Sick homeowners point finger at city project

Posted at: 10/15/2013 7:24 AM
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4

ALBUQUERQUE -- Homeowners in a Taylor Ranch neighborhood in northwest Albuquerque are just a few steps away from filing a lawsuit against the city, citing concerns over their health and damage to their properties.

Since January, they say crews working on SAD 228 -- a special assessment district that will become a subdivision of big homes -- have caked their neighborhood in dust over and over again.  The city hired private contractors to blast through volcanic rock to lay sewer lines and other infrastructure.

"It's so fine and it just gets everywhere," homeowner Barbara Fuller said of the dust.

Another homeowner shot video of what looked like an impenetrable dust cloud rolling down the escarpment.

The homeowner said the dust is at its worst just moments after construction crews detonate explosives.

Elaine Ramos, a spokesperson for the growing number of concerned homeowners, has documented what she believes is proof of the problems.

Ramos produced photographs of mud-clogged pool filters and interior windows sills caked in dust.

Fuller said the dust caused her health to take an ominous turn several weeks after the blasting began.

"I had come to work outside in the yard for a little bit.  By the next day, my face had swollen up.  I had my eyes swell shut," she said.

Fuller was one of several people to tell 4 On Your Side that they've experienced health problems -- in the last six months -- ranging from pneumonia to asthma.

Through a public records request, 4 On Your Side found that homeowners made more than 30 complaints calls to the city's 311 line between January and September in an area containing roughly 130 homes.

Mark DiMenna, deputy director of the the city's Environmental Health Department, said the number of calls is "on the high end."

Despite the concern, and high number of complaints, DiMenna said the city's environmental health workers have visited SAD 228 more than 40 times.  He said the workers addressed each and every one of the 30 complaint calls and also visited the construction site on windy days.

"It's a recognized problem with fugitive dust from construction sites," he said.

DiMenna said his staff has been, and still is, as proactive as it can be.

"I feel like doing any more is sending a message that we want to see failure," he said.

Still, he confirmed that the contractor paid a $5,500 fine over the summer for a fugitive dust violation, which means that crews allowed dust to leave the construction site for at least 15 minutes in a given hour.

Overall, DiMenna believes the workers at SAD 228 have not routinely violated the city's fugitive dust ordinance.

4 On Your Side contacted a geologist to find out what kind of dust exists at the construction site.  Although the volcanic rock is gray and black in color, University of New Mexico volcanologist Tobias Fischer said it's a regular basalt that's not geologically alarming to him.

"You can let [it] sit at the surface in New Mexico and it will not weather, it's not going to turn into any dust," he said.

Fischer said any dust kicked into the air by the blasting is likely soil that's been caked into the rock's porous surface for years.

Regardless of what type of dust it is, or to whom the dust belongs, Ramos believes there's too much of a connection between the project and her neighbors' health concerns.

"My personal opinion is, yes, it's more than a coincidence.  It has to be," she said.