The first sign that something was amiss were the men in biohazard suits.
On Tuesday afternoon, down in the arroyo in between the Presbyterian Urgent Care building and the parking lot for the Kids' Choice Pre-School and the Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails, both located on St. Michael's Drive, several workers with the company ServiceMaster Restore shoveled up debris into large red bins. The arroyo runs underneath St. Michael's Drive and connects to a manhole behind the Christus St. Vincent hospital across the street, where the problem began.
According to Jerry Tapia, manager at Santa Fe's wastewater management division, it all started last Wednesday morning after someone called the city's water division to report the blockage of the manhole located behind the hospital. The block consisted of paper products like Clorox-style wipes and articles of clothing.
The water division passed along the information to its wastewater counterpart, Tapia says, and by 9:30 that morning his crew arrived to unblock the manhole. But when that happened, sewage at a second manhole across St. Michael's Drive began to overflow for 30 minutes. He estimates about 1,500 gallons of wastewater spewed into the arroyo during that time.
Within hours, Tapia had secured $27,000 in emergency funds from the city’s risk management office to contract ServiceMaster Restore for clean up services. He also notified the federal Environmental Protection Agency and one of the state’s water quality bureaus of the spill, which he says is standard protocol.
By Thursday, according to one parent whose daughter attends the Kids' Choice Pre-School, a rotten smell was apparent in the area. Workers with ServiceMaster were there in the morning, but then took the rest of Thursday and Friday off, leaving a significant amount of mess in the arroyo. They showed up again on Monday, despite the holiday.
When children returned to school yesterday, says one parent who asked to remain anonymous, yellow tape had been extended around the hill at the top of the arroyo.
"We got no formal notice, just this yellow tape," the parent tells SFR. "What was so alarming today was a group of guys with biohazard suits on. And it's kinda like, whoa! What's this all about?
Tapia hopes that the clean up effort will be finished no later than this Friday, over a week after the spill occurred. Despite the hazmat suits, Tapia says the bulk of the mess has been cleaned up and that it is not a direct threat to the surrounding region.
"It's just not a desirable situation, because we don't want people walking around there or pets playing around in the area," he says.
The wastewater division is still working to uncover the original source of blockage. At presstime, a representative from Christus St. Vincent could not confirm whether hospital facilities were at fault.