Defiant Hotel Owner Won’t Give Up Fighting Decades-Long Gasoline Spill Press Release by Tweeti Blancett, September 17, 2013
“It should have been easier than this,” Tweeti Blancett reflects as she looks out across her land on Aztec Boulevard in Aztec, New Mexico. “After all, there are laws, regulations, pages upon pages of them, that simply shouldn’t allow this kind of thing to happen or go on for so long.”
Thinking back over the years that have passed since she and her husband, Linn, broke ground on the Step Back Inn, a hotel in Aztec, Tweeti recalls a difficult decade marked by endless rounds of legal actions and reactions, by study after study and mountains of data—and all the while toxic petroleum products and chemical additives seeping into the soil and groundwater beneath their land. And to her it seems nowhere near ending.
“The trouble began for us in June 2004,” she says, “when I noticed that century-old mulberry trees in front of the inn were withering and dying. I just began to ask questions, and that didn’t sit so well with a lot of folks. I’m still asking—and I’m not getting many answers.”
This isn’t the first time that Tweeti has raised a red flag and demanded accountability from regulatory authorities and petroleum corporations. Back in the 1980s and 90s, Tweeti and Linn battled with behemoths in the oil and gas industry in northwest New Mexico, where the Blancett roots go back six generations. On their ranch just twenty miles from Aztec, Tweeti and Linn fought to contain the devastating impacts of roads, pipelines, wells and associated pollution, traffic and noise that besieged their beloved land and poisoned their livestock as oil and gas development rolled over the area. But to no avail. They didn’t own the subsurface rights on their land, which left them legally hamstrung.
More stunningly, they found that the environmental protections that should have helped them were flimsy and easily evaded by the industry’s sophisticated legal machinery. Tweeti’s protestations to state and federal agencies proved ineffective. The experience left a taste in their mouths as bitter as the waste that the drilling rigs left in their water. In spite of publicity that included Tweeti’s appearance on talk shows and stories in local and national publications, she and Linn eventually lost the battle; it was no longer possible to raise healthy cattle on the land.
The Blancetts turned to the Step Back Inn as a way to move on and pour their considerable energies and talents into something with a more promising future. But now they find themselves back in the same boat, fighting a different kind of contamination, from a different player among the many in the complex petroleum industry. And they’re now navigating through another labyrinth of regulations and confronting another multitude of agency regulators and lawyers from giants in the petroleum industry.
As Tweeti indefatigably sought more information after finding the withered trees, she learned that in 1992 there had been a leak of regular gasoline from an underground storage tank at the Sundial Delimart No. 2, a gas station and convenience store just across the highway from the inn. The leak had belched a plume of gasoline and Tweeti found, to her surprise, that there was on record ample evidence of the leak’s occurrence. It was duly reported to the New Mexico Environment Department in October of 1992, and had been extensively studied and at least partially remediated since then, but the Blancetts didn’t find out about the leak until 2004.
“It took nearly twelve years for news of the spill to reach me, even though I am a neighbor of the gas station, just across the road,” she says. “I guess that plume of gasoline traveling through the soil and water moved faster than the news.”
Tweeti suspected that the gasoline leak could have something to do with the demise of her trees, and she began to dig deeper, hoping to find out how much gasoline had escaped and if it had been cleaned up at all.
The Sundial Delimart belonged to Dial Oil Co., Inc., which had been involved for decades with oil and gas exploration and development in the San Juan Basin. The company’s deep roots in the region assured it strong support there and throughout New Mexico, a state that is heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues to fill its coffers. Chief executive officer Ron Dial and his brother, Dick, president, along with Ron’s wife as chief financial officer, carried on the business that their grandfather began in the 1920s. The Dials were players in the regional economy for many decades until they sold the business to Giant Oil in 2005, which subsequently sold it to Western Refining, Inc.
“With Western, we find ourselves dealing with another one of the really big players,” Tweeti comments, adding that Western Refining, Inc., operates two oil refineries with a capacity to process 15,000 barrels of crude oil per day, as well as distributing gasoline, diesel, and lubricants and operating some two hundred service station/convenience stores. “When they bought Dial,” she says, “they acquired all of Dial’s operations in the San Juan Basin—and a good share of the responsibility for cleaning up the gasoline that leaked from the Sundial Delimart.”
It was Dial Oil, however, that owned the station when the leak occurred, and the company contracted Western Technology, Inc., to investigate the leak and complete periodic reports on the status of the leak as required by New Mexico Environment Department regulations. Western Technology fingered a corroded pipe and other faulty plumbing as the cause of the leakage and also determined that by January of 1993, the soil around the tank was contaminated as far as the median of Highway 550 (a.k.a Aztec Boulevard), the road that separates the Step Back Inn property from the Delimart.
Western Technology completed its reports on the leak between October 1992 and January 1994. Safeway—a neighboring business to the Step Back Inn—was notified of the confirmed release in January of 1993, and Dial Oil submitted to the Environment Department plans for containing and/or recovering the released “product,” a euphemism for leaked gasoline. To her frustration, Tweeti has been unable to obtain copies of the plans, but she did find out that Dial Oil did not meet the required schedule for reporting the horizontal and vertical extent of the contamination. Nor did Dial begin to report or recover the free product floating on ground water until March 1993, well beyond the thirty-day timeframe set by regulations. By that time, however, Western Technology had installed numerous wells to monitor ground water quality, including two wells on the eastern property boundary of the Step Back Inn.
The initial monitoring identified a layer of gasoline four feet thick floating on top of the groundwater just outside the southeast corner of Step Back Inn property. This gasoline emanating from the spill was clearly “up gradient” and therefore headed in the direction of from the Step Back Inn. Ironically, an effort to remove the gasoline from the water was delayed by a construction project in the vicinity—the building of the Step Back Inn itself. The Blancetts were not notified of this close approach of a significant quantity of gasoline even as they began constructing their hotel. (Blagg Engineering did inform the New Mexico Environment Department of the building of the hotel and the need to delay putting in remediation wells close to the property line, but didn’t notify the Blancetts.)
“If Western Technology or Blagg Engineering would have finished their investigation and determined the extent of gasoline encroachment onto the Step Back Inn property and notified us in 1992 or 1993,” says Tweeti, “we would have delayed the hotel’s construction until the property had been cleaned up. But we had no idea what was going on at the time so we just plunged ahead with our plans.”
The installation of air-sparge vacuum extraction wells (ASVEs), a common process for extracting volatile subsurface vapors, began in September 1994. Some thirty-five ASVE installed around the edge of the Sundial property, in the median of Highway 550, and along the north side of the highway eventually removed two thousand gallons of liquid equivalent of petroleum. In addition, several hundred gallons of liquid were pumped or bailed by hand from monitoring wells set up to track the progress of the gasoline through the groundwater.
“We were delighted to learn that some cleanup had gone on,” Tweeti reports, “But even so, samples from monitoring wells clearly showed that the plume of gasoline, percolating through the soil and floating on top of ground water, was still moving steadily northwest, toward our Step Back Inn property.
“And then, even though the total amount of gasoline that had escaped the tank was never determined,” Tweeti continues,” investigators from NMED decided that the leaked gasoline was sufficiently recovered by 1998 to shut down the remediation system. That’s not good enough for us.”
Unconvinced that the danger was over and that their land was not contaminated Tweeti and Linn hired a consulting engineer, Faith Engineering, to investigate for them. What Faith found distressed them further and convinced them that the plume of gasoline was advancing onto their property. They shifted from asking questions to demanding cleanup of the site and compensation for the loss in value to their most valued asset, the Step Back Inn. It seemed obvious to them that the property’s value was greatly diminished by the presence of petroleum products and contaminants.
Faith dug deeper into records at the New Mexico Environment Department and requested records from Dial Oil. Some of the records were missing, and attorneys for Dial Oil and Western Refining refused to release others. Nevertheless, the picture became clearer as Faith persisted.
By carefully studying inventory records of the underground storage tanks at the Sundial Deli (records that all operators of underground storage tanks must keep), Faith showed that there was probably a leak from the tank prior to the one reported in 1992. Moreover, there were unexplained losses from the Delimart’s premium gasoline storage tank between 1999 and 2003—possible evidence of a second leak, never reported. Ground water monitoring data show an increase in petroleum contaminants in 2000 and 2001, corrorborating this finding. Furthermore, the inventory records suggest that this leak may have exceeded the 1992 leak in volume.
“But it’s not just the gasoline we’re worried about,” Tweeti says. “In 2004, we were seeing increasing high levels of MTBE in groundwater monitoring wells on the east boundary of our property. That well had shown no sign of MTBE contamination in 2003.”
“MTBE is a gasoline additive that is exceptionally persistent in the environment and can present a health hazard,” explains Stuart Faith, the engineer at Faith Engineering. “It’s being considered as a potential human carcinogen and is now outlawed in New Mexico and many other states, in part because it’s really tough to clean up.”
Additional monitoring wells drilled in 2004 on the Step Back Inn property showed even higher levels of MTBE. During Faith’s tank inventory evaluation showing a probable second release in 1999, he again evaluated the earlier MTBE data on the Step Back Inn and concluded that the MTBE was most likely attributable to this second release.
“The MTBE may not be a smoking gun,” says Faith, “but it strongly supports my contention that there was a second, significant leak.”
The fact that the 1992 leak was never completely remediated, and the probability that another, larger leak occurred less than a decade later, make it nearly certain that gasoline is continuing to contaminate the Blancetts’ property. But it’s not just the Step Back Inn that’s at risk; the gradient of the groundwater table heads straight toward the Animas River, just a quarter mile away. As Tweeti puts it, “The contamination is headed to the river if it is not already there. NMED doesn’t seem to think this leak is important and has chosen to ignore it. I won’t.”
The Blancetts feel bruised and battered from their experience, but they are by no means alone, in the state or the country. Because of corrosion of steel underground tanks, along with faulty installation and operation, groundwater contamination by gasoline is pervasive—and groundwater provides nearly half of all Americans with their drinking water. But it’s not just the petroleum itself that creates havoc. Gasoline contains many compounds, like MTBE, that are hazardous to human health and the environment.
According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, out of 3,800 underground storage tanks in New Mexico, 2,600 have reported releases, and over 700 of these have yet to be cleaned up. Nationwide, the number awaiting cleanup balloons to 82,000. As a national debate rages about whether or not to more closely regulate practices like hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and extraction of oil from tar sands, this quieter but pervasive environmental problem continues to fester—and this in spite of the plethora of regulations in place.
In this small corner of New Mexico, Tweeti doesn’t intend to let her case remain quiet. To her, it seems obvious that those responsible for the spill (or spills) should be held accountable. That’s what the reams of regulations spell out, too, and they also make clear that the responsible parties include everyone in the chain of title, from Dial Oil, through Giant Oil, right up to Western Refining. All of them are listed on a law suit that the Blancetts have filed in state court.
“Dial Oil’s sale of the business does not absolve the company or Ron, Sue and Dick Dial from responsibility for the mess they left,” says Tweeti. “But Western Refining holds the bag and should foot much of the cleanup bill. They’re big, and they have deep pockets—and it’s the right thing to do.”
Western Refining, a Fortune 500 company that earned over 9 billion dollars in revenues in 2011, sees things differently. The company’s lawyers, along with those representing Dial Oil and its principals, have succeeded in countering the Blancetts’ charges at every turn, with the New Mexico Environment Department and now in the courts.
“They’re trying to run us into the ground with legal expenses and delays. It’s bleeding us, while it’s all chump change to them—but I’m not a quitter,” Tweeti avows.
Anyone who knows Tweeti will aver to her tenacity. A November court date for a suit looms, but Tweeti is still hoping for a settlement. “I’ve been expecting for some time that the Environment Department will step up and do its job in making these people clean up the spills,” she says. “But I’m not holding my breath any more. I’m hoping the threat of a very public trial will make Western Refining do what’s right. They certainly have the resources to take care of it. They’re one of the largest refiners in the West.
“We didn’t cause any of this; we did not do one thing wrong,” she continues. “If Western will clean up the soil and groundwater contamination from their leaking tanks, and compensate us for to the loss to our investment, we will be satisfied. But I’m not stopping short of that.”
“If they can get away with this here, they’ll feel like they can do whatever they please anywhere,” she adds, “But they won’t—not if I can help it.” [Emphasis added]
[Refer also to:
All Fired Up by John G. Mitchell, photographs by Joel Sartore, National Geographic, July 2005
National Geographic: Sights and sounds of drilling the west
The Jonah Field (a national sacrifice zone) is one of EnCana’s major resource plays
An Altered Land, The quest for coal bed methane consumes both a New Mexican landscape and a way of life that depends on it by William Debuys, V.15 No.49, December 7 – 13, 2006, alibi.com
Source of photo of Linn Blancett: National Geographic, July 2005
2002 Generalized schematic of the pathway for subsurface vapour intrusion into indoor air by the US Environmental Protection Agency (NAPL = non-aqueous phase liquids). In 2013, the agency updated this diagram.