March 6, 2017

House revisits crackdown on false water quality data

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Christopher W. Moriarty

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It was not necessarily a crime under New Mexico law for a utility in the Four Corners area to tell regulators its water was fine even as turbid, odorous liquid flowed to customers’ taps.

But a measure to make lying to state regulators about water quality a fourth-degree felony is a step closer to becoming law. A committee in the state House of Representatives revived the issue under a new bill with a new sponsor and narrower scope, ending an impasse that had prompted finger pointing over the influence of special interest groups and had upended the usual tough-on-crime dynamics at the Capitol.

On Saturday, the new House Bill 511 won bipartisan support in the House Judiciary Committee, which elected 10-2 to advance it to a vote by the full House.

Republicans blocked a similar bill last month, even though it was sponsored by a GOP colleague and had the backing of the state Environment Department. GOP members of the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee said the bill was far too broad.

Under HB 511, an operator or employee of a water system could be charged with a fourth-degree felony for knowingly providing certain false information to the Environment Department. The amended bill narrows the circumstances in which prosecutors can pursue charges, however, and eliminates some of the potential penalties that Republicans had opposed.

The New Mexico Environment Department has pushed for years to make it a crime for the employees of water utilities to submit false quality reports and have pointed to a water crisis near Farmington as an example of how erroneous data can cover up a threat to public health.

Complaints from consumers of the Animas Valley Water Co. eventually prompted the state to order thousands of households to boil water, and some say the poor quality made them ill or damaged clothes, washing machines and water heaters.

Democrats also have pointed to the high-profile water crisis in Flint, Mich., as well as similar policies in states such as Ohio and Washington, in arguing the measure is merely common sense.

Some Republican legislators argued that HB 511 is still too broad and could lead to criminal charges against low-ranking water system employees or the small boards of rural utilities for making a mistake on a report.

“My concern is statements can be made that are unintentionally false, but they shouldn’t rise to the level of a felony charge against a person,” said Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, one of two Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to vote against the bill.

And some GOP lawmakers have questioned whether such a law is even necessary in response to just a few incidents that have already prompted hefty administrative fines.

Many in the oil and gas industry also have opposed such measures, arguing that allowing authorities to haul water utilities into court for violating environmental laws could lead to other policies that would crack down on their sector.

As Republicans — who typically have pushed to stiffen criminal sentences — picked apart the wording of the two-page bill, and one took to Twitter to accuse Democrats of “creating so many new felonies,” Democrats lambasted them as being soft on environmental crime.

“I’m surprised by the vigorous defense of people who are lying,” Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said at one point.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

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