State officials say that the first proposed changes in groundwater
quality regulations in more than 20 years will streamline processes and bring [auth] New Mexico into
alignment with stricter federal standards, but groups opposing some of the changes have said that the new rules would shut down public discussion and lower New Mexico
water quality standards.
“Since the vast majority of New Mexicans drink groundwater, the Water Quality Control Commission wanted us to set the water quality standards at the federal level,” said Bureau Chief Michelle Hunter. “People ask us why it took so long, but it is a difficult process.”
The proposed regulations have been revised once since their initial release in May after public comments were gathered. Since the revision, representatives of the Ground Water Quality Bureau of the New Mexico Environment Department have been
holding “listening sessions” around the state for people to discuss the proposed
The last of the scheduled meetings occurred Thursday night in Roswell at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. Previous meetings were held in Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Farmington.
Hunter said that permitted chemical levels have been made stricter for all but three chemical compounds: Chromium, fluoride and xylenes. The proposed rules also add some new pesticides and organic compounds to the list, which has not been updated since the 1980s.
Groups opposing the change, among them the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, have said that no standards should be relaxed.
“Why is New Mexico taking a step back?” asked Jaimie Park, staff attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “We used to have standards more stringent than the federal standards.”
The proposed changes can be categorized into nine major categories, and the bureau has received comments opposing almost all changes, Hunter said.
“We want to be in the middle,” she said. Non-governmental agencies “and environmental agencies are going to be way over here, and industry is going to be on the other side,” Hunter said.
Even the proposed rule change about increasing fees for the first time since 2004 has been opposed by some.
Hunter said that change comports with intentions of the state’s Water Quality Act, which has language indicating that the bureau is expected to cover its costs. She said it currently only recoups about 10 percent of its expenses, but it needs some way to boost revenues, given the severe budget cuts it has experienced in the past few years, which have required a staff reduction of about two-thirds.
“We really need to hire people and have them writing permits,” Hunter said. “Every time a person leaves, 50 to 75 permits are no one’s permits.”
Environmental groups favor that change, but groups paying the fees, including dairy operators, have spoken out against fee increases, Hunter said.
Hunter met with consultants for dairy operators prior to Thursday’s public hearing. She said the bureau has worked for 10 years to reach a point where dairies cooperated with them in efforts to reduce groundwater contamination. Dairy representatives asked for comment chose not to make any.
Hunter said that the issue her bureau considers the driving force in making revisions to regulations is vapor intrusion, or when subsurface contaminants rise up into a building, which often can happen with dry cleaning or petroleum industries. The proposed rules would give the bureau authority over sites where vapor intrusion is proven to occur due to subsurface contaminants.
A proposed change opposed by the Environmental Law Center would eliminate the five-year limit on discharge permit variances. Variances allow companies or entities to exceed permitted contaminant levels. Under the proposed rules, instead of seeking variance renewals every five years, permit holders would be granted unlimited variances but would have to do their own audits every five years to prove they continue to meet the requirements of the variance.
Hunter explained that businesses important to New Mexico will not be willing to make multimillion-dollar investments in the area if they are unsure whether their variances will be approved after five years.
That proposed change would keep the public in the dark and give too much control to industry, said Park. Hunter said that the public could request documentation regarding the five-year audits that variance holders turn into the bureau.
The Environmental Law Center also opposes a proposed change that would allow the bureau to consider some changes to permits minor, calling them “amendments,” rather than “modifications.” As amendments, the bureau could make the changes without public input. Modifications require public notice and public hearings.
“They are basically circumventing public notice and public comment,” Park said.
Hunter said that the rule allowing minor changes to be “modifications” handled internally merely will “codify something that we have been doing for 30 years.” She said that the Water Quality Act includes language that indicates the department can distinguish between major and minor changes.
Park added that the public is also being shorted by the proposed rule change governing how special variance requests, known as alternative abatement standards, are handled.
But Hunter said that the rule change allowing “technical infeasibility” to be allowed as a reason to modify an alternative abatement plan increases public involvement. Now such requests are directed to the department secretary and are done in private. Under the proposed rule change, public hearings would be held and only the 14-member Water Quality Control Commission could grant approval.
Comments can be made on the proposed rules until Oct. 17. Hunter said the bureau likely will revise the proposed rules again in response to comments and then will request in November that a March 2017 public hearing occur before the Water Quality Control Commission.
She said new rules probably will not be enacted until fall 2017.
Staff writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.