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Fresh attacks on environmental regulations threaten New Mexico’s future

March 30, 2011, 1:00 am

In 1976, residents of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, NY, discovered their neighborhood had been built on top of a toxic dump. This incident and others contributed to national awareness of environmental issues.

While the vast majority of anti-environment legislation proposed in this year’s session was defeated, protections are being unraveled from within the state department charged with protecting the state’s environmental resources.

Within the governor’s proposed executive budget, Martinez suggested a 26 percent reduction in general fund appropriations for the New Mexico Environment Department. Buffett points out that’s a disproportionate cut when compared with 6 percent cuts proposed to agencies across the board. 

Under the final budget—yet to be signed or vetoed by Martinez—the department would see approximately a 19 percent cut.

Such cuts would undoubtedly have a huge impact on the department—and the state—given its broad range of responsibilities.

The environmental health program, for instance, provides regulatory oversight for food safety and food processing facilities, and regulates the disposal of liquid waste, public swimming pools, medical radiation and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. There also are programs related to solid and hazardous waste, water quality, wastewater, the prevention of the release of petroleum products into the environment, and compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. In other words, employees at the Environment Department are charged with everything from food safety to air and water quality to worker safety and oversight of an underground nuclear waste facility. 

Some of the cuts, however, are offset by increases in revenues from other state funds and interagency transfers. The department also relies on grants from the federal government. 

It remains to be seen, however, why the state would willingly forgo funds meant to help businesses become more “green.”

Since Republican Gov. Gary Johnson’s administration, the state has participated in a federal program funded in part by the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

EPA designed the Pollution Prevention—P2—program to help businesses and communities reduce their waste before their emissions or waste streams become a problem requiring fines or intervention from environmental regulators. The program offers training and workshops, waste assessments, compliance and technical assistance, and also recognizes environmental leadership though its Green Zia awards each year.

Each state’s program is funded in part by the federal government, according to David Bond, the EPA’s P2 coordinator for Region 6, which includes New Mexico. Each year, the EPA releases a request for proposals. States and universities then apply for P2 money, half of which is matched by the grantee itself. By and large, the program has been successful in reducing the amount of pollution into the environment, as well as saving businesses money. 

Here in New Mexico, the state has worked with communities such as Angel Fire, and the pueblos of Taos and Santo Domingo. Businesses that have successfully completed P2 programs include Ortega Family Enterprises (which specializes in National Park Service concessions), Albuquerque’s Tempur-Pedic factory, San Juan Regional Medical Center, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albuquerque, Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa, Albuquerque’s Hilton hotel and Encantado Resort & Spa in Santa Fe.

According to several sources both within and familiar with the department, in January, the Environment Department’s deputy secretary reassigned P2 employees, and informed staff that the state’s participation in the program would be canceled. When contacted by SFR, Deputy Secretary Raj Solomon denied the service has been cut, and says, rather, “We’re trying to do more with less.”

The program hasn’t been canceled, he says. “It’s still there; we’re just kind of taking it in a different direction—trying to roll small business assistance and community outreach,” Solomon says. “We’ll continue to do kind of what we’re doing: give Green Zia awards and those kinds of things.” 

(As of press time, SFR was awaiting the results of two Inspection of Public Records Act requests on the program.) Bond confirms that the EPA is uncertain of New Mexico’s status with the P2 program.

“It is our understanding at this time that they are not going forward with any more P2 grant program requests,” he says. “It is our understanding that the Pollution Prevention program is being looked at being canceled—but we don’t know that. It hasn’t been specifically told to us.” Speaking on background, one New Mexico Environment Department employee is sad to see the program go. P2 staff worked closely with businesses and also with the regulatory bureaus within the department—such as hazardous and solid waste—to ensure that businesses received the help or training they needed before there was a problem. 

“We don’t have that resource anymore, that nationally recognized program,” the employee says. “It’s really sad to see it go.”

New Mexico isn’t alone; environmental regulations are under assault nationwide. In some ways, the scene is even worse than it was during George W Bush’s presidency. 

“The fact that the White House does not support these efforts is obviously helpful—and the Democratic leadership in the Senate doesn’t—so fewer [attacks] are likely to be effective,” David Goldston, director of government affairs for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC, says. “But as far as the range of assaults and the antipathy, and the strength of the assaults in the House and the weakness of the few remaining moderate Republicans in the House, it’s certainly worse.”

Goldston points out that bills currently pending in Congress include one that would block the US Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to limit carbon pollution, as well as another that would require congressional approval of any new regulations. 

“There are 19 anti-environmental provisions that were added to the bill to fund the government for the rest of the year—even though those provisions don’t save the government any money,” he says. “There is a wide range of attacks going on in Congress.”

Opponents of environmental protections take two different approaches: One is to repeal or weaken specific laws (the National Environmental Policy Act is a popular target). The second is to make fundamental changes in how protections are proposed—and to change the existing system so that it’s more difficult for regulatory agencies to put protections in place.

“These members [of Congress] like to claim that they’re following public opinion, even though most polls show the public does not support these efforts,” Goldston says. “It’s very important people make their voices heard if they’re upset because proponents—whether large industry or tea party members—certainly are not shy.”

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