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Dry cleaners in Española and BP oil in Gulf teach prevention

By John Bartlit

The term “Superfund site” makes few of us think first of a dry cleaners. Yet nationwide, plain old dry cleaning fluid is a common and costly threat to groundwater, including by the Rio Grande 20 miles north of Los Alamos.

  This is the story of that problem and progress made on it.  

   The Norge Town laundromat and dry cleaning facility began business in Española at 113 North Railroad Avenue in 1970. By 1989, dry cleaning fluid, called “perc” in the trade, showed up in two of Española’s city wells, the Jemez and Bond Wells, which permanently ended their use as drinking water supplies.

    The releases were stopped. But the plume of solvents kept creeping through the ground, moving more than three fourths of a mile south toward more supply wells for Española and the Santa Clara Pueblo.

   By 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared it the “North Railroad Avenue Plume Superfund Site.” The EPA began plans to remove enough bad stuff from the ground and aquifer to stop the spreading hazard.

    What does it take to clean up bad chemicals that have made their way to water supplies far under ground? The range of options, at a cost, may surprise you.

 One is to install permeable barriers underground that react with the plume to form harmless products. Other methods put various materials into the plume to speed cleanup.

    The additives can be “oxidants” that oxidize the bad stuff, “detergents” that help sweep out the bad stuff and nutrients and microbes that make a bug feast of the bad stuff. That’s right, to certain bugs a bowl of perc smells like beef Wellington. Bugs are crazy, but helpful.     

 Cleanup generally goes faster with pumping. The polluted water is pumped from below ground to the surface to be treated and sent back.

 Progress in Española is good. To date, $4.7 million, 90 percent of it federal money, has been spent to build and run the cleanup process and gather and report data. An international firm, AMEC, was awarded a $3.6 million contract in 2005.

   Cleanup is going faster than expected. Two years of running the equipment have removed 90-95 percent of the perc.

  The lesson is the same as the BP oil spill in the Gulf.  Prevention is a better buy than chancy, high-priced remedies later.

NM Citizens for Clean Air & Water