City officials had to scramble when they saw an overflow crowd standing outside the doors of Socorro City Hall last Thursday for a community hearing on the Eagle Picher Carefree Battery Superfund Site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) had planned a public meeting at city hall, but a growing crowd served as a catalyst to move the meeting to Finley gym at the last minute. As a result, EPA and NMED officials had to simplify their presentations at the last minute.
However, the two entities promised to return to Socorro in September to host a meeting at New Mexico Tech’s Macey Center to address more technical issues.
EPA officials said it will take approximately 30 years and $16 million to clean up the Eagle Picher Superfund Site. And right now, the EPA has only $700,000 in its coffers designated for Eagle Picher, noted EPA official Nicole Foster. “We’re trying to be very frugal with your money.”
Foster’s EPA counterpart, Janet Brooks, said funding is a magical business, thus she was happy to see the large turnout on Thursday might.
Congress decides how much money the EPA will receive. Once that amount is determined, Brooks said, it is divided among 10 EPA regions across the United States. Once the money is approved it’s up to priority panel of program experts to evaluate the risk with respect to human health and the environment. The agency uses these evaluations to establish funding priorities for all new cleanup construction projects in the Superfund program. The approach allows each region to list its priority projects and rank these projects against priority projects from other regions, ensuring that scarce resources are allocated to the projects posing the most risk to human health and the environment.
The five criteria and associated weighting factors are used to compare projects based on common criteria. Criteria include: risks to human population exposed, contaminant stability, contaminant characteristics, threat to a significant environment, and program management considerations.
Eagle Picher is among 16 high priority cleanup sites in New Mexico. Superfund sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) are those that the EPA has ranked, screened and decided are serious enough to merit long-term cleanup. There are more than 1,100 NPL sites nationwide.
Who pays for cleanup?
One resident questioned why Eagle Picher isn’t paying for the cleanup. “They’re still in business, can’t they be held responsible for the site’s cleanup?”
In most cases, taxpayers bear responsibility for Superfund sites because the private companies that caused the pollution—after reaping profits from the mines and factories—have moved on or declared bankruptcy. At the Socorro site, for example, Eagle Picher filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1991.
It eventually settled over environmental liabilities at 24 sites, not including the one in Socorro, which wasn’t listed as a liquidated site or as a debtor-owned site at the time of the settlement. Seven years later, in 1998, Eagle Picher Technologies was incorporated, and acquired Eagle Picher Industries, one of Eagle Picher, Inc.’s divisions.
State and federal officials had known about groundwater contamination from the plant for more than a decade. In the late 1980s, the groundwater tested positive for TCE (Trichlorethylene), a cancer-causing solvent, and lead was found in the soil. The well supplying drinking water was shut down, and the city installed new water lines to the affected residents. In the early 2000s state and federal agencies expanded their investigations, tracking the plume of contaminated groundwater—which had starting migrating south from the factory site, moving beneath a Socorro neighborhood and the north end of New Mexico Tech’s golf course.
Then, in 2005, Eagle Picher Technologies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The next year, a motocross raceway that had been operating at the site shut down. Flash floods exposed lead battery plates and straps.
“It’s very disheartening,” said Foster of the bankruptcy court settlement. “Seven hundred thousand is a long way from the $16 million.”
Just paying for the removal of the contaminated soil at the Eagle Picher site is estimated to cost about $1.2 million.
What happens now?
Officials from the EPA and the NMED told those in attendance it planned to work with the City of Socorro to secure the site, so no one can trespass on the site. In addition, they plan to install warning signs stating it is a Superfund Site.
Sabino Rivera, NMED’s Superfund Site assessment team leader has been working on the Eagle Picher site for almost 20 years. He noted the underground plume stands on 360 acres south of the old Eagle Picher plant stopping near the New Mexico Tech golf course.
Currently the NMED has about 35 monitoring wells in Socorro which they check monitor groundwater supplies as well monitor the plume. NMED tested near New Mexico in early February and will review in more detail the results during September’s meeting. Also during September’s meeting, audience members requested someone from the New Mexico Health Department be on hand to discuss their health concerns as well as someone from the EPA to address issues with property assessments of homes located in a Superfund Site.
“We’d like to sell our home, but we can’t get an assessment because it’s located in a Superfund Site area,” said one gentleman at Thursday night’s meeting. “Our property was taken off the market by our realtor because of this.”
EPA officials noted they had been in contact with EPA headquarters in Dallas about the issue earlier that day when it was brought to their attention the prior evening during a public hearing on Cal West Metals. It’s their intention to address those issues in more detail during their September visit.
Prior to Eagle Picher, there have been other uses for land. In the 1930s the land was used as a barracks for the Civilian Conservation Corps workers. Later it was used for a tuberculosis sanitarium. In 1964, Eagle Picher started to manufacture printed circuit boards until 1976 when it left Socorro. During that time, it discharged industrial waste and domestic sewage into unlined lagoons on the property.
The city of Socorro operated a landfill there for a while. In 1980, the company leased the property from the city and manufactured lead-acid batteries, again discharging industrial waste into unlined lagoons until 1989, when the city installed a septic tank.