ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn, who led a fight against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year over waterways tainted by a mine spill and was at the helm of the department when a radiation leak shut down a federal nuclear waste storage site in Carlsbad, is stepping down next month, Gov. Susana Martinez announced Friday.
Flynn’s resignation will take effect Aug. 12, and Martinez said Deputy Cabinet Secretary Butch Tongate will serve as acting Environment Department secretary.
The governor’s announcement, released after business hours Friday, didn’t give a reason for Flynn’s resignation. But he said in the statement, “Serving the State of New Mexico has been the most gratifying experience of my career. … Thanks to Governor Martinez’s leadership, we have made unprecedented progress on a number of important environmental issues.”
Flynn added, “I’m the proud father of two daughters under the age of 3, and I look forward to spending more time with them and my beautiful wife.”
Martinez appointed Flynn in 2013 to lead the state Environment Department after a retirement forced her to reshuffle her Cabinet.
Flynn previously had been the agency’s top lawyer for two years.
He was the administration’s main negotiator for an agreement earlier in 2013 with federal regulators and Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state’s largest utility, for reducing pollution from a coal-fired power plant in northwestern New Mexico.
During his state Senate confirmation hearing, Flynn faced objections from some lawmakers and public-interest groups who questioned his role in crafting controversial mining regulations they said would allow groundwater pollution by copper mines.
Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, was one of those who voted no. He said at the time that he was disturbed by what appeared to be undue influence from the copper mining industry on Flynn.
Major New Mexico conservation groups such as the Sierra Club and Conservation Voters New Mexico were vocal about their opposition to Flynn. They contended he put industry ahead of protecting groundwater.
But Martinez, in her statement Friday, said, “Secretary Flynn has put his heart and soul into protecting our environment and always put New Mexicans first.”
Just a few days before Flynn’s confirmation hearing, a waste drum from Los Alamos National Laboratory burst in the caverns at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, leaking radiation not only in the underground storage facility but also above ground. The Energy Department didn’t confirm the leak, however, until two days after Flynn was confirmed.
When he got word of the crisis, he immediately traveled to Carlsbad to respond to the leak. And in the months after the breach, he pressured federal officials at the waste site and the lab. Eventually, Flynn fined the federal government an unprecedented $73 million.
In the aftermath of the WIPP leak, support for Flynn grew, and the Senate unanimously reconfirmed him as the Cabinet secretary in 2015.
Martinez, in her statement Friday, also credited Flynn with “holding the U.S. Air Force accountable and starting the remediation process for the jet fuel plume at Kirtland Air Force Base.”
His latest battle with the federal government centers on the August 2015 wastewater spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado, which dumped 3 million gallons of water tainted with heavy metals into the Animas River near Silverton. The contamination, caused by an EPA contractor working at the mine site, eventually flowed into New Mexico waterways.
Under Flynn’s leadership, New Mexico was the first state to sue the EPA over the spill. The Environment Department and the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office also filed a complaint against the state of Colorado.
But advocacy groups have continued to say Flynn is too cozy with industries.
After the Environment Department reached a new cleanup agreement with LANL that Flynn and federal officials said would expedite waste removal and soil and water remediation, Jay Coghlan, director of the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said Flynn’s department is “coddling the nuclear weapons industry in New Mexico.”
Flynn’s silence on whether the state is working to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan has frustrated environmentalists, according to a report in May by New Mexico In Depth. A year earlier, Flynn had objected to the rules, which aim to reduce emissions at power plants.
Flynn also has defended the state’s controversial copper rule as it makes its way through the courts, saying the regulation “represents a balanced approach to protecting our water while still allowing for economic development and job creation.”
When the state Supreme Court announced a year ago that it would review the rule governing copper mine groundwater pollution, Flynn’s department said in a statement, “Make no mistake, the future of mining in New Mexico hangs in the balance. If the positions of the extremist environmental groups and the attorney general were to be adopted, the mining industry would effectively die in New Mexico.”
Conservation Voters New Mexico, the only environmental group to immediately respond to news of Flynn’s resignation, issued a statement Friday that was neither complimentary of Flynn nor critical.
In the statement, Political and Legislative Director Ben Shelton simply says, “We urge Gov. Martinez to appoint a thoughtful enforcer of environmental laws who will make the health and well-being of every day New Mexicans a top priority.”
Information from The New Mexican was used in this report.