February 16, 2017

Republicans block bill criminalizing false water quality data

Christopher W. Moriarty


Cloudy, brown and rank water flowed from the taps of homes in the northwest corner of New Mexico.

Some of those who drank it say they became nauseous. They complained of cramps, headaches and diarrhea. Thousands of people were told to boil their water to guard against illness. Farmington-area residents whose homes are hooked up to the Animas Valley Water system said the water also damaged their water heaters, washing machines and clothes.

Trust was wrecked, too, because the New Mexico Environment Department said the company for months had provided state regulators false information from water-quality tests. Despite the outcry over what became a public health concern for nearly 7,000 people, it was not a crime under New Mexico law for the company to falsify its water-quality information.

And a bill that would have made it a felony for public water systems to lie to the state Environment Department was blocked Thursday by Republicans on the House of Representatives. Some sections of the oil and gas industry had opposed the measure, taking their concerns to Republican lawmakers.

Republican Rep. James Strickler, who represents the Animas Valley Water’s service area, and his GOP colleagues lined up to block the bill in 6-6 votes that kept if from advancing.

Democrats accused Republicans of sweeping public safety aside to protect special interests, depicting the bill as one that would have made consumers safer.

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“We’ve seen environmental crises in Flint, Michigan, but we’ve also seen it much closer to home in Carlsbad, Ruidoso and other areas of New Mexico,” said Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces. “How far will the GOP go in denying the destruction of our land and water systems before they put their communities over their special interests?”

Republicans countered that the bill was too vague and could leave low-level staff at water systems responsible for the wrongdoing of administrators.

An irony was that the bill was sponsored by a Republican, Rep. Kelly Fajardo of Belen, and it had the backing of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s Environment Department.

Under Fajardo’s House Bill 371, the owner or staff of a public water system could be charged with a felony for falsifying reports to the Environment Department, tampering with monitoring devices or concealing information. The bill would have gone a step further than previous proposals that only called for civil penalties, such as fines.

The original draft would have applied to anyone with a liquid waste permit. But Fajardo scrapped that provision because of what she said were concerns from some in the oil and gas industry.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said it did not have a position on the bill, but the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico fought some sections.

Executive Director Karin Foster said after the hearing that the association opposes creating criminal penalties for violations of environmental laws.

Stephanie Stringer, chief of the department’s Drinking Water Bureau, told members of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Committee that, although such cases are not common, some water companies have reported false data to regulators in recent years.

Pointing to Animas Valley Water as an example, Stringer said there are cases in which water systems have reported false data to regulators and argued the state should have more than administrative options such as fines and suspensions to punish wrongdoers.

“Any time anyone lies to a regulating entity, there is potential for a threat to public health,” Stringer said.

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