February 5, 2023

Committee tables bill to expand ONRT’s authority to pursue damages following contamination

Cannon AFB courtesy photo: VIRIN: 101010-F-YG475-003.JPG

PFAS chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016.

An effort to expand the state’s Natural Resources Trustee ability to sue companies that pollute New Mexico’s land and water failed to make it past its first committee despite significant changes made in a committee substitute.

While the Office of the Natural Resources Trustee can pursue damages in court when waters are polluted, this does not apply to all types of contaminants. For instance, the ONRT does not have the ability to pursue damages if PFAS contaminates groundwater or if an oil or gas spill contaminates water that is not considered waters of the United States.

HB 91, sponsored by Democratic representatives Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces and Tara Lujan of Santa Fe, would have changed that. 

The legislation was tabled in the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Saturday on a 5-3 vote. Rep. Cynthia Borrego, D-Albuquerque, crossed party lines and voted with the Republicans to table the legislation.

The vote came after industry lobbyists spoke against it and urged the committee not to pass it. Some of the opponents expressed concerns that the legislation could open them up to potential “NIMBY lawsuits.” NIMBY is an acronym standing for “not in my backyard.”

A representative from the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce called HB 91 duplicative and said it would result in more litigation and regulation.

Since its creation, the Office of the Natural Resources Trustee has brought $45 million into New Mexico that has been used in more than 50 restoration projects related to past contamination.

Related: Proposal would use $566K in settlement funds for ABCWUA wastewater outfall project

Last year, the office announced four projects in northwest New Mexico would receive funding from a settlement related to the Gold King Mine spill of 2015 that sent heavy metal contaminated water into the Animas River in Colorado that later reached New Mexico.

In 2011, the office reached a settlement with a copper mining company for water contamination related to the Chino, Tyrone and Cobre mines.