Investigation of battery acid dumping in San Juan River stalls for six months

Steve Garrison
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The investigation of a claim that Tri Delta Iron and Metal employees dumped battery acid into the San Juan River stalled for nearly six months because state environmental inspectors went to the wrong address.

The New Mexico Environment Department was alerted in April by various state and federal regulatory agencies that a former subcontractor, Rodney Wilkinson, had reported that "truckloads" of industrial-sized batteries and battery acid had been dumped at the recycling business' property last fall, according to emails obtained by The Daily Times through an Inspection of Public Records Act request.

However, state officials charged with investigating the complaint incorrectly identified Tri Delta Iron and Metal's address as CR 6331 #7B in Kirtland, a residential neighborhood located about five and a half miles away from the actual site, located at #28 CR 6743 in Fruitland.

Jim Jones, an inspector working out of the department's field office in Farmington, visited the residential neighborhood and determined that either the directions were wrong or the complaint was illegitimate, according to the emails.

"...this property is not located adjacent to the river that would allow this property owner easy river access," Jones wrote in an email sent on May 8. "There are in fact several properties between this one and the river so the alleged dumper would have to trespass on other properties in order to reach the river."

However, Tri Delta Iron and Metal's property in Fruitland does abut the northern edge of the San Juan River.

Jones noted in the May 8 email that if the department felt the complaint was worth pursuing, further information would be needed regarding the location of the incident.

Investigators did not follow up on the complaint until after Wilkinson filed a new complaint on Oct. 2 with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency. That agency contacted the state Environment Department.

Jim Winchester, Environment Department communications director, said that a follow-up investigation is underway.

Regarding the first investigation, Winchester said that Wilkinson was not identified as the caller because he requested anonymity. He further said that the address originally provided to his agency was for the property at CR 6331 #7B in Kirtland.

Wilkinson, reached by telephone, denied both claims.

"I told them all about it," he said. "They should be able to find Tri Delta, because (the company) was working for BHP Billiton," he said.

He further said that he provided the agency his name and phone number.

Winchester provided a copy of the initial complaint, which identified the caller as anonymous and misidentified the property.

Winchester said that, depending on what is observed at the site, his department can refer the case to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has the authority to pursue federal action for illegally discharging materials. The state could also pursue the property owner for violating New Mexico's Water Quality Standards, Winchester said.

Tri Delta Iron and Metal, a Minnesota-based company, is owned by Juel Jordahl. Jordahl was charged in June with multiple felonies for allegedly stealing approximately $400,000 worth of diesel fuel from BHP Billiton. The alleged thefts, as well as the alleged battery acid dumping, were brought to the attention of officials by Wilkinson, a subcontractor employed by Jordahl from August through December 2013, according to an arrest warrant,

Jordahl's attorney Val Jolley said he had no comment for this story.

Wilkinson said that the company allegedly dumped approximately 100 pallets of batteries. Each battery was reportedly about three-feet wide and five-feet long.

"They junked all of these batteries," he said. "There were a lot of them. There were pools of battery acid on the ground for a long time."

Motor vehicle batteries contain sulfuric acid and multiple heavy metals, including mercury, lead, cadmium and nickel, according to the EPA's website.

"This is a residential area," Wilkinson said of Jordahl's property. "There are people that live all around there."

Donovan Allred, a former manager for Tri Delta Iron and Metal, said that the batteries were disassembled in either October or November of 2013.

"It is true that they had a bunch of those big batteries that got dumped out," Allred said. "Juel got a little antsy that it was not getting done fast enough, so he brought his friends in. They just dumped them out and a lot of them broke and the acid ran out."

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.