National Guard gun-cleaner was pollution source at Solano site

Source: Las Cruces Sun-News, March 27, 2011
By: Diana M. Alba

The National Guard’s use of a gun-cleaning chemical for more than four decades at a former armory site off North Solano Drive is to blame for most groundwater pollution at a federally designated cleanup site, a city-county study found.

And, officials with the city of Las Cruces and Do-a Ana County said they’re concerned the National Guard hasn’t been forced to pay its share of the $15 million to $20 million remediation project.

The chemical perchloroethylene, or PCE, was used and dumped on bare ground at the former armory, on the northwest corner of North Solano Drive and East Hadley Avenue, according to a city-county investigation that included interviews of former guardsmen. The land – leased and owned by the National Guard between 1947 and 1990 – now is the site of a boxing gym and the city’s new aquatics center.

PCE disposed

Four former National Guard personnel gave sworn statements that they used or witnessed the use of PCE cleaning solvent between the ’50s and ’70s, according to county documents obtained through an inspection of public records request.

One former National Guard technician, Antonio Marta, said under oath he and other personnel “used PCE at the Solano armory and disposed of it onto the ground and into armory drains,” according to a September 2010 letter from the city and county’s consultant attorney to the EPA. A second employee, Casimiro Gonzales, indicated that he witnessed “maintenance of various military armament with substances containing PCE, including use and disposal of PCE in unpaved areas at the Solano armory site,” according to the letter.

Technical specifications issued by the National Guard in the ’60s and ’70s called for the use of PCE as a cleaning compound for engines, small arms and armament.

According to the EPA, the chemical in drinking water can cause liver problems and possibly cancer, if ingested for many years.

PCE contamination was first detected in city wells in 1993. Two years later, it had surpassed levels allowed by the EPA. As a result, five wells have been shut down in the area, called the Griggs and Walnut Groundwater Plume Superfund site. City officials have said the plume is contained and isn’t affecting drinking water supplies.

Guard responsible?

The former armory acreage, as early as 2000, was identified as a point of PCE groundwater contamination by the EPA, according to city-county documents. Two other sites are a city-owned parcel at the corner of East Hadley Avenue and North Walnut Street that’s also a former airport runway, and a Do-a Ana County-owned property located off East Griggs Avenue.

After a study, and as part of its enforcement process, the EPA named the city and county as “potentially responsible parties,” which obligates them to carry out – and pay for – the cleanup.

The city and county decided to conduct their own investigation into the contamination, because they “thought the EPA effort was not sufficient,” said Ed Fridenstine, Do-a Ana County’s risk management director. That yielded the affidavits from former guard personnel.

In 2008, the city and county notified the National Guard about the evidence that PCE had been released at the armory site by former guardsmen, in both their state and federal capacities, according to county documents.

Lt. Col. Jamison Herrera of the New Mexico National Guard said they are involved in talks with the EPA, state environment department and “all parties” about “what level of PCEs were released at the site.” However, he said he couldn’t discuss specifics.

“Due to the legal nature of this, to make any other statement would probably be premature on our part,” he said.

The EPA notified the state National Guard in 2009 that it was a potentially responsible party, but never followed through with any action. The federal National Guard also wasn’t named, as city and county officials pointed out in a November 2010 letter to U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both D-N.M.

“City and county taxpayers cannot afford to pay the costs, nor should they be required to,” they wrote. “The U.S. military caused the majority of the contamination at the site, but EPA and (the U.S. Department of Justice) have not held them accountable in any way.”

Said Fridenstine on Thursday: “Frankly, we don’t understand why EPA hasn’t acted on the information they’ve been provided.”

EPA spokesman Dave Bary declined to comment Friday, saying the agency can’t speak about enforcement actions.

Hefty pricetag

County and city officials said they’re seeking for the National Guard to pay for a share of the cleanup.

The city and county have a $7 million loan from the state that will pay for construction of a treatment facility. It will pump polluted water and expose it to open air. Officials said the PCE will evaporate, solving the groundwater problem.

Once built, operating the facility is expected to cost about $5 million over the span of 15 years, said Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima. And the EPA is seeking to recover its expenses – which could range from $6 million to $11 million – from the county.

Miyagishima said the city and county have agreed to pay about $5.5 million toward the cost of the treatment plant construction. But he said they have a “strong case” as to why they shouldn’t be responsible for the rest of the bill. The remainder could be apportioned between the National Guard and the EPA, though, “what they do with the rest is up to them,” he said of EPA officials.

Outstanding decree

County and city officials said the EPA seemed on board last fall with negotiating what’s known as a consent decree, a settlement to resolve disputes. Such a document could have capped the city and county’s financial liability, Miyagishima said.

“We were under the impression a consent decree was coming,” he said. “We don’t know what happened; it never materialized.”

Instead, the EPA abruptly issued an administrative order in February, demanding that the city and county begin carrying out the remediation plan, city and county officials said. There was no mention of the National Guard.

Meetings slated

County commissioners and city councilors are slated to meet in a joint closed session Tuesday about the matter. Up in the air is how to respond to the February order.

Regardless of any pending legal action, Fridenstine said the county and city will start building the treatment plant in September because they agree it needs to be cleaned up before the plume spreads.

Construction is expected to last seven months, according to city-county documents.

Miyagishima said a regional EPA administrator will meet with local officials sometime this week in Las Cruces. He said he’s hopeful the director will agree to a consent decree, after hearing the city and county’s side of the story firsthand.

“We’re still confident we can resolve this diplomatically,” he said.

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