Digging Deep in 2013

As environmental regulation weakens, watchdog reporting is ever more important

Over the past couple of years, I've been hearing a lot about industry influence—unprecedented industry influence—within state government, including the New Mexico Environment Department. Since Gov. Susana Martinez took office, her administration has certainly set the state back when it comes to climate change and renewable energy. It has also overturned or weakened regulations related to everything from groundwater protection to greenhouse gas emissions.

During her administration's first days, Martinez terminated members of the state's Environmental Improvement Board and then violated the state Constitution by preventing some of the board's rules from being implemented. Other attempts to derail progress (or even just thwart the status quo) on issues such as clean air and water have occurred more quietly and with barely a mention in the press.

In September, for instance, NMED released a draft rule on copper mines. For more than three decades, state regulations have protected groundwater from industrial or agricultural pollution. If a company was going to pollute groundwater—via something like a copper mine—it needed to apply to the state's Water Quality Control Commission for what's called a "variance." The state could grant variances only after a public hearing, and only for five-year stretches. But under NMED's newly proposed rule, copper mining companies wouldn't need to apply for variances. As long as the pollution remained undetected, companies wouldn't need to stop or clean it.  Basically, the state would exempt copper companies from water quality standards.

On behalf of Amigos Bravos, the Gila Resources Information Project and Turner Enterprises, Inc., the New Mexico Environmental Law Center is fighting the rule. According to NMELC, the proposed copper rule violates the state's Water Quality Act—and bears the inky prints of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc., owners of southwestern New Mexico's Tyrone Mine. In a November legal document, the center points out that the proposed rule isn't the result of a public process, as mandated by the state legislature. Rather, Freeport's exemptions were inserted into the rule by the Environment Department's general counsel after the advisory committee drafted an initial rule in August.

General counsel Ryan Flynn came to the department from the Modrall Sperling Law Firm, which has represented Freeport before the Water Quality Control Commission, NMED and the courts—and advocated for provisions similar to the ones that ended up in the latest draft of the copper rule.

The New Mexico Attorney General's Office is also asking that NMED reconsider the proposed rule. In its motion, the office points out that copper mining in New Mexico has caused extensive groundwater pollution. Even with regulations in place, for example, leach piles, waste rock piles and tailing piles across 2,800 acres at the Tyrone site will pollute groundwater for at least another 300 years. Currently, groundwater contamination below Tyrone exceeds standards by 10 times for sulfate, nickel, cobalt and copper, and 1,000 times for aluminum, cadmium, manganese, iron and zinc. And that dirty water is on the move—heading offsite and into the regional aquifers.

Given the importance of clean water to the state's economic and environmental future, it seems like this rule and others deserve a closer look.

As a journalist (and eavesdropper), I often hear tales of government corruption and waste. So, in the new year, I'm setting a goal: to chip away at some of those tips, figure out what's happening behind closed doors and file regular records requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act and the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.

It's good to have a paper trail to follow when someone drops a story tip. But those records requests aren't foolproof. Officials with something to hide have evolved even as the laws have strengthened, and I frequently hear of employees who scrub their hard drives, use personal email accounts to conduct public business and play fast and loose with attorney-client privilege in order to withhold information during records requests.

I've never hidden my biases as a reporter. I love riverbanks with water between them, clear skies, beautiful landscapes and healthy wildlife. I also hold out hope for a sustainable future for all New Mexicans. I'm not a big fan of wasted money, pointless collaborations, public-relations stunts, politicians or people out to make a buck off putting the environment or public health at risk. I also harbor the hope that the public is interested in knowing what's happening within the state and federal agencies responsible for enforcing environmental laws, protecting wildlife and public health, and safeguarding the future for generations of New Mexicans.

If you've got a tip, drop me an email at laura.paskus@gmail.com, and of course, share your thoughts with the rest of SFR's readers by sending a letter to the editor at editor@sfreporter.com.

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