SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico (Border Report) – Maria Escarcega remembers the nauseating smells coming from the Rio Grande every afternoon and the legion of flies she blames for stomach illnesses that afflicted her three children a few months ago.
“I had to hang traps because we didn’t know what to do with so many flies. They caught thousands and thousands of flies and gave out a horrible smell. I used bug spray and fumigated the house several times and it still was not enough,” the resident of the Anapra neighborhood of Sunland Park said.
The flies and mosquitos swarmed the neighborhood after the El Paso, Texas, water utility began dumping six to 10 million gallons of raw sewage a day in the river. El Paso Water was dealing with a major underground line break that required months to fix.
But according to New Mexico officials, the utility did not report the practice – which extended for 136 days – to the New Mexico Environmental Department. The state agency this week slapped El Paso Water with a $1.2 million fine for the 1.1-billion-gallon diversion.
“We are holding this polluter accountable for their malfeasance and will not stop doing so until the damage is corrected, and El Paso Water can assure (us) such a discharge will not happen again,” said New Mexico Environmental Cabinet Secretary James Kenney.
The Texas utility says it coordinated its actions with state and federal regulatory agencies including NMED.
“El Paso Water places the highest priority on the health and safety of residents and our surrounding community,” El Paso Water said in a statement. “We are currently reviewing the administrative compliance orders issued by the New Mexico Environment Department and will take any necessary and appropriate actions.”
Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea said El Paso Water will be removing contaminated soil as part of its remediation efforts. He said the neighborhood of Anapra was fortunate the diversion of sewage took place when river levels were low.
“That area is particularly prone to flooding. Luckily, the river was at its lowest point so we didn’t have any flooding in the actual community,” Perea said. He said the city received numerous complaints from residents about the strong sewage smell and the flies that pestered residents like Escarcega.
The New Mexico Environment Department said any discharge of wastewater into a river, creek or underground water reserve poses a significant hazard to public health.
“Discharges of untreated sewage typically contain disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Such pathogens can cause diseases like cholera, giardia and hepatitis A,” the department said in the statement announcing the fine. “Untreated sewage also contains harmful chemicals like ammonia and nitrogen that adversely impacts public health and the environment.”
Escarcega and her sister, Sandra Velazquez, welcomed news of the fine.
“It’s the right thing to do because they cannot do that. If they had done it in an unpopulated area, fine. But there are too many houses around here. It affected the entire neighborhood,” Velazquez said.
Sunland Park has a population of 16,000.