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Toxic plume might have spread near midtown campus

January 6, 2019

Dry cleaners do wonders for dirty clothes.

What they do to the environment is a whole other matter.

Case in point: A now-closed dry cleaning business at a large shopping center off Cerrillos Road near St. Michael’s Drive left behind a toxic plume that has contaminated the groundwater and stoked fears at City Hall that it may have spread.

“Right now, we do know that there is a problem; the extent of the problem remains unknown,” Alex Puglisi, the city’s environmental compliance specialist, told city councilors who serve on the Public Utilities Committee last week.

Puglisi raised concerns that the plume has migrated toward the now-shuttered Santa Fe University of Art and Design, possibly affecting redevelopment efforts of the city-owned campus, as well as a water well about three-quarters of a mile away.

But officials with the New Mexico Environment Department say there’s no need to worry — at least not about this particular site.

Michelle Hunter, chief of the department’s Ground Water Quality Bureau, said the plume poses no threat to human health.

“Yes, it’s in the groundwater, but this site in particular is more of a success story than anything,” Hunter said Friday. “The responsible party has stepped up. They are remediating it, which you don’t see at the vast majority of these kinds of situations. This is the one I hold up [as an example of what to do right]. This is what we wish they would all do.”

Puglisi is less confident. He told councilors he has asked the state to request more soil and groundwater testing from the property owner but that the city has “priced out a preliminary investigation … to find out what it might cost for us to put in those [monitoring] wells if something doesn’t happen fast enough with the state of New Mexico.”

City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth said she talked with Mayor Alan Webber about drafting a letter to the incoming Environment Department secretary, who has not yet been named, “just to underscore our concern.”

“I would agree that this is obviously something we need to keep an eye on and we need the state and the incoming administration [of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham] to really pay attention to,” said Romero-Wirth, who is married to state Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.

The property owner, B & LV College Plaza Limited Partnership, is cleaning up the site under the state’s Voluntary Remediation Program, which provides incentives for the voluntary cleanup of contaminated sites and encourages their redevelopment.

“Participants who successfully complete the program receive site closure documentation from NMED and liability protection for lenders and future purchasers,” according to the state.

Hunter acknowledged there is a “data gap” closer to city-owned property and said she told Puglisi she would ask for additional testing.

“We wouldn’t normally think that [the plume] would have migrated this far, but we don’t know, so I would like to require them to do more work in here,” she said while pointing to the boundaries of the city-owned site on a map.

But she stressed the remediation program is voluntary.

“I agreed that we would talk to the responsible parties about doing some additional work in that realm,” she said. “I didn’t promise. I didn’t say we’d force them, but I did say we would go down that road with them.”

Hunter said the site is “almost fully delineated.”

“That means that we know where the edges of this plume are, and we do know where the edges of the groundwater plume are,” she said. “With vapor, you don’t know which direction it necessarily is going, so I would say with respect to full delineation of a vapor plume, we may not be quite there yet, but we’re working with [the property owner] to get there.”

Hunter said the property owner has “mitigated the situation inside the building, which is where we worry about vapor intrusion.

“My assumption is that with the low levels that we have [close to the building] in groundwater that we’re not going to see this massive vapor plume that would be threatening [to surrounding buildings], but I did tell [Puglisi] that it seemed prudent to me to talk to the responsible parties to get them to do some indoor air sampling just to make sure they’re not impacting anything else,” she said.

Jim Warshawski, the property asset manager, couldn’t remember the name of the dry cleaning business, saying it was there in the 1980s. But he said it had left the shopping center before it was acquired by the limited partnership.

“We sold that property last July,” he said. “Under the deal on the sale, we took responsibility for the cleanup.”

The College Plaza South shopping center includes a Smith’s grocery store and a Planet Fitness gym.

Warshawski said the state approved the limited partnership’s voluntary remediation plan about 1½ years ago.

“The remediation aspect of it has been ongoing since then,” he said. “It’s probably going to be another year or so before it’s finally given clearance. It’s not a big problem.”

Hunter agreed.

“This particular site is not serious, but in a general sense, dry cleaners are very serious,” she said.

“Dry cleaners in and of themselves are often the reason that we have big chlorinated solvent plumes in downtown areas of the entire country,” she said. “They are probably No. 1 on my list as far as thinking about how to help communities in New Mexico deal with their downtown pollution areas.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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