People who live west of the Río Grande Gorge were alarmed when they slowly started to learn about piles of contaminated dirt from Taos Ski Valley that was dumped in their windy area. And they turned out en mass last Friday to pressure the Ski Valley on the impact.
Taos Ski Valley, Inc. hosted a "town hall" style meeting Friday (Nov. 10) at the KTAOS Solar Center that was intended to focus on the renovations to the ski area like high-speed chairlifts and a new kids area. But most people in the room were there to voice their concerns about the contaminated dirt's impact on the environment, their health and what they saw as a lack of transparency.
While Ski Valley CEO David Norden promised a follow-up meeting to review in detail plans to remediate the dirt and available health studies, the Ski Valley announced Monday (Nov. 13) it would relocate the dirt to Farmington.
"It was clear they heard us," Christina Gonzáles, a local resident, told The Taos News Tuesday (Nov. 14).
"They were nervous for what we might be able to make them answer to," she said. "I'm happy [TSV] acted on it, but it shows the callous attitude they have to the folks in that area. What else are they doing without telling us?"
In August, crews working to reshape part of a ski run discovered a buried pocket of soil contaminated with diesel fuel. An environmental consulting firm out of Santa Fe, Glorieta Geoscience, as well as independent labs, confirmed that enough fuel leaked into the dirt to threaten human health.
Furthermore, the dirt was within 10 feet of the water table, according to one consultant at Friday's meeting, so the Ski Valley moved to truck the soil to a TSV-owned site about one mile west of the Río Grande Gorge Bridge. TSV, the corporation that leases Forest Service land on "the mountain," intended to remediate the soil at the West Rim site called "Tract B."
The state-level New Mexico Environment Department, through the Water Quality Bureau, gave TSV "prompt" verbal permission to move the dirt, according to the department's spokesperson.
Crews hauled about 675 cubic yards of dirt to the West Rim in mid-September, where it was left in piles. An application for a permit to remediate the soil on-site using "land farming" -- spreading it out and letting naturally occurring microbes break down the fuel over one to two years -- was pending and open to public comment.
The audience at Friday's meeting waited until after the formal TSV presentation but peppered officials - including CEO Norden - with demands for scientific studies to assure West Rim residents "we're not at risk."
"If it's not safe for TSV, it's probably not safe for our area," said one West Rim resident and longtime skier. "I have a lot of questions."
David Baca, president of the West Rim water association, said land farming was not "a risk-free process."
The New Mexico Environment Department determined the contaminated soil wasn't an issue for ground water because the water table sits lower than 450 feet below ground.
Still, residents there are worried the dirt could become airborne and get into their water-catchment systems. Most people don't have wells but rely on purified rainwater for drinking and bathing.
Other Taoseños who don't live in the area were still concerned for the water quality of the Río Grande and the impact to downriver residents.
Sheryl Romero, a member of the Pueblo Water Protectors, called for an extensive and site-specific environmental review of the remediation plan.
"Everything you're saying can be done another way ... We're listening, we're watching," Romero said.
Norden told the crowd the Ski Valley would host another meeting focused on the contaminated soil. It would be scheduled for the next two or three weeks, Norden told The Taos News.
Yet TSV announced it would move the dirt to a site near Bloomfield, owned by Envirotech, that's already permitted for soil remediation.
"[TSV] values the opinions of its community greatly and appreciated the opportunity for an open dialogue on the program," according to a statement from Taos Ski Valley director of sales and marketing Sandy Chio.
"With guidance from the experts, [TSV] has decided to relocate the soils in question ... in a timely manner which could be as early as this week," it read.
"We are open to a follow-up meeting pending community interest," Chio told The Taos News Monday.
Gonzáles, the mesa resident, said she thinks a follow-up meeting by the Ski Valley is still necessary.
"I look at it as an admission of guilt. Rather than them show up with documentation that might implicate them in some sort of environmental disaster, they quickly just said they'd get it out. They're trying to eliminate the problem and [quiet] us down," she said.
While Gonzáles said she appreciates the "power of the people" in Friday's "direct action moment," she noted that the move isn't without consequence. Though the "permitted facility" is hundreds of miles away from their homes, moving it means "just taking [the contaminated dirt] to someone else's neighborhood."
Correction: The Taos News initially reported the dirt would be moved to a site in Farmington. However, it will be moved to a site near Bloomfield, about half an hour away. Shana Reeves, director of communication with the City of Farmington, said some locals were outraged, prompting the local government to release a statement assuring Farmington residents no contaminated dirt would be relocated to their city.