The New Mexico Court of Appeals has reversed a decision by the state Environment Department’s Water Quality Control Commission to deny a group’s request to hold a public hearing over a 2-year-old groundwater discharge permit for Los Alamos National Laboratory.
In its decision, filed Dec. 27, the court ordered public proceedings to move forward.
Communities for Clean Water, a coalition of organizations that are affected by the lab or advocate for safe drinking water, asked then-Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn three times to schedule a public hearing on the permit, which allows the lab to release a certain amount of wastewater, potentially impacting groundwater quality.
The permit was requested as part of the lab’s efforts to clean up waste and contamination left after decades of nuclear weapons work during the Cold War era and the Manhattan Project, including a plume of hexavalent chromium tainting the regional aquifer.
Hexavalent chromium is one of several chromium compounds used in various manufacturing processes.
Allison Majure, a spokeswoman for the Environment Department, did not respond to a request for comment on the court’s decision.
Rachel Conn, projects director for the Taos-based nonprofit Amigos Bravos, one of the organizations participating in the coalition, said in a statement that the ruling “is a great victory for clean water and the people of New Mexico.”
“The court has ensured that the public’s concerns must be heard before discharges of pollution into our state’s waters are authorized,” she added.
Other groups involved in Communities for Clean Water include Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Tewa Women United, Honor Our Pueblo Existence, the New Mexico Acequia Association and the Partnership for Earth and Spirituality. The coalition argued that the discharge permit was overly broad and allowed for little public input on the lab’s activities that could affect groundwater quality.
The permit allows the lab to inject into the aquifer several hundred thousand gallons of groundwater that had been pumped up and then treated to remove contaminants, a technique largely intended to stop the spread of a mile-long, underground plume of hexavalent chromium. Los Alamos National Security LLC, the management consortium that operates the lab, requested the permit in 2011, and it was finalized by the state Environment Department in July 2015 following a public comment period.
Flynn at the time said the department had provided “community involvement at an unprecedented level” by accepting public comments and said the permit, intended to address historic contamination, was “in the public interest.”
The Water Quality Control Commission, the state agency regulating water pollution, agreed with Flynn’s decision in a 9-2 vote to deny the request for a hearing, which the commission said was in the interest of only one party. Furthermore, the commission said concerns raised by Communities for Clean Water already had been addressed by the Environment Department in a private meeting—and that a hearing would only delay the lab’s effort to clean up groundwater contamination.
The appeals court disagreed.
Judges Julie Vargas and Jonathan Sutin wrote in the court’s opinion that the commission had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously” in refusing to hold the hearing.
“To deny a public hearing because the public health and environment issues are so grave and immediate weighs in favor of the existence of a substantial public interest,” the judges said. “If anything, this factor supports a conclusion that the public interest in the permit would be heightened, rather than lessened, mandating the hearing under the regulation.”
Contact Rebecca Moss at (505) 986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.