EPWater responds to NMED claims

Utility continues transparent response to Frontera Wastewater emergency

El Paso—El Paso Water is publicly correcting statements made by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) in its news release of June 9, 2022, which announced a fine related to the Utility’s Frontera wastewater emergency discharge into the Rio Grande.

“Given the serious nature of the emergency, we informed City Council last year that violations and enforcement actions are to be expected from regulators,” said EPWater President and CEO John Balliew. “What we didn’t expect was false and misleading claims from an organization with a public service mission."

Health and Safety Commitment

“The collapse of the Frontera wastewater pipeline was an unprecedented emergency,” said EPWater President and CEO John Balliew. “We made the very difficult decision to discharge wastewater to the Rio Grande to prevent wastewater from inundating homes, businesses, and streets. Health and safety were the determining factors in the diversion to the river and continued to guide our actions throughout the emergency.” Balliew noted that many of the actions taken throughout the emergency were made in consultation with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

Cleanup Completed

In the news release, NMED calls on the utility to fix the problems and clean up the impacted areas.  “Done,” said EPWater. The utility worked with a contractor to overcome supply chain issues and have the pipe and components manufactured onsite. Contractors worked seven days a week for four months to expedite the replacement of more than a mile of the Frontera pipeline. The new line became operational in December 2021, and discharge to the river stopped six months ago. Riverbed cleanup was completed in early May, and then crews removed 70,000 tons of impacted soil that had been stored in mounds along the riverbank. This was completed before the flows arrived for irrigation season.  

NMED Notification

Contrary to NMED reports that the agency never received notice of the discharge, EPWater has documentation that NMED was notified by email within 24 hours of the discharge. Subsequently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided guidance during an inspection that the federal agency would serve as the regulatory authority on behalf of New Mexico on this matter, leading to more formal communication with the EPA and TCEQ.

Water Quality

EPWater briefed the TCEQ, EPA and NMED in February on the status of the cleanup and water quality findings. Based on water quality samples from before, during and after the emergency, we know – and we shared – that testing revealed no heavy metals or harmful chemicals or toxic substances, despite NMED’s implication otherwise. The utility did find higher levels of E. coli, nitrogen, and phosphorous, but there was no direct exposure of residents to this water.  Additionally, there was no fish kill, no bird kill, and no other wildlife that were harmed, according to an environmental assessment performed by Arcadis, an environmental engineering firm contracted by EPWater. Subsequent testing shows a return to normal pre-discharge levels.

Sunland Park Impacts

The utility identified all registered public and private drinking water wells in the area with the intent to test any within a half mile of the impacted river area, but no drinking water wells were found within that range. The stretch of the New Mexico border affected by the discharge is mostly rugged mountainside (Mt. Cristo Rey), with the exception of a narrow area with several homes located near the riverbank. There is no crop irrigation, livestock watering or recreational activities.


“Transparency was prioritized throughout this emergency,” said Balliew. “We maintained ongoing communication with regulators, the International Boundary and Water Commission, Office of Emergency Management, Customs and Border Patrol, the neighboring communities, elected officials and the media.”  The utility issued more than a dozen news releases, resulting in 400+ regional stories in both English and Spanish. 

Background: EPWater proactively started replacement work at the Frontera Force Mains in 2020.  Beginning on August 13, 2021, when the remediation work that began in 2020 was 60% complete, the utility experienced multiple breaks to the Frontera Force Mains. Additional breaks forced EPWater to make the difficult decision to divert wastewater to the Rio Grande. The utility has maintained regular contact and fully cooperated with regulatory agencies and the community throughout the process.

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