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City of Española hit with EPA violations amid wastewater treatment concerns

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 5/11/2024

May 11—The city of Española's wastewater treatment plant was recognized 25 years ago as the most well-maintained in the state.

Now, the nearly 40-year-old facility is in hot water, with federal officials saying deficient equipment and practices have led to the plant sending tainted effluent into the Rio Grande. The city says it is working to fix the long-standing problems but has struggled to keep the facility fully staffed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in February took an enforcement action against the Northern New Mexico city, issuing an administrative order directing officials to remedy a list of more than a dozen Clean Water Act violations. Among the problems: excessive levels of E. coli found in the wastewater plant's effluent, which inspectors attributed to broken equipment, insufficient practices and staffing shortages.

E. coli is a group of bacteria that can cause severe illness or death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The EPA's administrative order listed an E. coli reading in November 2023 that was 16% above the amount allowed by the facility's discharge permit, as well as several excessive discharge readings in September 2022, one of which showed levels of the bacteria 247% higher than the maximum amount allowed.

Environmental advocacy group WildEarth Guardians' Daniel Timmons, director of the Wild Rivers Program, decried the violations.

"The Rio Grande deserves better than this crap," Timmons wrote in an email Friday. "Even beyond the specific discharge violations for E. coli and total suspended solids, it's clear that Espanola's wastewater treatment plant has been chronically understaffed and poorly maintained for years. It's time for Espanola to clean up its act."

The wastewater plant discharges treated water into the Rio Grande on the south side of the city, directly upstream from Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pueblos.

Pueblo officials did not respond to requests for comment on the contaminated effluent that has flowed into the river.

A spokesman for the New Mexico Environment Department wrote in an email the agency's inspectors sometimes accompany EPA personnel on plant inspections, but the department does not have jurisdiction over Española's wastewater discharge permit because the effluent flows into tribal waters.

In an April 19 response to the EPA, Española Mayor John Ramon Vigil wrote the city was developing a quality assurance program to remedy the violations, which is scheduled to be complete by November. Fixes to the plant's equipment were scheduled to be made by November or as late as January 2025, he wrote, and the city has contracted with Wastewater Microbiology Solutions to review and rewrite the plant's standards of procedure.

A spokeswoman for the EPA's Region 6, which includes New Mexico, declined to answer a list of questions about the agency's enforcement in Española but wrote in an email "the EPA will continue to work with the city to monitor the wastewater treatment plant's progress toward compliance."

Staff from the EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department had last inspected the Española plant in July 2023, according to the February order.

Inspectors wrote the facility's "grit removal system" had been down for more than a year, "allowing significant damage to the entire plant."

"Even if the grit removal system were replaced today, this damage will continue to cost the City of Española money for years to come, in all the other downstream systems affected," the order states.

Although the plant requires 13 full-time operators to be fully staffed, inspectors wrote, on the day of the inspection its staff included three licensed operators and six unlicensed operators. The unlicensed employees were regularly operating equipment at the facility and performing laboratory analysis on regulated pollutants, both of which "are not unskilled tasks" and require licensing, according to the order.

The facility was also unable to provide some recent sampling data, inspectors wrote, adding "analytical results obtained from unapproved or improperly followed methods cannot be validated."

Española Public Works Director Elijah Mares said staffing has been one of the biggest challenges in his department since he stepped into its top job in February.

The Public Works Department recently implemented a $2-per-hour raise across the board in an effort to bring in more staff, Mares said, but it remains difficult for Española to compete with wages in similar agencies in Santa Fe and Los Alamos, which can afford to pay more.

The city has hired a contractor to fix its grit removal system, Mares said, and it is waiting on several "key components" to get it back up and running.

Some of the problems at Española's troubled plant are similar to those at Santa Fe's more than 60-year-old facility on Paseo Real. Malfunctions and breakages in the past few years at the south-side facility have periodically led to shutdowns and have sent tainted effluent into the Santa Fe River, raising concerns for growers and others downstream about levels of E. coli and other pollutants that far exceed state and federal standards.

A line break last year sent E. coli levels soaring and prevented the use of effluent for irrigation and construction projects, driving up the use of potable water. The problems in Santa Fe prompted actions by the state and federal governments.

The wastewater treatment plant in Española was built in 1985 and saw significant upgrades in the mid-2000s, partly due to stricter discharge limits set by Santa Clara Pueblo, according to news reports. In 1999, city won a statewide award for best operations and maintenance of a wastewater plant.

While the plant is currently treating 700,000 to 900,000 gallons of wastewater per day, Mares said, it is capable of handling about 2 million gallons per day.

"The fact is, we're a small town, and we're held to a higher standard sometimes," he said, "but that's OK, we will rise to that challenge."

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