Environment watch

West Rim residents worried by TSV’s dirt dump

Legacy contamination discovered during ski valley renovations


Steve Brown has lived in his adobe-colored house just west of the Río Grande Gorge for less than a decade, but if there is one thing he's sure of about his new home, it's the winds.

Winds that seem to blow intentionally fierce and constantly throughout the year. Winds that pick up pieces of plastic pipe four feet long and toss them yards away.

And it's those winds that have him worried by piles of contaminated dirt from Taos Ski Valley sitting at the edge of his property.

Taos Ski Valley, Inc., a corporation that leases "the mountain" from the Carson National Forest, has undertaken extensive renovations in recent years, including running utilities like broadband and gas, building a new hotel and reshaping part of the hillside nearest the resort.

Around the beginning of August, a crew at the resort noticed the foul smell of fuel.

The crew had uncovered a buried pocket of soil contaminated with diesel fuel under the kids' area but right above the high-alpine water table. While the ski resort acted quickly to remove the soil, the chosen remediation site west of the Río Grande Gorge makes some residents in that area uneasy about the impacts on their health and water systems.

The soil near the children's area was considered legacy waste, meaning it was contained sometime before 1995. Enough fuel leaked into the recently uncovered pocket of dirt to pose a threat to human health, according to an environmental consultant for TSV.

"A lab confirmed what our noses and eyes tell us. The [levels of contamination] that we found are almost certainly above anything that would pass a risk assessment. It needed to be removed and remediated," said James P. Bearzi with Glorieta Geoscience.

On Sept. 15 - nine days after the Ski Valley notified the state about the contamination and the same day TSV submitted an application to remediate soil - the Water Quality Bureau of the New Mexico Environment Department gave "prompt verbal authorization" to move the dirt to "tract B," a TSV-owned parcel west of the Río Grande, where it's sitting in piles, according to Allison Scott Majure, spokesperson for the department.

About 675 cubic yards of the dirt, or more than 60 standard dump trucks, was moved to Tract B.

The sage-covered parcel is adjacent to Brown's property, across the road from the "Greater World" earthship community and within a mile of the Río Grande Gorge and the West Rim Water Association's well and filling station.

David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley, said the parcel was one of six locations considered and that it best "satisfied the criteria for the state" in terms of topography and hydrology. "It's unfortunate we have to go though this. We stumbled upon these soils, but when we did we knew we had to take responsibility ... no shortcuts," he said.

The permit would give the Ski Valley the go-ahead to "landfarm" the dirt by spreading it out so naturally occurring microbes in the soil can break down the hydrocarbon molecules (fuel) over a year or two, at which point it would be clean of the contaminates.

The Ski Valley has until Jan. 13 to stockpile the dirt while its application sits before the bureau awaiting a decision.

People in the area are concerned about the location for variety of reasons, especially that the contamination could infiltrate their water-catchment systems and be bad for their health.

According to Majure, tract B's water table is deeper than 400 feet and landfarming in that location is therefore considered safe.

Bearzi said the site had been used for solid waste landfarming by the Taos Ski Valley municipality in years past.

But residents aren't relenting in their concerns, especially those who see a blind spot in the permitting process.

Nicole Leduc is a resident and clerk at Greater World. She manages her own earthship, a whimsical curving house that catches rain for most of her water.

"[The environment department] said there's not much moisture to drive the contaminates down [into the groundwater]. I accept that. But what they failed to realize and what gave them pause was the very strong wind on the mesa," Leduc said.

"The particles are going to be left to biodegrade. That's ideal for windburn contamination [of water filtration systems]," Leduc said.

Ryan Halpin, another earthship resident, shared those concerns. "We do everything we can to take care of our homes and the environment around them, but I cannot be silent about this," he said.

Brown, with his more traditional, square-cornered house, also worries about the wind.

"It goes without saying what a disposal site will do to property values in the area, but there is a more important concern: health and welfare of area residents. There has to be a better option than this," said Brown, who said he's invested nearly half a million dollars into his home and property.

"What they're doing is technically correct, but the area they chose is surrounded by people and houses and its growing. By far this is the most populated area west of the Gorge," said David Baca, president of the West Rim water association, which has about 200 members. 

The environmental consultants for Glorieta Geoscience, a firm that has done work for TSV under the Blake ownership as well as the local governments of Taos and Red River, aren't worried about the possibility of airborne contamination.

"It's plenty dusty out there but it's not from the stock piles. When [the soil] was disposed of, the material was wet and it has hardened," said Bearzi.

If in reviewing the application the environment department determines that dust control is a problem, he said, it can impose a condition for dust suppression in the permit.

And that's just what Leduc is hoping for - "some kind of material that lets it biodegrade" but keeps any potential loose dust in check, she said.

Public comments are currently being accepted as part of the public notice process for the discharge permit application.

The state will likely issue a draft permit, which will come with another opportunity for the public to formally submit comments regarding landfarming at tract B.