As the attention of legislators and residents has focused on plans by a private company to store high-level commercial nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico, changes could be afoot in how transuranic waste from nuclear weapons is managed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP. On June 1, the state of New Mexico is scheduled to decide whether to approve a permit modification request from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Waste Partnership, the private company that operates WIPP. The modification to the permit would create new definitions—describing two different methods for reporting waste disposal volumes—within the permit. If accepted by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), it would remove all references to the original language—based on the federal Land Withdrawal Act—limiting the facility’s total disposal capacity to 6.2 million cubic feet. And it would allow the federal government to track waste differently than in the past.
On Wednesday, Gov. Susana Martinez signed the budget passed earlier this year by state legislators. But she refused to sign a bill that would have reinstated state tax credits for solar. That bill reinstated a tax credit that had expired after a decade, one that had spurred the deployment of 220 million BTUs per day of solar heating energy and 40 megawatts of solar electricity. The tax credit would have given people who install a solar thermal system or photovoltaic system at their home, business or farm a ten percent credit of the purchase and installation costs, up to $9,000. Previously, Martinez has praised the state’s “all of the above” energy resources, but by declining to sign the solar tax credit bill, she effectively vetoed it, but without having to explain why. This week, there’s an interesting water case before the Second District Court, over a private company’s plans to drill for groundwater in the Sandia Mountains.
The New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) Air Quality Bureau will host a hearing on Monday about proposed changes to construction permits for oil and gas facilities. The process kicked off in the summer of 2016, and the public comment period closed at the end of January. According to the department, the general construction permit codifies air protection rules for industry to “streamline the application process and to provide consistency in the oversight process.”
The issue is the latest in a line of moves that environmental groups say reverse protections for people and natural resources. Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs with the Environmental Defense Fund, said that if finalized, the changes would make New Mexico’s new oil and gas construction permits among the weakest in the United States. “This is especially egregious when you consider the methane hotspot in the San Juan Basin and the importance of that issue in New Mexico,” Goldstein said.
Last week, Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, an attorney with WildEarth Guardians, asked the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) to establish regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state. That board, whose members are appointed by the governor, is responsible for rules related to public health issues like air quality, food safety and hazardous waste. By a four-to-one vote, the EIB denied the petition Ruscavage-Barz brought on behalf of 28 New Mexico children and teens. But she’s hopeful that there’s room for a conversation with the New Mexico Environment Department, the agency that was moving forward with strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the impacts of climate change just six years ago. Ruscavage-Barz said the board encouraged the group to work with the state agency and other stakeholders and come up with an enforceable plan.
By 11 a.m. Central Time on Jan. 20—Inauguration Day—Ron Curry had cleared out of his Dallas office at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “You know when you walk in the door that if you serve the full term, you’re expected to walk out the door when the new president is inaugurated,” said Curry, who served as EPA’s Region 6 administrator for just over four years. “I’ve known all along that would be the case.”
Before his time with the EPA, Curry served as secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) under Gov. Bill Richardson. A political appointee, Curry left his positions knowing, in both cases, the incoming administrations had a bone to pick with environmental regulators.
Should we start off the weekly environmental news wrap up nice and easy? If you haven’t gotten out to the Rio Grande, including Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, to see the sandhill cranes, you might want to do that as soon as possible. The birds are starting their migrations north—and won’t be back to New Mexico until November. Now, for the rest of the news and some newly-released studies. There is a lot happening across New Mexico, especially when it comes to issues like nuclear facilities, state agencies and the Trump administration’s impact on rules and regulations.
The New Mexico Environment Department and its partners released their 2017 strategic plan for the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel leak in January. Over the course of decades, an estimated 24 million gallons of jet fuel leaked from storage tanks at the base. The leak was first detected in 1999. The strategic plan is only a “reference and planning document” and is not enforceable under any regulatory agencies. But it does include information that the public could find helpful, including conceptual diagrams of the leak, a map showing the locations of monitoring wells and drinking water wells and a timeline for cleanup.
Friday, we reported officials with the Village of Santa Clara were breathing a sigh of relief after the state deposited grant money into its bank account. That deposit occurred about a week after the New Mexico Environment Department said it would no longer accept invoices or reimbursement requests for a grant the village used to build a park. Santa Clara had received a grant under the state’s Recycling and Illegal Dumping Fund (RAID) program. The total reimbursement from NMED was $231,000, more than a third of the village’s annual budget. While NMED still hadn’t explained the letter to the press or officials, in a Silver City Daily Press story Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, is quoted saying NMED pulled the grant funding because of cuts in SB 113.
Last week, Santa Clara Village Clerk Sheila Hudman had a scare. She had submitted reimbursement requests to the New Mexico Environment Department for a grant the village had received last year. But instead of depositing money into the village’s bank account, the agency sent a troubling letter. In its letter, NMED said it would no longer accept invoices or requests for reimbursement for the grant. According to a story in the Silver City Daily Press on Monday, that Jan.
Last week, NM Political Report covered the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s temporary freeze on contracts and grants. When word hit the streets that the EPA was freezing new grants and contracts, the news sowed confusion among employees of the agency as well as those who receive the grants and contracts. Almost half the agency’s $8.6 billion budget in 2016 went to grants for states and nonprofits. On Monday, we followed up with EPA Region 6 director of external affairs David Gray. As of Monday, he wrote in an email, the EPA has completed its review of grant programs.
He added that all grants are “proceeding normally and nothing has been delayed.”
That includes environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants for states and tribes.