After more than a week of official inaction, the New Mexico Environment Department has taken over the cleanup of hundreds of gallons of emulsified oil that spilled from an overturned tanker truck Sept. 26. The spilled oil, destined for a postponed state chip seal project on the highway, flowed down an intermittent tributary and into Jaybird Canyon. “NMED is working with [trucking company] R. Marley LLC, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Mexico Game and Fish and other agencies as necessary to clean up the spill,” a spokesman for the Environment Department said in a Wednesday press release, which also said that the agency was not informed of the spill until Oct. 4. “NMED will also consider appropriate actions to enforce state laws associated with any identified violations. Crews are expected to arrive on-site [Thursday] to begin initial work, and will continue for the foreseeable future with NMED oversight.” The delay in reporting the spill has raised a lot of questions and concerns throughout the Grant County community. “The New Mexico State Police is responsible for notifying the New Mexico Environment Department of hazmat incidents on the highway,” State Police Public Information Officer Lt. Mark K. Soriano told the Daily Press in an email Thursday, leaving it unclear as to why officers on the scene apparently did not make that notification. “On September 26, 2022, at around 9:30 a.m., New Mexico State Police officers were called to New Mexico State Road 15 near milepost 16 for a semi-truck pulling a tanker trailer with asphalt fluid (HFE100P) in it,” he wrote in an email to the newspaper. “There were no injuries in the crash. SR 15 was closed between milepost 6 and milepost 22 until around 8:00 p.m. that night, while crews and tow trucks cleaned the wreck up.” Details leading up to the crash are still under investigation, according to Soriano. The Daily Press has requested a copy of the full incident report from the crash, but it has not yet been released by the State Police. “Our staff are actively engaged in the ground response, remediation plan reviews, violation investigations and other necessary actions,” New Mexico Environment Department Director of Communications Matthew Maez told the Daily Press. “Environment Department staff became involved in the situation as soon as we were notified [one week after the incident]. On-site meetings took place [Thursday] morning and are ongoing with NMED, the U.S. Forest Service, the responsible party (R. Marley, LLC) and their contractor and consultant. “Remediation efforts are currently underway,” he continued, detailing the expected cleanup time. “Because the spilled material has coagulated, it is expected to be fairly straightforward to remove. An estimated timeline for cleanup activities will be based on response activities that began on October 5.” Despite those assertions from the state, when a Daily Press reporter visited the site Thursday afternoon, only community members were working. At that time, volunteers had not seen any help with cleanup from the state whatsoever, Silver City resident Geronimo Cassidy said. He has worked to spread awareness about the spill via social media over the past several days, and gathered dozens of community members from throughout Grant County to aid in cleanup efforts. “It was probably 10:30 or 11 a.m. today, about 15 Forest Service officers and people came out with the road contractor — they were all standing here watching everyone work,” volunteer Mariah Runnels said. “The road contractor was saying that it had already solidified, and that it was no longer liquid or running down, so it wasn’t really a problem at this point. My partner, Geronimo, picked up a huge pile up from the bottom of the creek that was still mush and came up on the road and let it droop out of his hands. He told them, ‘Does that look like it’s solidified?’ and all of their jaws dropped — except for the contractors, whose faces were pissed. You could tell who the contractors were.” Volunteers continued to arrive throughout the day Thursday. “You made a mess, clean it up, and honestly, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame at this point — just come get it done,” Runnels said. “All of this rain is just pushing it down the river, and Sapillo Creek is one of the few creeks that has wild rainbow trout. In the state of New Mexico, this is one of the few areas where you can still catch wild rainbow trout, and this runs right into Sapillo. This stuff is going to kill fish.” Runnels said volunteers had collected nearly 300 bags of sludge as of Thursday afternoon, and each bag holds between 15 and 30 pounds. Despite their efforts, she said, they are not even close to being finished. “I heard that no one was moving on it except for volunteers, so I rigged up and came up,” Silver City resident Tim Faust said. “I’ve spent at least five hours cleaning today. The watershed goes to our food, no matter where it goes. I spent at least two hours in this stream cleaning out big pockets of tar the size of babies.” Volunteers in the creek Thursday were of all ages, and many said they plan on continuing their efforts until official cleanup work begins. Environment Department officials discouraged further community efforts, however. “We encourage drivers to avoid gathering or parking near the area of the spill on Highway 15, as there will be trucks and potentially heavy equipment, as necessary, for cleanup along the small, two-lane highway,” Maez said. “The cleanup crew will need as much room as possible to complete this work. For personal safety and to enable the cleanup process to proceed efficiently, NMED asks members of the public to avoid gathering at the area of the spill.” At around 4:30 p.m. Thursday, volunteers reported, four cleanup contractors arrived with buckets and contractor bags to begin work.
Jordan Archunde may be reached at [email protected] press.com.
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