The old Asarco smelter in neighboring El Paso, seen in this 2008 photo, is suspected as the source of lead and arsenic contamination in Sunland Park, NM. (Photo courtesy of Russell Neches via Flickr under Creative Commons license. License terms below.)
Editor’s note: This story was made possible in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
By Kent Paterson
Frontera NorteSur | FNS Special Feature
In the US-Mexico border town of Sunland Park, NM, lead and arsenic contamination is a legacy that’s been passed down through the generations. Federal and state environmental authorities have long identified the shuttered Asarco smelter in neighboring El Paso, which operated for more than a century, as the likely source of much of the pollution, as well as the remains of an old gas refinery that sits on the banks of the Rio Grande.
A report by the New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (NMONRT) stated that Asarco’s smelting operations in close proximity to what later became the city of Sunland Park triggered “environmental concerns” of impacts on crops and human health from excessive smoke as far back as the 1920s.
A broad swath of the lead pollution was graphically displayed on a map included in a 2005 report by the New Mexico Department of Health’s Office of Border Health that showed lead in soil ranging from a low of 310 mg/kg to a high of 1500 mg/kg, or parts per million, in the area of Mount Cristo Rey, the barren high ground topped with a Jesus statue overlooking Sunland Park which attracts thousands of religious pilgrims every year.
As Region 6 of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes on a web page dedicated to Asarco’s former operations in the Paso del Norte region:
“The risks associated with these soils would not be considered an ‘imminent health risk.’ However, federal, state, cityand county health agencies all agree that residential soil lead levels over 500 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg), and residential soil arsenic levels over 46 mg/kg could pose an unacceptable level of risk to children in the 1-to-6-year age range. Children with the greatest degree of hand-to-mouth behavior (1-, 2-, and 3-year-old children) would be at greatest risk …”
The EPA considers a higher standard of lead in soil, 400 mg/kg, in areas frequented by children.
After doing soil sampling at 112 locations in Sunland Park in 2005, the Office of Border Health reported that three residences in Anapra, the low-income Sunland Park neighborhood closest to the old smelter, had lead levels in the soil from 150 to 190 mg/kg while two other residences were identified as being above the 500 mg/kg “human health risk threshold.”
The New Mexico state agency projected that only four other residential properties in overwhelmingly Latino Sunland Park would contain “elevated lead.”
Nonetheless, in 2007, under EPA oversight, Asarco ended up removing contaminated soil from 24 properties in Anapra. At the time, some residents and members of the Sunland Park Environmental Grassroots Group criticized the clean-up as a sham, saying it was incomplete.
More recent soil sampling has shown that significant levels of lead and arsenic have not gone away from Sunland Park and its environs.
A 2010 sampling study contracted by the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and released by the federal agency to this reporter under the Freedom of Information Act reported excessive levels of arsenic at three sites located along the Rio Grande and on the edge of residences in Anapra.
The sampling was done to assess possible worker exposure in a zone under consideration for IBWC levee reconstruction work. Notably, lead and arsenic were found in greater concentrations closer to the surface at the 15 sites which were bored for samples up to a depth of five feet.
“The numbers show that counts of lead and arsenic are at or above action levels,” said Paul Robinson, research director for the Southwest Research and Information Center, a non-profit environmental group based in Albuquerque
“It presents a risk to people in that area, and higher risks to residents than workers,” Robinson said after scanning the data compiled by the IBWC. “(Samples) are showing that they are exceeding health-based standards.”
Robinson, however, cautioned that the sampling was too limited to get a comprehensive idea of the overall lead and arsenic contamination in the general study area.
“I think it would be reasonable to do additional sampling and try to update,” he said. “Lead is certainly a hazardous constituent and has a well-recognized impact on the nervous system and particularly children … there’s a particular concern of exposure to children to lead because of their susceptibility.”
According to the EPA, significant amounts of childhood lead ingestion can trigger other “severe health effects” including anemia, kidney damage, colic, muscle weakness and brain damage, while “ingesting small amounts of lead” could result in behavior, development difficulties, IQ and other problems. Arsenic is considered by the EPA and other regulatory agencies to be a human carcinogen.
In probing for the presence of lead and arsenic, the IBWC’s contractors drew from 15 borings, 11 of which were located in New Mexico and four across the state line in Texas. A final sampling report for the IBWC was prepared by the Colorado-based HDR environmental management firm, with EnviroDrill, Inc. of Albuquerque and Environmental Services, Inc. of El Paso performing the drilling and supervisory tasks. The samples were then shipped for analysis to TestAmerica Inc. in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Of the three sites sampled closet to the Anapra neighborhood, the arsenic found ranged from a low of 0.47 mg/kg to a high of 30 mg/kg. In the relevant 18 samples, the amount of arsenic detected exceeded EPA Region 6 as well as New Mexico Environment Department residential regulatory limits, which are pegged at 0.39 mg/kg and 3.9 mg/kg, respectively. As a general rule, the closer the sample was taken from the surface, the more arsenic was found in it.
Lead came out well below the officially-defined risk threshold of 400-500 mg/kg, but three of the study samples detected amounts of 180 mg/kg, 100 mg/kg and 100 mg/kg. In total, 90 samples were taken from around Anapra and an adjoining area.
The study’s authors noted that all the arsenic and lead samples surpassed EPA Region 6 residential screening limits, except for one lead sample that was pulled from a depth of four feet.
For industrial limits that would apply to workers doing levee reconstruction, the average lead level detected was well below the EPA, NMED and Texas state limits, with some exceptions. Arsenic, however, was a different story with the average industrial-measured level exceeding the EPA’s regulatory limit but still below Texas and New Mexico state standards.
The EPA defines its residential and industrial screening limits as meaning concentrations of contaminants “may warrant further investigation or site clean-up.”
The biggest deposits of lead and arsenic were discovered just down a jutted dirt road from Anapra, next to the Rio Grande and very close to what appears on a sampling map to be the boundary of an uninhabited place known as the old McNutt or Brickland Refinery.
A sample each of lead and arsenic drawn from a boring adjacent to Brickland exhibited levels of 1200 mg/kg and 100 mg/kg, respectively. “It really stands out,” Robinson said of the finding.
Currently owned by the Huntsman Corporation, the global chemical company associated with the family of 2012 Republican presidential primary candidate and former governor of Utah Jon Huntsman, Jr., the 33-acre New Mexico property hosted a petroleum refinery under different ownership between 1933 and 1958, according to a company report filed with the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (NMOCD), the agency responsible for monitoring Brickland.
From 1964 to 1989, the plot of land was used for livestock grazing, brick storage and auto parts salvaging, among other activities. As probes by state and federal environmental authorities discovered, the site was rife with contaminants including benzene, toluene, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, lead, and other metals.
Snuggled under Mount Cristo Rey and located in an easily-overlooked pocket of the borderland where Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua touch noses, the Brickland Refinery site appears an abandoned patch of riparian desert. Fenced off with a no-trespassing sign, it also sits astride the Rio Grande and much of the water supply for El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.
Dr. Phillip Goodell, professor of geology at the University of Texas at El Paso, began compiling existing reports on Brickland a couple of decades ago. He called the site the “worst” if most forgotten, polluted place in southern New Mexico and El Paso.
“It’s kind of an orphan, people don’t think about,” Goodell said in a phone interview. Potentially, “(Brickland) is rampant for contaminating groundwater and river water.”
Years ago, New Mexico state environmental authorities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stopped short of agreeing with Goodell’s assessment of Brickland.
In 1989 and 1994, screening and remedial investigations by New Mexico environmental officials concluded that the amount of contamination at Brickland wasn’t enough to warrant a place on the Superfund National Priority List, a designation which would have made the property eligible for federal clean-up support.
In 1995, based on a low score in a formula used to prioritize Superfund status, the EPA reached a similar conclusion.
“The site was found to have limited groundwater use within four miles,” EPA Region 6 spokesperson Jennah Durant explained in an e-mail to FNS. “We also found no evidence of contamination in the public water supply or surface water samples taken from the Rio Grande immediately downstream from the site.”
The NMOCD was charged with monitoring the clean-up of the Brickland property, which was acquired by Huntsman Corporation in 1997-98, according to Anne M. Knisely, senior manager for business communications of Huntsman’s Americas division.
Since then, Huntsman has conducted groundwater monitoring and remediation under two abatement plans approved by the NMOCD, the most recent one in 2006. In 2009, NMOCD approved a change to the sampling program that removed all metals except lead.
In an e-mail to FNS, Knisely wrote that “the plan’s natural attenuation remediation strategy has been successful as confirmed by the groundwater monitoring results collected during the past 15 years.”
Knisely said her company does not have an estimate when the abatement will be complete, but Glen Von Gonten, hydrologist with the NMOCD, told FNS that “abatement must continue until such time all monitoring wells are under Water Quality Control Commission standards for eight quarters.”
In its 2011 annual groundwater monitoring report to the NMOCD, Huntsman said that the most recent samples from Brickland showed lead was below the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission standard of 0.05 mg/l, but disclosed that benzene exceeded the standards at three sites on the property.
Even though the highest-level samples of lead and arsenic taken in the IBWC study were drawn from land adjacent to the old Brickland Refinery, Huntsman spokeswoman Knisely rejected a link between the contamination and activities that once happened on her company’s land.
“The sampling results of Huntsman’s 15-year groundwater monitoring effort do not support a suggestion that the Huntsman property is a source for off-site lead contamination,” Knisely wrote.
In an earlier conversation with FNS, Goodell dismissed suggestions that at least some of the lead contamination on the Brickland property could be the primary fault of the nearby Asarco plant, contending that the high amounts of lead previously found at Brickland were consistent with an on-site source.
Huntsman sampled Brickland’s groundwater in June 2010, only weeks before the IBWC contractors found the large lead and arsenic concentration in soil very close to the company’s property. Knisely said Huntsman has no current plans to develop or sell off the Brickland property.
She stated, however, that the Metropolitan Redevelopment Area Plan for Sunland Park “indicates that the city of Sunland Park has an interest in acquiring the property in order to build a new waste water treatment plant.”
In one of its regular reports to the NMOCD, Huntsman Corporation noted that Sunland Park City Attorney Frank Coppler visited Brickland in December 2011 with that purpose precisely in mind.
Though tucked away on a lonely bend of the Rio Grande, Brickland has potentially great real estate value because of plans to develop the border, including the construction of a new border crossing between Sunland Park and the northwestern part of Ciudad Juárez.
NMOCD’s Glen Von Gonten said Huntsman is free to lease or sell off Brickland, but groundwater contamination abatement must continue per state regulations. Currently, Hunstman is only required to do groundwater monitoring and clean-up, but “they’re always re-openers,” Von Gonten added.
Four individuals whose agencies or companies are responsible for environmental monitoring and clean-up in Sunland Park and the Brickland site- Huntsman’s Anne M. Knisely, Jennah Durant of EPA Region 6, NMOCD hydrologist Glen Von Gonten and Phyllis Bustamante of the New Mexico Environment Department- all told FNS that they were not aware of the IBWC’s August 2010 lead and arsenic sampling study.
As far as the local pollution traced historically to Asarco, the State of New Mexico had an opportunity to do environmental restoration in Sunland Park when it received $1.12 million as part of Asarco’s bankruptcy court settlement in 2010.
An additional $2.2 million was also awarded the state, but that money was quickly assigned to old Asarco-related facilities in Socorro and Luna counties, both of which are far from Sunland Park.
“Activities at these facilities started more than fifty years ago and are no longer operational,” the NMONRT stated in regards to Asarco’s historic New Mexico operations. “The release of hazardous substances injured groundwater, surface water and terrestrial natural resources.”
A public comment period on the environmental restoration portion of the court settlement was slated from May 21 to June 29, 2010, with posted notice set locally for the Sunland Park Public Library.
However, state officials had determined that the money potentially set aside for Sunland Park and the four other polluted properties once owned or used by Asarco in New Mexico was too little to address problems at all the sites, so in the process of prioritization that was set in motion the old Blackhawk Mine in Grant County to the northwest of Sunland Park emerged as the winner.
The NMONRT reported that four public comments on the restoration money matter were received, but none of the letters apparently referenced Sunland Park. Rebecca Neri, NMONRT executive director, told FNS late last year that she expected the Blackhawk project to be finished within a year.
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