The firestorm of publicity that Valley Meat Co. has ignited nationally has made New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Designate Ryan Flynn’s first months on the job interesting.
Tapped by Gov. Susana Martinez as head of the NMED in April, Valley Meat’s application for a groundwater renewal permit for its proposed horse meat slaughterhouse has sparked political and public controversy for the new appointee.
“This is certainly one of the most high profile cases,” Flynn said. “But it cannot be treated any differently. Sometimes, that’s difficult, but that’s our job.”
Flynn visited Roswell Tuesday during a tour of Southeast New Mexico, in an ongoing effort to visit communities throughout the state. During his visit, Flynn spoke honestly and openly with the Record about Valley Meat’s groundwater permit process.
The permit was denied by NMED in July. NMED held an official, legal and public hearing on the permit at the Chaves County Courthouse.
Flynn, former lawyer and general counsel for NMED, said he had to take steps to ensure the hearing was held in a secure environment in Roswell, for the safety of his employees and the public. Chaves County Courthouse was the only building in the city he felt was safe enough to hold the [auth] hearing.
“We had received a number of communications and I felt it was important to protect my employees and the participants,” Flynn said.
The hearings officer will gather all testimony and information, make a recommendation and present it to Flynn, who will make a final ruling on whether Valley Meat will be issued a permit in the next few months.
“I’m the ultimate decision maker,” Flynn said. “I make the final decision as to whether or not we’re going to issue the permit or deny the permit.”
Valley Meat faces other obstacles in opening. Most recently, after a federal judge finally cleared the way for USDA to provide inspectors at its plant near Roswell, the Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights activists filed an appeal with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal delayed the plant from starting operations days before it planned to open.
The state’s wastewater permit was initially denied after NMED received more than 450 public comments in opposition. Valley Meat, though, can still operate by removing wastewater by truck.
Accusations of political maneuvering have surfaced as Valley Meat has navigated a minefield of federal and state permit snags and lawsuits during its nearly two-year quest to open.
But while the governor has openly discussed her opposition to horse slaughter, Flynn said his decision will be based on science and the law.
“My boss (Martinez), like the attorney general, has been very clear she opposes horse slaughter,” Flynn said. “But unlike the attorney general, she’s unwilling to allow our laws to be bent or manipulated in order to accomplish a political objective. We’re going to be honest and we’re going to interpret our laws consistently and we’re going to represent the entire state of New Mexico.”
Flynn said he thinks Attorney General Gary King, whose office has argued in court against the USDA and Valley Meat, has taken a purely political position in this case.
“The attorney general’s office … their positions are being drafted by lawyers from San Francisco,” Flynn said. “They’re merely trying to score political points here.”
Flynn explained that Valley Meat’s permit is being considered under the same rules as a cattle slaughterhouse. Any ruling would not affect future dairy operations or other agriculture businesses.
Flynn is continuing to meet with dairymen, ranchers and industries as he settles into his new position.
“The dairy industry is vital to our state,” Flynn said. “It’s a huge part of our economy. I haven’t met a dairyman who says ‘I want to pollute the water and make it tougher for my children and my children’s children to operate on this land 30 years from now.’”
NMED is continuing to work with dairies to ensure the industry is in balance with environmental rules and the practical realities of what they experience on a daily basis, Flynn said.
“We need to make sure we’re striking the right balance to allow them to continue to operate, but ensure they’re operating in a way that’s not going to impact our groundwater,” Flynn said. “I think they were treated poorly under the (Gov. Bill) Richardson administration, and I recognize that.”
By spending as much time as possible traveling to communities, he is able to respond to the concerns of the entire state and understand the perspectives of the northern and southern regions, he said.
“I’ve made a very concerted effort with the agricultural community of the state, which includes the animal agriculture industry,” Flynn said. “Under the Richardson administration, the policy for our agency really came out of Santa Fe. Our agency really was imposing a Santa Fe policy on the rest of the state.”