in 2006, “observed that site conditions had changed due to erosion” and recommended that recreational activities at the site be suspended.

The health assessment also describes a groundwater contamination plume extending, as of 2005, “approximately two miles down-gradient” from the Eagle Picher site to the vicinity of Olsen Well, a municipal well within the city limits that is no longer in service.

According to a resolution passed in 2005, the city council resolved “as a precautionary measure” to “remove from service the Olsen Well which is located in the area of contamination and has shown minor traces of TCE.”

According to the health assessment, “this well was shut down due to arsenic concentration rather than Eagle Picher contaminants.”

According to Wastewater Superintendent Dixie Daniels, they are both wrong.

“Actually, it was shut down because of uranium levels,” Daniels said.

In four consecutive quarterly tests, from 2005 to 2006, water from the Olsen Well was found to contain levels of uranium exceeding the state’s regulations.

“In September of 2006, the Olsen Well was physically disconnected,” Daniels said. “We cut the pipe and cemented the hole.”

“The Olsen Well did test once in 2005 at the maximum contamination level for TCE, which is 5 parts per billion,” Daniels said. “You don’t shut down a well on one sample, you go to quarterly testing. At the next quarterly test it went down to 1.1 ppb.”

The city’s Eagle Picher Well, located within the Superfund site boundary, typically tests at 0.2 ppb or less, well below the maximum allowed.

“There are two reasons,” Daniels said. “One, it’s a deep well, I’d say about 280 feet.”

The Olsen Well was drilled in the 1970s, and was only about 97 feet deep, with the pump located at 75 feet.

“The other reason has to do with the direction of the underground water flow,” Daniels said. “The contamination plume is moving south and a little east towards the rift. The Eagle Picher Well appears to be upstream of the plume.”

The public heath assessment states unequivocally that “VOCs have never been detected in the City of Socorro water distribution system and no exposures have occurred via the municipal water system.”

Editor’s Note: Part 2 of this article will address questions about the EPA’s timeline for conducting the RIFS, possible methods for remediation, opportunities for public input, and other public safety issues.


Contact Suzanne Barteau