May 15, 2017

Perry visits NM, Interior wants your opinions–and EPA reaches out to states on clean waters rule & coal ash

U.S. Department of the Interior, via flickr

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited public lands in Utah before the department's public comment period on national monuments began

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry traveled to New Mexico last week, visiting Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

The Los Alamos Daily Post reported the Perry, former governor of Texas, “praised the national labs as a whole and said every country should have at least one lab like the ones we have in the United States.”

Perry also said he was an “extension of the administration” when it comes to climate change:

“You’re going to see new ways … to use highly untechnical terms, we’re going to continue to throw some jello at the walls in different places and in different ways because from time to time, you’ll find answers to things you had no idea you were going to find solutions to,” he said.

Perry praised nuclear power, did not discount the possibility of expanded nuclear weapon production and said he was surprised by how little people know about the Energy Department.

In southern New Mexico, Perry toured the Energy Department’s Carlsbad Field Office and the underground nuclear waste repository.

According to the Carlsbad Current-Argus:

Perry said he envisions a renaissance in the country’s nuclear energy industry and acknowledged that WIPP will be an integral part of it.

“I would suggest that nuclear energy is going to be a very, very important part of making sure that we have a reasonable, safe, abundant and secure supply of energy going into the future that’s as clean as it can be,” Perry said to applause. “But if you don’t have a place to go with the byproduct, that’s going to stop all of those things.”

Currently, WIPP stores what’s called “transuranic waste,” which is from nuclear weapons production.

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway encouraged Perry to change how high-level and transuranic waste are characterized, calling the classification system “outdated.”

That way, high-level waste from nuclear reactors could be stored in New Mexico.

Our environment stories from last week:
Game & Fish silent on review that could cost state money
State approves contract change after Gila diversion plans shift again
Senate rejects repeal of methane waste rule
Clock ticking on congressional ‘disapproval’ of BLM methane waste rule

National Monument comment period open

We reported last week that the U.S. Department of the Interior was soliciting public comment on its review of the American Antiquities Act of 1906. Last month, the president signed an executive order director Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review national monument designations made under the act since 1996.

That review will encompass two monuments in New Mexico, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte.

That public comment period is now open at

From there, search for “DOI-2017-0002” or send comments via mail to Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240

According to the Durango Herald, on the closing day of its session, the Colorado State Legislature passed a resolution calling on the state’s congressional delegation to show their support for the 1906 act and the state’s national monuments.

Coal ash “flexibility”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told states it’s working on guidance for state programs that will allow “flexibility” in permits for the disposal of coal combustion residuals, a byproduct from coal-fired power plants, which is also called “coal ash.”

According to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt:

EPA continues to support the environmentally sound recycling of coal ash. Through the authority granted by Congress in the WIIN Act, EPA is issuing this guidance to promote the swift submission and review of state permit programs, make state and federal management of coal ash more consistent, and place enforcement in the hands of state regulators – those who best know the needs of local communities.

Currently, the only coal ash facility in the state that falls under the New Mexico Environment Department’s jurisdiction is at the Escalante Generating Station near Prewitt.

Coal ash from the San Juan Generating Station is redeposited into the mine and the Four Corners Power Plant is on the Navajo Nation.

Pruitt to guv’s: About those waters…

According to a story in The Hill, Pruitt is also asking governors for their “input and wisdom” on which bodies of water within their states should (and presumably, shouldn’t…) be regulated under the Clean Water Rule.

As we reported in March, the president signed an executive order—there sure have been a lot of those!—directing EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review the “Clean Water Rule” also known as the Waters of the U.S. Rule.

Under that 2015 rule, which applies to navigable waterways and their tributaries, a tributary doesn’t need to be a continuously flowing body of water. It just needs to have flowing water—marked by a bed, bank and high water mark—to warrant protection. The rule, for example, does not regulate ditches, puddles or farm ponds.

More than 90 percent of New Mexico’s tributaries are ephemeral or intermittent, and the rule would have restored federal protections to many of those.

Thirteen states, including New Mexico, sued to stop its implementation. At the time of Trump’s executive order, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio had delayed the rule from going into effect as the litigation proceeded. The two agencies in New Mexico that joined the suit were the New Mexico Environment Department and the Office of the State Engineer.

According to The Hill:

The Tuesday letter went to the governors of each state and U.S. territory.

“We believe this is an important step in the process prior to proposing regulations that may have implications on federalism,” Pruitt and Lamont wrote.

The February executive order asks the agencies to write their new rule in the framework laid out by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Rapanos v. United States, and Pruitt and Lamont told the states they are carrying out that mission.

Scalia said in a 2006 plurality opinion that the Clean Water Act should only cover waterways that are “relatively permanent.”

Get the lead off (your clothing)

We’ve reported about lead levels in children here in Mexico, and also Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s reversal of a rule that would have expanded the use of nontoxic ammunition and fishing gear on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands.

The overturned rule was meant to protect waterfowl and other birds and wildlife from discarded lead shot and tackle. Dust from lead bullets also harms people who train at firing ranges or are recreational shooters.

A study published last month shows that women and children are among recreational shooters at special risk from exposure. According to the study:

Thus firing ranges, regardless of type and user classification, currently constitute a significant and unmanaged public health problem. Prevention includes clothing changed after shooting, behavioural modifications such as banning of smoking and eating at firing ranges, improved ventilation systems and oversight of indoor ranges, and development of airflow systems at outdoor ranges. Eliminating lead dust risk at firing ranges requires primary prevention and using lead-free primers and lead-free bullets.

There are between 16,000 and 18,000 indoor firing ranges in the United States. Shooting ranges can also be found on public lands, including New Mexico’s. Just south of Golden, for example, people use U.S. Bureau of Reclamation lands for target shooting.

One last thing on the EPA

The agency just awarded more than $215,000 to the New Mexico Environment Department to support the state’s water pollution control program.

In 2016, New Mexico received more than $36 million from the EPA. According to the U.S. government’s spending map, a large percentage of that money—more than $18 million—went to the New Mexico Environment Department.

Coming changes

If you read all the way to the end of this post, it probably means you care about news related to New Mexico’s waters, wildlife, public lands and communities. Starting next week, we’ll be running this weekly wrap up on Wednesdays instead of Mondays. As always, send news stories, relevant studies and links to or CC me on a Tweet: @LauraPaskus

EPA letter to Susana Martinez by New Mexico Political Report on Scribd

Update: We clarified and added some more details to the section on coal ash facilities in New Mexico.