If you haven’t gone out to look at the Rio Grande, no matter where along its banks you live, now’s the time. The snowmelt is pouring down the channel, causing the river to overbank in lots of places throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley. In southern New Mexico, the normally dry channel is also running as water managers are moving water from reservoirs to southern New Mexico fields and orchards and to Texas. Speaking of snowmelt, March was an exceptionally warm month in New Mexico. According to the National Weather Service, 143 record-high temperatures were broken across 34 weather stations on 15 days.
I’ve been reporting on environment issues for almost 15 years, and during most of that time, it hasn’t exactly been a breaking news beat. There are disasters like wildfires or the Gold King Mine spill. But for the most part, covering issues like drought, climate change and energy policy doesn’t usually involve a race to deadline. It seems like that’s been changing lately, however. Part of that change is due to the Trump administration.
As we reported on Friday, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the Next Generation Science Standards Act. In her message, she wrote that “the Public Education Department has already been working diligently to route the standards through the appropriate vetting process.” The governor also argued the standards don’t belong in statute because it would “make it more difficult to update science standards in response to scientific advancement in the future.”
As Matt Grubs wrote in the Santa Fe Reporter, that bill would have required the state to adopt updated, nationally-vetted benchmarks for teaching science in public schools. As Grubs wrote last week: Supporters, like bill sponsor Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, agree that it’s better to let the PED change standards administratively. But no one from the state’s education agency has explained the delay in putting the NGSS into place. In 18 other states and Washington, DC, the most controversial issues surrounding Next Gen adoption have been human-caused climate change and the theory of evolution.
Ridding day care centers of fluorescent lightbulbs with toxic PCBs. Requiring a backup engineer on freight trains to avoid crashes. Restricting drones from flying over people. Federal agencies were preparing these rules and dozens more when Donald Trump was elected. In one of his first acts, the president quietly froze them.
In recent years, spills of crude oil, natural gas and drilling wastewater have increased even more rapidly than production has grown. Yet the state of New Mexico doesn’t fine or sanction oil and gas companies that pollute water. A bill before the state legislature seeks to change that. If passed, the bill wouldn’t create new rules or regulations. Instead, it would allow the state’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD) to impose penalties on polluting companies.
It was a tumultuous week for federal employees. On Monday, President Donald Trump announced a hiring freeze across the government. The administration also suspended social media posts from at least five agencies, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On top of that, news trickled out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was freezing all new grants and contracts. While hiring freezes aren’t uncommon, the EPA’s stay appears to be unusual, if not unprecedented.
In its final report on how hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is affecting water supplies, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency said the common oil and gas drilling technology can, in fact, contaminate drinking water supplies. The report was released earlier this week. New Mexico has tens of thousands of oil and gas wells in the northwestern and southeastern parts of the state. And while the practice has received more public attention in recent years, companies have used the technology here for decades. During the process, operators inject wells with chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, petroleum distillates, ethanol, sodium chloride and trimethylbenzene.
The Bernalillo County Commission passed a resolution supporting the federal government’s push to create stricter rules on methane leaks and emissions. The proposal passed on a 3-1 vote Tuesday night, with all three Democrats on the commission voting for it and Commissioner Wayne Johnson voting against. Commissioner Lonnie Talbert was not present for the vote. The resolution shows the support of the Bernalillo County Commission for proposed rules from the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency on methane emissions and leaks from oil and gas drilling. Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins sponsored the resolution and said the proposed federal rules would have a positive impact on health for residents of Bernalillo County, plus help slow down the effects of climate change.
The Navajo Nation announced they are suing the federal government over the Gold King Mine spill last year. The spill sent a sickly orange plume of pollution down the Animas River, from an abandoned mine in Colorado through the Four Corners area of New Mexico and into Utah. A contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency caused the blowout. This included the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest reservation. According to the Associated Press, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told the EPA, “We’re holding your feet to the fire.”
In all, an estimated 3 million gallons of polluted water was released into the water.
The requirement that diesel-powered vehicles in Bernalillo County get bi-annual emissions tests is just about gone. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board voted Wednesday night to kill the three-year-old program because it wasn’t authorized by state law. Now, the city’s Environmental Health Department will send the board’s decision to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for formal approval to end the program. The department’s deputy director, Danny Nevarez, said it shouldn’t take too long—maybe a few weeks—for the EPA to give that approval. In the meantime, owners of diesel-powered vehicles still have to get their vehicles tested until the program is officially junked, Nevarez said.