By Demis Foster | Published in the Santa Fe New Mexican
Recently, it was quietly announced that Ryan Flynn, who quit his position as state environment secretary in August, would be heading the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Flynn — then a tax lawyer — as New Mexico Environment Department general counsel in 2011 and elevated him to secretary in 2013.
The governor has stated that the administration has worked successfully to protect our environment under Flynn’s leadership. Is this a fair statement? Flynn’s departure is an appropriate occasion to evaluate the Martinez administration’s record on environmental protection.
Groundwater quality: Groundwater is one of New Mexico’s most precious resources, providing drinking water to 90 percent of our population. The administration’s main initiative affecting groundwater is the Copper Mine Rule, written by and for industry to allow the pollution of groundwater. With assistance from mining industry lawyers, Martinez appointees at the Environment Department drafted the rule. Martinez appointees on the Water Quality Control Commission adopted the rule with little debate, and Martinez appointees hired a law firm, at taxpayer expense, to defend the rule.
The Copper Mine Rule allows a mining company to pollute groundwater across a large portion of its mine — 9 square miles at the Tyrone Mine. Within this area, mine companies do not need to implement pollution control systems, monitoring or cleanup. Our allies at the Gila Resources Information Project and Amigos Bravos, represented by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, and Attorney General Hector Balderas have challenged the rule as a violation of the Water Quality Act. It was argued before the New Mexico Supreme Court on Sept. 28, and a ruling can be expected in the next few weeks or months.
Surface water quality: New Mexico has not adopted a program to regulate surface water pollution, so that authority rests with the Environmental Protection Agency under the federal Clean Water Act. In 2015, the EPA adopted rules to clarify the scope of Clean Water Act authority after a series of fractured and confusing U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The state Environment Department and Martinez’s state engineer reacted by suing the EPA, challenging the rule as exceeding federal authority.
Air quality: Ground-level ozone, better known as smog, harms the human respiratory system, causes asthma and results in premature deaths. This is a particular problem in neighborhoods such as the South Valley in Bernalillo County. In 2006, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee unanimously recommended that the EPA lower the ambient ozone standard from 80 parts per billion to 60 or 70 ppb. After a long delay, the agency adopted a standard of 70 ppb in 2015. The Environment Department sued the EPA, challenging the standard as too stringent and burdensome on industry.
Renewable energy: New Mexico receives abundant sunshine, making it an ideal place for developing solar energy. In 2006, the Legislature enacted a 10 percent tax credit for installation of residential or business solar photovoltaic systems. The tax credit expires at the end of 2016. Last year, Gov. Martinez pocket-vetoed a bill to extend the tax credit.
Cleanup of federal facilities: New Mexico is home to several military bases and national laboratories, which have created a legacy of polluted land and water. In 2005, the Environment Department issued an order to the Department of Energy and its contractor requiring comprehensive cleanup of Los Alamos National Laboratory. After taking office, the Martinez administration granted the Department of Energy nearly 200 extensions to cleanup deadlines. Cleanup fell behind. Earlier this year, the Environment Department issued a new “cleanup” order, forgiving the Department of Energy for millions of dollars in penalties and eliminating any cleanup deadlines. The Environment Department got nothing in return. Cleanup “campaigns” are to be negotiated annually in the future, but the state has no bargaining chips left.
The 2014 leak of plutonium from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant led to the discovery of systemic waste-handling violations at Los Alamos. The Environment Department announced a “record” $54 million penalty against the Department of Energy for those violations that was never paid.
Instead, the Environment Department allowed the Department of Energy to avoid penalties in exchange for a vague commitment to construct improvements to roads and water infrastructure at its facilities.
The Department of Energy was already responsible, and in some cases legally obligated, to perform much of that work.
The Environment Department allowed the U.S. Air Force to delay for years addressing the bulk fuel spill at Kirtland Air Force Base, which threatens Albuquerque’s Ridgecrest wells. Cleanup finally began last year and is now progressing, albeit slowly. Progress came after community leaders and activists threatened a lawsuit.
But there is still no written work plan or schedule for the cleanup.
Gov. Susana Martinez has said that she is proud of her environmental record with Flynn at the helm, but their approach has been only to protect polluters and sue the EPA.
Demis Foster is the executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, a statewide nonpartisan nonprofit that is connecting the people of New Mexico to their political power to protect our air, land and water for a healthy Land of Enchantment.
By Demis Foster | Published in the Santa Fe New Mexican