Many Santa Feans were recently surprised to learn that an asphalt production plant had been slated to fire up at the Caja del Rio Landfill. The plant's permit—granted by the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau—allows up to 600 tons of asphalt to be produced every hour.

No, misprint. Every hour.

Now, according to its permit application, the plant's normal operation won't exceed 300 tons an hour. If you don't feel relieved, you're not alone. As it happens, that permit was granted more than a year ago, but it was only last week—in response to concerns from area residents—that waste management and elected officials started trying to delay or prevent the plant's operation altogether.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Virginia Vigil has requested the suspension of the plant's operation and slated the matter for discussion at a Nov. 18 meeting of the joint city/county board that oversees the Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agencey (SFSWMA). That board consists of three members from the Board of County Commissioners (currently Vigil, Kathy Holian and Harry Montoya) and three members of the City Council (currently Rosemary Romero and Ron Trujillo, with the remaining seat inexplicably unclaimed).

It's heartening that officials are taking action, but it doesn't really explain how we got into this mess in the first place.

Randall Kippenbrock, executive director of the SFSWMA, is unusually forthcoming for the official in charge of the place where we guiltily toss our nasty business. Kippenbrock diligently answered questions to the best of his ability at a packed Nov. 2 meeting of the Agua Fria Village Association, and explained the farcical road that led to the ill-conceived notion of firing up a carcinogen, er, asphalt production plant just southwest of Santa Fe proper.

When Kippenbrock first came to the job in 2006, he was shocked to learn that the board planned to get 100 years of use from the Caja del Rio Landfill. The industry norm is more like 20 to 30 years. With good management and an ideal location, that could possibly be extended a bit, but 100 years is just wishful thinking.

Kippenbrock felt confident he could provide the good management, but there was another problem. The landfill was situated atop solid basalt. Rock.

The original plan was to excavate down to 70 feet (leaving more than 200 feet between the landfill's thick liner and the water table), but the basalt limited the first phase of the landfill to no more than 20 feet in depth. Under that scenario, the operation wouldn't even last 20 to 30 years.

"From a landfill engineering standpoint," Kippenbrock says, "it should never have been built there. I don't know why that location was chosen, but it doesn't make any sense."

The only solution, aside from up and moving the whole operation (which will apparently have to happen sooner than planned, anyway) was to excavate with explosives. The city and county agreed to suck up the additional expense, and contracted Washington-based DelHur Industries to do the work.

Of course, blowing up big rocks doesn't make them disappear, it just turns them into lots of little rocks. DelHur agreed to purchase from SFSWMA the by-product (for $1.50 per ton) and sell it on the open market. SFSWMA and the Air Quality Bureau thus allowed installation of a rock-crushing plant at the landfill for the purpose of mashing the broken-up rock into gravel and base course that could be sold to road projects and the like.

But, Kippenbrock explains, DelHur has had bum luck in winning any gravel contracts (the New Mexico Rail Runner found the rock to be "unsuitable"). Thus, DelHur suggested an asphalt plant as a way to dwindle the alleged "10-year" stockpile of rock into a more saleable product. Kippenbrock agreed (the city/county board was not asked to decide, but was informed and did not object) and, again, so did the AQB. That project was contracted out to Fisher Sand & Gravel.

In other words, each poor decision has compounded the next and the result is a carcinogen-heavy polluter potentially operating on city/county property with no tangible benefit to those governments or their peoples.

Community concern kicked into high gear after a Nov. 4 letter to the AQB stated the plant would be in operation within 15 days. Kippenbrock now says if he'd realized so many people would be upset, he'd probably have nipped the plan in the bud. Certainly, he says, he would have insisted that the city/county board vote on the matter (although it's unclear a vote would have made a difference).

Until officials decide otherwise, there are now three operations that require air quality permits on the Caja del Rio Landfill: the landfill itself (dust and gases), the rock-crushing operation (dust) and the asphalt plant. Kippenbrock notes that each permit has been granted with conditions that are more demanding than federal standards. He could not say whether anyone has bothered to tally the impact of all three compromises to air quality compounded in one location.

The New Mexico Air Quality Board failed to return phone calls prior to publication.