Superfund settlement back in area hands

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

A cash settlement for environmental damage should be used to restore playa lakes in Curry County, rather than to restore lakes in Roswell, according to a state and federal draft obtained Tuesday by Clovis officials.

The newly endorsed plan would give Curry County landowners incentives to protect playa lakes on their land.

An earlier version of the draft recommended a $459,000 settlement from BNSF Railway be used to restore approximately 43 acres of wetland habitat at Bottomless Lakes State Park in Roswell, although BNSF compromised land and wildlife in Clovis.

Public opposition to the Roswell plan led the report’s authors to favor restoration of playa lakes in Curry County, the draft reads.

Of the revised draft, Clovis Commissioner Randy Crowder said, “Hallelujah.”

“I’m elated,” Clovis City Manager Joe Thomas echoed.

Crowder, fellow city commissioners and Curry County commissioners opposed using settlement funds in Roswell, more than 100 miles away from Clovis.

For years, BNSF Railway dumped wastewater into a playa lake about a mile south of its railroad yard in Clovis. In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered hazardous substances in and around the lake and determined wildlife had been harmed. Contaminated soil, sediment, water and native grass at the site have been cleaned up by BNSF, but the Department of Justice ruled BNSF pay for an additional restoration project.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New Mexico Office of Natural Resources Trustee released the Draft Natural Resources Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment for that site — named the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway New Mexico Superfund Site — in October and the revised draft in March.

Playa lakes are natural wetlands that fill up when it rains. Conservationists believe they recharge the Ogallala Aquifer, the primary source of water in eastern New Mexico and west Texas. Endangered birds, mammals and amphibians also rely on playas for food and habitat.

Approximately seven to 10 playas could be conserved under the plan, the draft reads. Approximately 524 playas ranging from less than one acre to more than 120 acres are spread across Curry County, the draft reads.

The plan would require landowners to keep livestock away from playas, where they often graze and erode land.

Crafting the playa lakes plan was “an ongoing team effort,” said Crowder, who worked on the plan along with state officials, conservationists and Sen. Clint Harden, R-N.M.

“We all spent a lot of time … showing (state and federal officials) why this money needed to go to Curry County,” Crowder said.

Public comments concerning the draft will be accepted until April 16 and then a final version will be enacted.