New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn wants to change how his department decides to spend some of the fines it collects from polluting companies. But his recent comments surprised some people most familiar with what happened in one small town in southern New Mexico.
Under draft changes to the policy, state environment department employees would not be allowed to propose ideas for what are known as supplemental environmental projects, or SEPs. Those are projects meant to benefit the community where the pollution occurred.
The new proposal would leave it up to violating companies to plan how the money will be spent. Projects proposed by entities like Molycorp and Helena Chemical Co. would then be evaluated and selected by state workers in the Air Quality Bureau.
In his recent interview with the Albuquerque Journal, Flynn called out his predecessor in the Richardson administration for using money for "political projects" or to benefit personal acquaintances.
According to the story, some of the money from fines the state levied against Helena Chemical Co. for environmental violations at its fertilizer plant in Mesquite went to three local organizations: $35,000 to the Mesquite Elementary School, $65,000 to the local volunteer fire department and $25,000 to the Mesquite Community Center.
Flynn went on to say that Cynthia Nava, the state senator representing Mesquite at the time, was the one to raise concerns about Helena’s plant while she was dating Ron Curry, then at the helm of the environment department.
"Your motives start to be questioned," Flynn told the Journal. "Are you doing this because I am doing something wrong or because you are looking to fund a pet project?"
On Saturday, the Journal followed up its news story with an editorial that argued against several uses of penalty funds, including research on climate change. The paper wrote that it didn't see how the Mesquite funds "directly relate to the violations."
But Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, doesn't see it that's way. He was among the handful of elected officials approached by residents who were worried about the chemical company's proximity to homes and the elementary school in the town, which is 95 percent Hispanic and Latino. And he disputes Flynn's version of what happened there.
“At the time, there were high-profile explosions with chemical plants in the country elsewhere,” says Cervantes. “That was part of the reason for the original concerns—and it also explains why some of the SEP money, the bulk of it, was given to the Mesquite Fire Department.”
As the now-defunct New Mexico Independent reported, when environment department staff visited Mesquite in 2004, their initial inspection set off years' worth of investigations into groundwater, air quality, and worker health and safety issues.
Over the next few years, the state fined Helena more than $472,000 for environmental violations.
Twelve years after first raising concerns about the fertilizer plant, Mesquite resident Arturo Uribe is frustrated that anyone would call money for SEPs “donations.”
Uribe’s home is about 30 yards from the plant, and beginning in 2004, he led the charge in bringing the department inspectors to Mesquite.
“Nothing was ever ‘given’ to this community by Helena,” he says of the SEP money paid to the fire department, school, and community center.
“Those were fines that were levied against the company for being out of compliance and violating the regulations that [the New Mexico Environment Department] had imposed upon them,” he says. “And when those fines came back into the community, it came back to benefit the quality of life for our residents, for the kids in our school, for children and for families.”
One of the SEPs proposed by Helena in 2009 was $150,000 to install air conditioning at Garfield Elementary School in Hatch, an hour away from Mesquite. That project was rejected by the state at the time.
Helena still operates the Mesquite plant, which under Curry was required to obtain an air quality permit that establishes limits on its pollution and lays out remedies intended to keep the operation in compliance. Helena fought against that, but after seven days of hearings in 2010, the Environmental Improvement Board voted 4-1, upholding NMED’s decision to require that Helena have an air quality permit.
One year after Gov. Susana Martinez was sworn into office, in January 2012, New Mexico and Helena reached a settlement agreement. The company withdrew its appeal and the state now allows the company to operate without an air quality permit.
According to the Journal editorial, the New Mexico Environment Department negotiated $80.8 million in penalties between 2011 and 2016, $74 million of which must be paid by the US Department of Energy for problems at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and in Los Alamos. The state also reached a $4 million settlement last year with Chevron Molycorp for hazardous releases from its mine in Questa.
The department did not acknowledge SFR's request to interview Flynn for this story.
The Supplemental Environmental Projects revision is open for public comment until June 10. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and include “SEP Revisions Civil Penalty Policy” in the email subject line.