The New Mexico Environment Department is taking a closer look at a Southside asphalt company's plans to consolidate its plants at one location and to operate around the clock.
Residents' concerns about air quality and an ongoing state investigation into possible violations mean Associated Asphalt and Materials, LLC, will have to next make its case for increased operations at a formal hearing tentatively slated for late spring.
The company operates at two different locations in the city and applied for a state permit to move everything from 3810 Oliver Road to 86 Paseo de River Street, just across Highway 599 behind the County Public Works building, and let it run 24 hours per day if needed. The application drew attention from dozens of Southside residents and prompted the company to hold a tense meeting in early February.
"It really was an opportunity to have the applicant present to the public what their proposal was, because there was a lot of confusion about what the company intended to do," Air Quality Bureau Chief Elizabeth Kuehn tells SFR via phone. "I don't think that they did a very good job at explaining the health impacts of pollution to the community, and that's really one of their main concerns."
Linda Marianiello, who lives in Tierra Contenta, tells SFR she and a group of others are working with a technical expert in air quality regulations and looking for law firms to represent them in concerns about a potential increase in pollution.
An Air Quality Bureau investigator uncovered several potential problems after a resident's complaint last June about a foul odor and smoke in the air coming from the plant at Paseo de River Street. According to a July environment department inspection report obtained by SFR through a public records request, the "areas of concern" included employees not keeping consistent records of baghouse pressures, a measure of how many particles from asphalt production are released into the air.
Recording the pressures helps operators know whether a plant is functioning properly and stopping pollutants. The inspection report notes that the plant operator did not know the proper procedure for what to do when a baghouse might be malfunctioning, which could have been the source of the reported odor and smoke last summer. The employees also only recorded one set of baghouse pressures per day instead of the required two.
In addition, the state confirms Associated Asphalt has gone 30 years without submitting a biennial emissions inventory.
New Mexico's top polluters, which emit over 100 million tons of pollutants each year, are required to submit a yearly emissions inventory. Associated Asphalt is considered a minor polluter and must submit an inventory every two years, a requirement memorialized in the company's original, 1990 permit.
Matt Lane, an environmental specialist employed by Associated Asphalt, tells SFR the company is "working to address" potential violations identified by the environment department and plans to regularly record baghouse pressures.
But documents reviewed by SFR show the company has never submitted an inventory. Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden confirms the lack of submission, and tells SFR "this does not necessarily mean that a violation has occurred, and we are reviewing whether or not this is a potential violation."
"Since the permit was issued, the department waived the requirement to submit emission inventory data for the construction industry," Hayden says. "The department is also reviewing the original permit application file to determine why this requirement was included in the permit, as it is not typical to do so."
Emissions inventories are used to conduct air dispersion modeling analyses and other long-term air quality efforts to plan for changes in industrial emissions, changes in regulations and to monitor new trends in pollutants.
According to the environment department's inspection report, Associated Asphalt was not required to submit an emissions inventory once the issue was discovered because starting this year, the state is conducting an analysis of minor polluters statewide as part of a "new effort," Kuehn says.
Instead, the company must submit an inventory in 2021 that covers 2020.
Air Quality Bureau officials tell SFR they can't comment in detail on ongoing investigations. Their goal is to complete the investigation within a year. The bureau blames the delay in wrapping the investigation on a staffing shortage.
"We have so few inspectors and so few folks to do the investigation," Sandra Ely, Environmental Protection Division director, tells SFR. "The responsibilities have grown dramatically over the last 10 years and yet we've actually lost staff rather than increased the number of staff throughout the environment department."
Associated Asphalt will have another opportunity to present its case, this time in a more official setting than last month's community meeting. Kuehn says Environment Department Secretary James Kenney will attend the formal hearing later this spring.