Local leaders and farmers rallied in support of Valley Meat Co. Wednesday during the last day of a state environmental hearing to determine if the proposed horse meat processor will be allowed to renew its groundwater permit.
“These are the real people that live in this community,” said owner Rick De Los Santos. “It was good for me to hear all the support. It was a good ending to it. We’ll see what happens now that the cabinet secretary has to rule on it and we’ll go from there, see what happens with it.”
County Commissioners Kim Chesser and James Duffey, an official with the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, a representative with the New Mexico Livestock Bureau and state Rep. Candy Ezzell, of Roswell, spoke in favor of the plant’s opening for a variety of reasons.
“I am compassionate … but I am also a realist.” Ezzell said, explaining her background as a farmer, rancher and experienced horse owner.
Ezzell expressed her opinion that some owners can be irresponsible, allowing their horses to starve or wander onto other property when they can no longer care for them.
“If this is the same permit, like I’m told it is, I don’t see why we’re having the controversy we’re having today,” Ezzell said.
All comments were added to the New Mexico Environment Department’s official hearing record that will now be transcribed and processed. Additional findings and written comments will be added in the next 30 days by counsel.
After the case is closed, Hearings Officer Felicia Orth will forward the file to NMED’s Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn, who is expected to issue a final order by February.
The hearing’s conclusion is the latest hurdle De Los Santos has overcome in his journey to convert his plant on Cedarvale Road from a cattle slaughter operation to a horse processing facility.
He and his wife are waiting for another court decision, expected at the end of this month that will determine whether a federal judge will remove a stop order and allow the USDA to provide inspectors.
If Albuquerque-based U.S. District Court Judge Christina Armijo decides to allow inspectors into Valley Meat, De Los Santos will become the first U.S. plant to begin processing horses for human consumption since 2007.
De Los Santos has contracted to process up to 120 horses per day and ship the product out of the country.
The delay in Valley Meat’s groundwater permit will not hinder the business from opening. De Los Santos will truck wastewater from the property until a permit can be issued, said his attorney, A. Blair Dunn.
The two-day state water permit hearing went “very well,” Dunn said.
“I thought we were able to put on adequate evidence to show that there really isn’t any reason why this wouldn’t be renewed,” Dunn said. “We addressed a lot of concerns about chemicals present in horses and dairy cattle, and pointed out that those are going to be appropriately handled and not a threat to the environment.”
Attorney General Gary King’s representative Ari Biernoff paid to have a witness, Bill Olson to testify at the hearing. Olson was employed by NMED as a former Ground Water Bureau Chief and also owned his own horses.
“We had an opportunity to present testimony to the hearings officer and we look forward to her determinations,” Biernoff said.