Pollution Continues to Spread from Socorro Superfund Site

Pollution Continues to Spread from Socorro Superfund Site

Eagle Picher is one of several high-priority cleanup sites in New Mexico. Superfund sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) are those that the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has established an environmental hazard serious enough to merit long-term cleanup. Eagle Picher is one among roughly 1,100 NPL sites nationwide, most of which have been on this list for decades. Eagle Picher, located in Socorro County, is part of this infamous list. It also carries with a it a nefarious story that goes back nearly a century.

Civilian Conservation Corps had barracks for its workers in the 1930s during World War II. 30 years later, this site was taken by Eagle Picher to manufacture circuit boards. To wash these circuit boards, chlorinated solvents were used. Wastewater would then leak into floor drains, which would eventually reach unlined lagoons at the property.  In 1976, shortly after Eagle Picher first left Socorro, a landfill would be established and operated by the City of Socorro at the site. The company would come back in the 1990s, leasing the property from the city to build non-automotive lead-acid batteries.

Many private companies leave or declare bankruptcy after exploiting local resources, leaving the burden of the pollution they caused to taxpayers. In Socorro, Eagle Picher filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1991. The company settled over environmental liabilities at more than 20 other sites; however, this was not the case for the Superfund site of Socorro.  The company was not listed as a liquidated site or as a debtor-owned site at the time of the settlement, per court documents of 1969.

By the time Eagle Picher Technologies was incorporated, in 1998, state and federal officials had knowledge of groundwater contamination generated by the company for at least a decade. In the late 1980s, groundwater had tested positive for tricholoroethylene or TCE, a cancer-causing solvent. In addition, lead was found in the soil. As a result, the well supplying drinking water was shut down, and the city installed new water lines to affected residents. In the early 2000s, state and federal agencies tracked the plume of contaminated groundwater. According to their investigations, the plume had migrated south of the original contamination site, beneath a Socorro neighborhood and into the north end of New Mexico Tech’s golf course. Eagle Picher Technologies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005. A motocross raceway that operated at the site shut down in 2006. Flash floods at the unused site would expose lead battery plates and straps.

EPA and Eagle-Picher settled over the costs, and the company was order to pay more than $163,000 for environmental-related liabilities. However, according to the EPA, nearly $16 million are needed to clean-up the site’s toxic mess. After that, it would take the government nearly 30 years to finalize the cleaning process. In the meantime, harmful gases rise from the plume, contaminating the nearby soil and water table. In a 2018 fact sheet for the site, the EPA’s website clearly indicates that this problem has been addressed but not yet solved.

This is a serious issue for the inhabitants of Socorro, since water contamination is not contained and will likely expand in the following years. It will affect everyone living in the city, including the population operating at New Mexico Tech’s campus. For many of us, this story is shockingly new. I was not aware of this until I was invited to February’s Board of Regents’ meeting of February 2019. A person from the public, whose identity I could not catch, explained this issue to the regents. Soon after, NM Political Report published an article, and a few days ago, it published another one. As New Mexico Tech students, an environmental and social conscience should be part of our training. If we can’t do anything to fix this problem, we must at least raise awareness, and discuss potential solutions.

Jose Martinez-Claros

Graduate Student Vice-President

Graduate Representative to the SGA Senate

Physics PhD Student

New Mexico Tech

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