Aztec resident Melissa May expresses concerns to project engineer Robert Echols, not pictured, on Wednesday at the San Juan County Administration Building
Aztec resident Melissa May expresses concerns to project engineer Robert Echols, not pictured, on Wednesday at the San Juan County Administration Building in Aztec during a hearing on a proposed RV park's sewage lagoon. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

AZTEC — Supporters and opponents of a proposed sewage lagoon that would serve a yet-to-be-built RV park made their cases Wednesday during a public hearing sponsored by the New Mexico Environment Department.

The state's Ground Water Quality Bureau held an initial public hearing on the proposal last June.

Tom Payne owns land at 16747 U.S. Highway 550 and plans to put the RV park there. In May 2013, he applied for a discharge permit for an evaporative sewage lagoon at the site that could receive up to 2,240 gallons of domestic wastewater a day from as many as 60 recreational vehicles.

Aztec residents attend a public hearing on Wednesday at the San Juan County Administration Building in Aztec about a proposed RV park’s sewage
Aztec residents attend a public hearing on Wednesday at the San Juan County Administration Building in Aztec about a proposed RV park's sewage lagoon. (Megan Farmer/The Daily Times)

"We are now in the final stages of approval of our design, and I understand the concerns of some citizens and I want to allay those concerns and assure you that it is our intention to build the park in a workmanship-like manner with constant oversight by both the (New Mexico Environment Department) and Cheney-Walters-Echols engineering firm," Payne said during opening comments.

Payne said concerns expressed at the public meeting last summer prompted him and Robert Echols, the engineer overseeing the project, to move the lagoon from the northwest corner of the property to the northeast corner to "further isolate the lagoon from the Aztec Ditch, which seemed to be a cause for concern."

But residents who filled Aztec's commission room to offer public comment and directly question Echols and members of the Ground Water Quality Bureau were not reassured.

The proposed lagoon would be a synthetically lined cesspool, roughly the size of half of a football field. It has some residents concerned about potential odors and adverse health effects from hydrogen sulfide, a sewage by-product that an open-air lagoon can produce. And opponents said they are concerned about the possibility of pollution flowing into nearby irrigation ditches and the Animas River in a flood, financial assurance Payne will pay for repairs or cleanup in the event of a leak or spill and risks to the groundwater if the lagoon is compromised.

Project engineer Robert Echols, right, answers questions and concerns on Wednesday about a proposed RV park’s sewage lagoon during a public hearing
Project engineer Robert Echols, right, answers questions and concerns on Wednesday about a proposed RV park's sewage lagoon during a public hearing at the San Juan County Administration Building in Aztec. (Megan Farmer /The Daily Times)

Echols said the lagoon's design meets the state's requirements.

"The lagoon, in terms of its construction and its design, is governed by the Ground Water Quality Bureau," Echols said. "We've followed those recommendations. It requires a single liner. We've put in a monitoring well and leak detection system."

Echols also talked about the lagoon's possible smell.

"We've sized the lagoon so that it would operate in a manner that would produce minimal odor," he said. "I'm not going to stand up here and tell you lagoons don't produce odor. They can. But if they're operated properly and we maintain the proper amount of water in the lagoon, we can minimize those odors that are created because we're working with domestic waste."

That didn't appease residents like Mary Hunter.

"I would like to request that you take a serious look at other ways to do this," Hunter said.

Norman Norvelle, an environmental health scientist, reviewed the RV park plans and testified on behalf of the Animas River Water Quality Coalition, a group of residents who oppose the lagoon.

"I do not feel the present design is sufficient," he said. "This is not a typical sewage lagoon. The top few feet of the lagoon will be aerobic, but due to heavy organic loading, the bottom of the lagoon will be anaerobic, instead of aerobic, as proposed. This will produce gases that will bubble up through the water from the bottom of the lagoon. The gases most typically formed are carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane. With the proposed design, I believe there will be many odor problems from the lagoon, and the lagoon will not be able to evaporate the volume of water received from the RV park sewer discharge."

San Juan Watershed Group Coordinator David Tomko on Wednesday expresses concerns about a proposed RV park’s sewage lagoon during a public hearing at
San Juan Watershed Group Coordinator David Tomko on Wednesday expresses concerns about a proposed RV park's sewage lagoon during a public hearing at the San Juan County Administration Building in Aztec. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)

Norvelle said he has 40 years of experience as a water and wastewater scientist, including time spent as a state Environment Department environmental health scientist staff manager.

He expressed doubt the detection system Echols designed was sufficient to catch leaks in a timely manner.

"I'd hate to see Mr. Payne spend all this money and then the thing go all to hell," Norvelle said. "You're talking about a 3-foot lagoon. Shallow water. You've got to have water in it to hold the liner in place to keep it from being damaged."

Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, raised concerns over the costs should a failure occur, citing the lagoon failure in Kirtland. Bandy wanted assurance from Echols the lagoon would be monitored effectively.

Echols said the lagoon was sized using a 35 gallons per day flow rate from 24 RVs, the planned first phase of the park.

"I'm reassured. I'm just hoping that the state's not on the hook for another lagoon," Bandy said.

Hearing officer Felicia Orth closed the hearing around 6:30 p.m. and discussed the post-hearing process for the discharge permit application.

Within two weeks a transcript of Wednesday's hearing will be filed and roughly 30 days after that, proposed findings and conclusions will be due to Sally Worthington, the hearing clerk, Orth said. Thirty days after that Orth said she will file a report, after which the public has two weeks to comment on it. After that the cabinet secretary has up to 30 days to issue a ruling on the permit.

"The post-hearing process is not a short one," Orth said.

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.