Santa Fe Judicial Complex coverage: maps, photos, video, the …
Updated: Tuesday, 11 Dec 2012, 12:20 PM MST
Published : Friday, 20 Nov 2009, 6:09 PM MST
SANTA FE (KRQE) - Santa Fe County picked a spot in downtown Santa Fe to build a new $38 million courthouse, but a year and $14 million later all the county has to show for its effort is a big, contaminated hole in the ground.
The contractor was sent home six months ago. There are no welders, plumbers or electricians on the site.
So what is going on here? Digging into that question KRQE News 13 Investigative Reporter Larry Barker discovered the courthouse is ground zero of an environmental disaster.
"I don't think it's ever good to have a plume of gasoline going through the middle of a property that's under construction," state Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry told News 13. "That's obvious."
And it's not just a little spill.
"It is a major contamination problem," Jim Davis, Chief of the Environment Department Petroleum Storage Tank Bureau, said. "There's no doubt about it."
So why construct a $38 million building in a disaster zone?
To answer that question look back 50 or 60 years to a time when small service stations were a common sight throughout New Mexico. Gasoline was stored in huge underground tanks that over time would leak.
Refined petroleum that seeps into the soil doesn't evaporate or dissolve. Plumes of decades-old gasoline are still underground today.
And because it's highly toxic, the dangerous chemicals threaten New Mexico's water supply.
In Santa Fe, scientists know refined gasoline has seeped into the ground from old and leaky underground tanks.
"In terms of the amount of gasoline, the amount of contamination, this is a big deal," Davis said.
Historically there were service stations adjacent to the Santa Fe county property. Even though those businesses are long gone, their tanks let thousands of gallons of refined petroleum seep into the ground.
Scientists know a poisonous plume has been migrating toward the county's proposed courthouse site. And that's a problem. You can't construct a building on top of toxic waste.
"We didn't know there was a gasoline contamination plume when we made the decision to place the courthouse there," Santa Fe County Manager Román Abeyta told News 13.
Didn't know? The News 13 investigation found that well before the first shovelful of dirt was turned the county did know its construction site was dangerously polluted.
Rather than working with the state Environment Department to investigate, Santa Fe County simply looked the other way.
"The more questions we asked, the fewer answers we got," Curry said.
In 2005, for example, the state asked to drill a critically important test well on county property. The well would confirm whether the gasoline plume had migrated within its boundaries.
Abeyta said the county had no problem with the state putting a monitoring well on the property, but in fact, the county did have a problem and refused the state's request.
"We did not receive permission from the county," Davis said. "That is correct."
Instead of allowing state scientists access, the county decided to do its own investigation into possible contamination.
"We put in six monitoring wells, and they didn't show contamination," Abeyta said.
Even though Abeyta said the samples came up clean, the county hid the test results from the Environment Department for five months. And now we know why: The county's own tests showed the courthouse construction site was horribly contaminated with dangerously high levels of toxic chemicals.
"Two of those six wells showed significant levels of benzene contamination; they were well above standards," Davis said. "One well was 580 times above standards. A second well was 34 times above standards for benzene.
"They should have realized at that point they had a problem."
Whether it was a mistake or a cover-up the message was clear: a courthouse would be built on the site, contaminated or not. A county consultant offered cooperation with the state, as long as it "does not interfere with the schedule or cost of the construction."
By the time the state learned the courthouse site was horribly polluted, it was too late. The county had already poured millions of dollars into the project.
Curry accused Santa Fe County of digging first and asking questions later. The site clearly is not environmentally safe, he said.
In May the Environment Department ordered a halt to the county project.
"A worker, construction worker, had a welding torch of some sort down there, and there was enough vapor in the air to ignite the particular welders beard on fire," Curry said. "That's a good example of the risks that you have when you are operating in a site like this."
Construction will not resume until the site is cleaned up as required under state law. Tons of polluted soil will have to be hauled off and sophisticated wells drilled to literally suck the raw gasoline out of the ground.
The clean up will cost taxpayers millions, money Curry says probably could have been saved had the county in 2005 decided the site was too environmentally risky.
Abeyta said he accepts the blame if any mistakes were made, but he makes no apologies for placing a $38 million project in a public health hazard.
"Because we're going to clean that public health hazard, and if we wouldn't have built it, who's to say if it would have ever gotten cleaned," Abeyta said.
Meanwhile the contractor on the project is being paid $27,000 a month.
"It's within their contract that if there is a work stoppage we would pay that," Abeyta said.
Construction could resume sometime next spring. Since the shutdown in May Santa Fe County has paid contractor Bradbury and Stamm more than $160,000 just for doing nothing.