A four-day hearing over proposed changes to state water quality standards wrapped up earlier this month at the Capitol, but a final decision likely won't come until spring on the regulations, which state environment officials say would "re-establish New Mexico as a leader in the protection of groundwater" but critics fear it would limit public input and oversight of industries that pollute.
The New Mexico Environment Department said surface and groundwater regulations have not been updated in more than two decades. The proposal, the agency said, would help align the state with federal standards.
"This is a clear example of how our understanding of environmental issues has come a long way," said Michelle Hunter, Groundwater Quality Bureau chief for the Environment Department.
The final day of the hearing (Nov. 18) before the state Water Quality Control Commission saw industry and environmental groups debate various changes to allowable contamination levels in water - some more strict than current state limits - and new policies that could eliminate public notice and a required public hearing process when a company seeks an exemption from the standards.
Speaking at this week's hearing were representatives from the city of Roswell, Dairy Producers of New Mexico, the New Mexico Mining Association, the U.S. Air Force, Laun-Dry Supply Co. and Los Alamos National Security LLC, the private consortium that operates Los Alamos National Laboratory. Environmental advocacy groups Amigos Bravos and the Gila River Information Project were represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, which has a Taos office.
Amigos Bravos opposed an amendment submitted by the department to change language for discharge permits, according to the Taos-based environmental nonprofit. The group had submitted technical testimony in opposition to it.
"The discharge permit amendment proposal would have allowed numerous and extensive changes to discharge permit amendments without adequate public oversight," said Rachel Conn of Amigos Bravos in a press release. "We would like to thank the New Mexico Environment Department for dropping this flawed proposal," which the department did during the week of the hearings.
A hearing officer has until mid-December to issue a recommendation to the Water Quality Control Commission on the proposed changes. The commission will have 60 days to deliberate and is expected to issue a decision in March or April of 2018.
Some industry groups raised concerns about more stringent standards. Roswell, which inherited a piece of land with significant groundwater contamination, took issue with what it considered burdensome monitoring rules following remediation of a contaminated site.
The central focus of the hearing, however, was an overhaul of the process for an entity to obtain a temporary exemption to water pollution standards.
Currently, a public hearing process is required every five years for a company with a state groundwater discharge permit and variance.
The Environment Department aims to change that, arguing that reports every five years from a company would be sufficient to track its compliance. But a number of groups and members of the public said this could lead to companies polluting groundwater for years on end with little oversight.
Gabriel Montoya, special projects director for Pueblo of Pojoaque, told the commission the pueblo was concerned, in particular, about Los Alamos National Laboratory, and how its practices have affected area tribes - such as a groundwater plume of carcinogenic hexavalent chromium that has spread from lab property to the hunting grounds of neighboring San Ildefonso Pueblo.
Toxic chemicals released by the lab eventually could impact Pojoaque people, as well, Montoya said. "We want to ensure the quality of the water for many generations to come."
This story first appeared in The New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News. Contact Rebecca Moss at (505) 986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Taos News reporter Cody Hooks contributed to this story.