FARMINGTON — Officials say a former landfill east of Farmington is no longer hazardous and may be removed from the federal government's list of toxic waste sites.
The Lee Acres Landfill, located uphill of the Lee Acres subdivision, was once operated by San Juan County. Now, it's federal Superfund site on the National Priorities List of polluted sites in the country. Its the only Superfund site in the county.
The landfill was placed on the National Priorities List in 1990 after its lagoons ruptured and its berms seeped hazardous chemicals, including nickel, vinyl, chloride, trichloroethene and manganese into the ground, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents.
In 1985, when workers breached the lagoons, a nearby resident and several emergency response team members who inhaled hydrogen sulfide gas were hospitalized, according to the documents.
The county closed the lagoons and, a year later, the landfill. In 1986, the lagoon was buried under as much as 15 feet of dirt, according to the documents. "Volatile organic compounds" were found that year in three domestic water supply wells in the Lee Acres subdivision, which then housed 13 residents.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management — the owner of the 60 contaminated acres — distributed more than 8,700 bottles of water while it connected those residents to Farmington's water supply, according to the documents.
Decades later, in 2005, the lagoon was capped under a layer of gravel, fabric, sandy soil and native plants and cordoned behind chain-link and barbed-wire fence. Now, it's mostly inconspicuous to those driving County Road 5500.
"We want to make people understand that there's no harm out there," said Dale Wirth, BLM's former site manager.
The BLM is currently conducting its second five-year review of the site, which it will complete in the fall. The purpose of the review is to evaluate how well the cap above the buried lagoon prevents surface water from percolating down. The concern, County Public Works Administrator Dave Keck said, is water will seep into the contaminated earth and press the toxins into the aquifers, polluting potential drinking water and the San Juan River.
But the cap works well, he said. It was designed by Sandia National Laboratories. Also, he said, the county banked the uphill road, so surface water rushing above it never makes it to the site. Instead, it's diverted by the road, he said.
The first five-year review completed in 2009 found the site's remedies were working well, said Barney Wegener, BLM's current site manager. He said it was protecting the health of people and the environment. He said the toxins had already began decomposing into "unharmful compounds."
Last week, officials from the EPA, the New Mexico Environment Department, BLM, the county and various private contractors met to review preliminary findings of the site's review. In the meeting, the site's EPA remedial project manager, Sai Appaji, suggested officials begin the process of removing the former landfill from the National Priorities List. But, he said later, that is up to the state.
There are still high levels of manganese at the site.
"After the five-year review, then staff will evaluate how to deal with the manganese issue," said Phyllis Bustamante, manager of the state Environment Department's Superfund oversight section.
Wirth and Wegener said BLM officials are seeking an exception for the manganese levels from the many involved agencies, including the state Environment Department.
"The consensus of the meeting last week was that manganese (levels are) not predictable. They're highly fluctuating," Wegener said.
He said also the source of the erratic manganese levels is from an unknown, upstream source.
Wirth said manganese is less hazardous than the other toxins that spilled at the site.
Even if the Lee Acres Superfund Site is removed from the Bational Priorities List, the land would not be available for public use until 2054, Appaji said. And, the EPA will conduct five-year reviews indefinitely, he said.
The BLM spends about $40,000 annually overseeing and monitoring groundwater at the site, Wegener said. Keck said the county spends about $5,000 a year maintaining the site.
Meanwhile, the residents of the subdivision near the site, which has grown since the spill, have reported no problems to the Lee Acres Water Users Association.
"I've been here 15 years, and I've never heard anything about it," said Becky McLaughlin, the association's controller.