The Border’s Flint, Michigan?

Paloma Rodriguez and Frank Hernandez were not shocked to hear about excessive levels of arsenic that were found in the water supply of their community. Operators of the Carousel Convenience Store on the edge of Sunland Park, New Mexico, Rodriguez and Hernandez had seen notices before from the local water utility district informing customers of the presence of arsenic in their water. In fact, the couple said they had always avoided drinking water from their taps.

“I don’t drink the water.  I opened it up one time and it was yellow,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been here 21 years and never drink from the faucet..,” Hernandez added. The shopkeepers, however, insisted that they had not seen the latest notice from the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority (CRRUA) reporting the breakdown of the water utility’s two arsenic treatment plants.

Dated April 21 and signed by CRRUA Executive Director Brent Westmoreland, the advisory stated that the treatment plant failures were being addressed and a third plant would be built this summer.

“You do not need to use an alternative (e.g. bottled) water supply. However if you have specific health concerns, or have a compromised immune system you may consult your doctor,” the message stated.

“This is not an immediate risk. However some people who drink water containing arsenic in excess of the MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level) over many years could experience skin damage or problems with their circulatory system and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, public utility systems like CRRUA are responsible for advising consumers of contamination of their drinking water. CRRUA operates the water and wastewater treatment systems for an estimated 21,000 users in Sunland Park and Santa Teresa. Located on the U.S-Mexico border, both communities rely on groundwater drawn from wells.

According to minutes from the April 11, 2016 regular meeting  of the CRRUA Board of Directors (which still have not been posted on the utility’s website), Sunland Park’s arsenic treatment plant had been down for more than a year, and a plant serving Santa Teresa had been down for six months because of a valve problem. The minutes indicated that the plumbing and injectors were at fault in the Sunland Park plant.

Independently suspecting that “arsenic was an issue,” Dr. Paul Maxwell, a resident of Santa Teresa for more than four years, remarked to Frontera NorteSur that prior to CRRUA’s April 21 notice, in March and early April, he unsuccessfully attempted to interest researchers from New Mexico State University and the University of Texas at El Paso, where Maxwell once was employed as a vice-president of research, in testing the water of Sunland Park-Santa Teresa.

Finally giving up on the universities, Maxwell then dug into his own pocket and paid $141.56 for two water samples drawn on April 20, one from Santa Teresa and the other from the Anapra neighborhood of Sunland Park.

Tested by Hall Environmental Analysis Laboratory, the Santa Teresa sample detected arsenic 20 percent higher than federal and state health standards, while the Anapra sample came out 40 percent higher, according to a May 4 report from the Albuquerque-based environmental services company.  The Anapra sample was also tested for lead, which came out negative.

On May 18, Maxwell drafted a letter to New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.

“While I do not wish to dramatize the problem, it must be noted that the residents of this region are facing a health crisis that is similar in nature if not greater than the one being faced by folks who live in Flint, Michigan,” Maxwell’s  letter states.

The letter, a copy of which was forwarded to New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich according to Maxwell, said no reports to the CRRUA Board of Directors about arsenic treatment problems were contained in the meeting minutes prior to the April 11 meeting and going back more than a year.

Maxwell’s letter queries Martinez about the state of water quality in Sunland Park-Santa Teresa, and asks to what degree the appropriate state and federal regulatory agencies are knowledgeable about or involved in the issue.

Maxwell, who is competing in the Democratic primary for the State House District 34 seat currently held by CRRUA board member Belaquin Gomez, urged Martinez to pursue “immediate remedial action to alleviate the current threat to these communities.” He wrote, “We need to provide clean, safe water for those who cannot afford to purchase bottled water or who lack private modes of transportation to stores (there is no bus service in Anapra) NOW.”

On May 31, nearly two weeks after sending his letter, Maxwell said he had not received any reply from government officials. “I think for the people of Anapra it is dismissive to them,” he said. “(Martinez) should be saying something if not to me, to them.” Maxwell is critical of CRRUA for reporting on the arsenic problem at the utility’s May board meeting. “To me, that’s the most egregious act of all this. They should have responded to this as a matter of public health,” he said.

Also on May 31, CRRUA’s Brent Westmoreland told Frontera NorteSur that ongoing repairs to the arsenic treatment plants which serve the Santa Teresa industrial area and Sunland Park residential areas had yielded eighty percent optimum efficiency levels. The work is being monitored by the New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau, Westmoreland said.

Is it now safe to drink the water passed through the Sunland Park plant?  For the moment, “that’s up to individuals to assess” Westmoreland said, adding that the April 21 notice contains the relevant advice. “It’s not as bad as it was…but it’s still over the maximum level.”

Financed by grants, the third arsenic treatment plant, also geared for Santa Teresa and carrying a price tag of $4.8 million, is under construction and should be on line by the late summer, he said.

Undergoing tremendous growth (and demand for water) related to expanded Mexico-U.S. commerce during the past decade, Santa Teresa has emerged as a key center in greater economic ties between the two nations as promoted Gov. Martinez and others. Westmoreland, who assumed CRRUA’s directorship last December, said he found the two arsenic treatment plants in disrepair when he came on board, and began assembling the necessary team to fix them. “I can’t go into what the previous administration did.  Apparently they weren’t able to get them back up,” he said.

According to Westmoreland, the first notice he sent to the public about the arsenic treatment situation was the letter dated April 21. A new notice, he added, will go out soon informing customers of the arsenic level of each individual well in the CRRUA system.

Sunland Park City Councilor Ken Giove, who has served on the CRRUA board for the past year, said a previous director of the water utility lasted for several months before being replaced by an interim director (and previous CRRUA consultant) who filled in until Westmoreland took the job.  Westmoreland had previously been a member of the CRRUA board.

Giove confirmed Maxwell’s contention that the board had been in the dark about the arsenic issue, saying he personally had no knowledge of the arsenic problem until word of it dribbled out in recent weeks. While declining to characterize Sunland Park-Santa Teresa as another Flint, Giove nevertheless described the drinking water situation as a very serious one that has not received its proper attention by multiple levels of authorities and officials.

Part of the issue is rooted in the U.S. Environmental Enforcement Agency’s  lowering of the health standard for arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion during the Bush Administration, a policy change some downplayed as overreach, Giove said.

“If (EPA officials) were ballsy enough to raise their heads during that administration, they must have thought it was serious,” he said.   Asked during a phone interview if his family drinks the water from the faucet, Giove quipped: “Hell no. We’ve never drank the water from here. The problem is you take baths from it and the dogs drink it. The (Dogs) have lumps.”

One question that Giove and others would like answered is why the two arsenic treatment plants that broke down were not functioning so soon after being built, in 2011 and 2013, respectively.

Mariana Chew, who directed the Sunland Park-Santa Teresa water utility system during 2010-11, told Frontera NorteSur that she obtained funding for the two plants, one of which was completed under her watch.

Chew described the plants as boasting “state of the art technology” that featured a design system which made them easy to operate.  Based on her past experience with CRRUA, Chew ventured that the “persons in charge don’t have a clue.” CRRUA’s responsibility, she underscored, is “maintenance and making sure that the treatment plants are always working.”

In addition to its natural occurrence, the presence of arsenic in and around Sunland Park is linked to industrial operations like the former Asarco smelter in neighboring El Paso, Texas, Chew said.

Excessive levels of arsenic have been a recurrent problem in the drinking water of Sunland Park-Santa Teresa and nearby communities of southern New Mexico’s Dona Ana County. A review of relevant enforcement actions by the New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau reveals problems in the rural communities of La Union, Berino and Anthony during 2009 and 2010.

Water systems in both Santa Teresa and Sunland Park were cited for action in September 2008 and a new CRRUA, formed by the merger of the existing local utilities, got the scrutiny of state environmental officials in February 2009.  CRRUA later drafted a letter similar to the one sent this year to customers advising of the detection of an arsenic level 80 percent above the health standard at Santa Teresa area Well 31 on November 25, 2013, a find which caused the annual average of arsenic to be exceeded, according to the utility.

In a 2014 water quality report posted on CRRUA’s website, four violations of the health standard for arsenic are listed for the year, as well as two occasions in which the water utility failed to notify drinking water consumers of excessive amounts of arsenic. The report cited erosion of natural deposits in addition to run off from orchards and glass and electronic production as the likely sources of contamination. No similar report for 2015 is currently posted on the CRRUA website.

Elected to the Sunland Park City Council last March, Olga Nunez is a 42-year resident of Anapra who has long been active in environmental and public health issues affecting the border community, with water quality ranking  high on the list.

“It’s always been a problem, regardless of the (arsenic treatment plants). It’s been going on for years and years. We’ve never had drinkable water. We have water but it’s not drinkable,” Nunez said.

In her own case, Nunez said she forks out $30 extra per month to purchase drinking water from a private bottler, on top of the $60-$80 she pays every month to CRRUA. But some people, including her own mother who pays a monthly CRRUA bill in the $50 range, cannot afford the buy bottled water and drink from the tap, she was quick to add.

Nunez, who said she had suffered cancer three times, rattled off a list of people in Anapra who also were stricken with the disease. In separate comments, Paloma Rodriguez and Frank Hernandez recalled numerous cancer victims from Anapra, a small neighborhood and one of the original communities of Sunland Park which is situated across the road from their store.

“I think if you did an epidemiological study of this neighborhood you’d find an excess in immune related diseases, lupus, carcinogenic, Paul Maxwell added.

Nunez framed the water quality issue as part of a bigger picture in a low-income, Latino community that over the years has variously confronted a medical waste incinerator, a regional landfill, sewage odors, pollution from the former Asarco smelter and emissions from an El Paso Electric Company plant, which is situated directly behind Anapra.

The elected official is concerned that renters, who are an increasing segment of Anapra’s population, might not see CRRUA notices mailed to property owners, and is worried about low-income, elderly residents lacking access to mass or individual transportation who could be forced to walk in the blazing border summer heat to obtain clean water.

“We’re a social justice issue. Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn, people are overwhelmed,” the longtime Anapra resident contended. “We don’t have to be a dumping ground. We have potential.”

Both Nunez and Giove want CRRUA to supply free bottled water, especially to seniors. “When you’re a senior citizen trying to lug around a five gallon bottle, it’s difficult. You can’t do that,” Giove said. “It wouldn’t be cost prohibitive. (CRRUA) needs to fall on the sword and say, ‘we screwed up,’ and tell the people.”

Responding that he had no position on the bottled water proposal, Westmoreland nevertheless said “our feeling is that it’s really not the purpose of CRRUA.” The proposal is likely to be debated during the next CRRUA Board meeting set for Monday, June 13, at 4:00 pm in the utility’s offices on McNutt Road in Sunland Park.

Some studies have questioned whether the EPA’s current 10 ppb health standard for arsenic is even adequate. For instance, a 2012 study of pregnant and/or breastfeeding mice found that animals given drinking water with 10ppb arsenic exhibited metabolic disruptions leading to diminished nutrients in their blood and their breast milk; offspring with “significant growth and development deficits” were observed in the research conducted by Josh Hamilton of the Massachusetts-based Marine Biological Laboratory and Dartmouth’s Courtney Kozul-Horvarth.

The World Health Organization (WHO) cautions that drinking arsenic-laced water over 5-20 year periods can lead to arsenic poisoning, with health effects encompassing cancers (skin, bladder, kidney and lung), skin problems, diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet, “and possibly also diabetes, high blood pressure and reproductive disorders.” The United States and Mexico are among countries where “natural arsenic contamination is a cause for concern,” according to the WHO.

“Restating the obvious, but people are drinking the water for many years,”  Paul Robinson,  research director for the non-profit Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), an environmental advocacy organization based in Albuquerque, told FNS in regards to the Sunland Park-Santa Teresa arsenic situation. Seniors and babies, in particular are vulnerable and “facing a sustained risk,” Robinson said.  “I don’t think there’s any absolutely safe level of arsenic. The standard that’s been set reduces the risk significantly but doesn’t eliminate it.”

According to Robinson, arsenic in drinking water is an issue across New Mexico, with high amounts of the contaminant historically found in groundwater on Albuquerque’s West Mesa and on the Navajo Nation, for example. One way to reduce the health risks is for water utilities to blend water with low amounts of arsenic with water containing higher amounts, as has been done in Albuquerque. “Blending is using the solution to pollution method of dilution as opposed to treating and getting the plant to operate,” he added.

For his part, Brent Westmoreland said water blending was among the methods tried by CRRUA to get the water quality back up to par. Giove said CRRUA staff are expected to report on the arsenic treatment issue at the utility’s June board meeting. He also said the matter will be discussed at the next Sunland Park City Council meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, June 7 at 6:30 pm in Sunland Park City Hall.

This story was made possible in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.