Toxic Site Is Cleaning Itself, Water Expert Claims

An Albuquerque groundwater contamination expert says EPA's plan to clean up the Fruit Avenue Plume Superfund Site is too costly and will take too long, according to a report by Frank Zoretich in today's Albuquerque Tribune.

The Downtown Action Team used a $50,000 grant from the EPA last year to hire R.T. Hicks Consultants to give technical advice on EPA's $8 million, 30-year plan to rid a downtown underground area of a cancer-causing compound.

The compound, trichloroethene, also known as TCE, leaked into the soil and groundwater from a long-gone dry cleaning business that operated at a location now occupied by the parking lot of the Wells Fargo Bank at Lomas Boulevard and Second Street Northwest.

Randy Hicks, the geologist who heads the consulting firm, says EPA should consider a cleaning method that would take two years and cost as little as $150,000.

"The EPA based their remedy action on data available about two years ago," Hicks told Zoretich. "Since that time, new data has become available. What we found in looking at the newer data is that the contamination is cleaning up by itself."

The site, he said, is "naturally restoring itself through the dilution of movement of groundwater, so our suggestion is we should allow nature to finish the job it started."

Hicks also told Zoretich the computer model the EPA uses assumes the TCE contamination is continuing to occur at its original source. But his data, he said, show no ongoing contamination from the location. And the plume's area is decreasing, he said, rather than slowly spreading east and south.

The plume is about a mile long, a half-mile wide and at least 544 feet deep. It's bounded by Lomas to the north, Sixth Street to the west, Tijeras Avenue to the south and Elm Street to the east.

The site poses no immediate health risks, he said. But EPA, he added, "predicts that if the site is not contained in five to 20 years, the municipal water supply could be threatened."

The plume was discovered in 1989, when TCE levels of up to 90 parts per billion were found in groundwater in the plume area.

The maximum allowed for drinking water under the Federal Clean Water Act is 5 parts per billion. A well within the plume that had been used by a soft-drink-bottling company and a private well that had been used for drinking water were quickly shut down.

EPA said the probable source of the TCE was the former Elite Cleaners, which was in business from about 1940 to 1970. EPA designated the plume as a Superfund clean-up site in 1999.

Cynthia Fanning, spokeswoman for the EPA regional office in Dallas, said Tuesday the Fruit Avenue Plume project manager was unavailable for comment.

But Fanning noted that during the past several months EPA has responded several times in writing to written comments on the project submitted by Hicks via the Downtown Action Team, an organization of business leaders and others dedicated to the ongoing revitalization of Downtown Albuquerque.

"We want to ensure that the remediation process chosen is in the best interest of the property owners, the taxpayers and the community," said Luisa Lindsey, president of the Downtown Action Team. "If we have found an easier, quicker and far less expensive way to address this environmental concern, why not consider it?"

The EPA's written responses have challenged the validity of the new data reported by Hicks and indicated the agency intends to proceed with its previously announced plan, which includes:

- "Soil vapor extraction" to remove TCE from the ground above the water table.

- Pumping water out of the plume, treating it to remove the TCE, and reinjecting the water into the ground.

- Injecting "either bioremediation additive or a chemical oxidant" into hot-spot areas of the plume to degrade the TCE in place.

Hicks said he hopes the EPA will at least consider the alternative he suggests. "All we're asking is for the EPA to test our theory with a program that would cost about $15,000 and take 30 days," he said.

The EPA has noted that although Hicks says TCE concentrations within the plume are dropping naturally, an increase has been measured at some monitoring sites.

The Albuquerque Tribune

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