New Mexico joins multidistrict litigation against firefighting foam manufacturers for PFAS contamination

The state of New Mexico has joined a multidistrict litigation against the manufacturers of the aqueous film-forming foams that were used in firefighting activities across the country and in Air Force Bases in New Mexico which led to groundwater contamination. 

A U.S. judicial panel earlier this year flagged the state’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense over the contamination for inclusion in the multidistrict tort proceeding, which encompasses roughly 500 pending cases related to PFAS contamination. The litigation will be heard in a U.S. District Court in South Carolina. “That’s a recent development,” said Chris Atencio, Assistant General Counsel at the New Mexico Environment Department. “We’ve gone through that process and our case is now included in that. We’re working with our council, the Attorney General’s office and folks internally to try to evaluate the requirements of that process and how best to proceed.

COVID-19 stopped some LANL environmental monitoring

The state’s public health order prompted by COVID-19 has stopped some monitoring on whether and how much Los Alamos National Laboratory is releasing radioactive materials, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals into the surrounding air and water. The Department of Energy Oversight Bureau with the New Mexico Environment Department tests air, water, vegetation, and wildlife for signs of legacy waste near LANL, but COVID-19 restrictions stopped that sample collection beginning March 13. The Bureau of Hazardous Waste monitors use, storage, and movement of radioactive and hazardous waste from the lab, including the project slowing the spread of chromium-6, a carcinogen, from lab property into the water supply for Los Alamos County and San Ildefonso Pueblo, and says that project was also put on hold. While answering written questions from the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, the LANL Legacy Cleanup Technical Working Group disclosed that N3B, which manages the legacy cleanup contract for the Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management and Los Alamos Field Office, stopped collecting water samples in March. The state is working with LANL to develop guidelines on masks, gloves, and distance to resume sampling.

Ranchers, researchers mull using treated produced water for irrigation

John Norris is worried about where he’s going to get water in the future. Norris is a rancher in southeast New Mexico, where he runs calf-cow and yearling operations. 

“Our water comes from the Ogallala [aquifer]. We’re basically mining this water, whenever it’s gone our water source is going to be gone,” Norris said, adding that in drought years his fields dry up and the grass doesn’t grow. 

“Water is the lifeblood of what we do. It’s very important to me to look for a new water source for the future to be sustainable,” he said. “Sometimes we need just a little bit of water to make it through.”

Related: Amid groundwater declines, water data gains importance

There’s a chance Norris could someday use recycled produced water to help irrigate his ranchland. 

Produced water is an abundant wastewater byproduct of oil and gas extraction activities, including fracking.

Groups call on legislators to cap environmental budget cuts at 3 percent

As state legislators convene in Santa Fe for a special session to tackle the budget, environmental groups are asking lawmakers to limit cuts to the state’s environmental regulatory agency budgets to 3 percent. 

A group of 28 organizations, ranging from conservation and wildlife advocates to renewable energy proponents, sent a letter to members of the state Senate Finance Committee and the state House Financial Affairs Committee last week. 

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) — the state’s two main environmental regulatory departments — each saw their respective budgets erode during the Susana Martinez administration. 

NMED’s general fund was cut by 32 percent between fiscal years (FY) 2012 and 2019, which was the last fiscal year budget passed by the legislature in 2018 before Martinez left office, according to a report released by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. EMNRD saw its budget drop roughly 24 percent under the Martinez administration between fiscal years 2012 and 2019. 

In Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first budget proposal for FY2020, NMED’s general fund increased 6 percent compared to FY2019, while EMNRD saw a 9 percent increase in fiscal year 2020 over 2019. The departments saw similar increases in the FY2021 budget, which goes into effect on July 1 and will be amended during the special session due to the COVID-19 caused economic slowdown and dropping oil and gas prices. 

“The 2021 budget saw about a 7 percent increase for those agencies from 2020,” said Ben Shelton, policy and political director at Conservation New Mexico, and who coordinated the letter. “What we’re trying to do is hold that reduction in increase as low as possible.”  

While the recent budget increases are steps in the right direction, the departments’ budgets are still much lower than they were at the end of Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration in 2011. 

“These guys got cuts in the Martinez administration where they got cut below what they needed to do the minimum of their jobs — particularly EMNRD,” Shelton said. 

Both departments are suffering from high vacancy rates as a result. NMED has a 19 percent vacancy rate, with only seven inspectors in charge of monitoring 7,700 air emitting sources, two inspectors in charge of monitoring 700 groundwater sources, and seven inspectors for monitoring nearly 3,000 hazardous waste sources. 

EMNRD’s Oil Conservation District (OCD), which regulates oil and gas activities in the state, had its budget decline 26 percent under the Martinez administration. The OCD is responsible for oil and gas regulatory activities ranging from permitting new wells, inspecting abandoned wells, ensuring compliance with permits, and enforcing the state’s oil and gas rules.

State suspends permits of restaurants that defied public health

The state suspended the food service permits for two restaurants that defied the state’s public health order and allowed dine-in service. The state Environment Department made the announced Friday afternoon. The two restaurants are Jalisco Cafe in Silver City and Anaheim Jacks in Ruidoso. The department cited a portion of the Food Service and Sanitation Act that states, the department can suspend a license if “conditions within a food service establishment present a substantial danger of illness, serious physical harm or death to consumers who might patronize the food service establishment.”

The restaurants can appeal the decision. If the restaurants continue to serve food, the department warned that they could legally pursue civil penalties in state district court of $500 per person.

New Mexico joins multistate coalition asking for preliminary injunction on Clean Water rule

New Mexico joined Tuesday a coalition of 16 states, the City of New York and the District of Columbia that are asking a federal court to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new clean water rule from going into effect while it awaits a decision in an earlier lawsuit against the rule. 

Attorney General Hector Balderas joined the coalition in filing a lawsuit May 1 against the Trump Administration in the federal Northern California District Court over the EPA’s recently finalized changes to the “Waters of the U.S.” definitions in the Clean Water Act regulations. 

The definition greatly narrows the types of waterways, streams and wetlands that are afforded federal protection under the act. The New Mexico Environment Department estimates the new rule would remove protections for 89 percent of the state’s streams and half of its wetlands. RELATED: Ranchers, conservation groups unhappy with the new clean water rule, but for different reasons

The rule is slated to take effect in June, spurring the multistate coalition to ask for a preliminary injunction that asks that the rule be enjoined until the court makes a decision on the coalition’s lawsuit “in order to prevent widespread harm to national water quality and to avoid disruption to state and local water pollution control programs,” according to a statement issued by the AG’s office. 

In a separate statement, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said NMED will do “whatever it takes to prevail in protecting our most precious resource.”

“We will not allow a rule to take effect this summer that will devastate New Mexico’s scarce and limited water resources,” Kenney said. NMED submitted comments on the rule in April, arguing that the new rule is “not based on hydrologic science” and “does not account for the impacts of climate change on the hydrologic cycle,” and said the new rule is not protective of public health or the environment.

Wastewater, wastewater everywhere: In the Permian Basin, a new kind of boom

CARLSBAD — In the Permian Basin, now the most prolific oil field in the world, hundreds of miles of plastic pipelines snake along dirt roads, drilling pads and the edges of farm fields. But they are not carrying oil. Instead, they’re transporting an equally precious commodity in this arid region straddling the New Mexico-Texas border: water. 

“Pipelines are going in everywhere,” said Jim Davis as he drove a camouflage-hued, four-wheeled ATV across his land toward the water station he owns. Selling the water beneath his property to oil and gas companies has given Davis and his wife, who has cancer, a financial security that eluded them for most of their lives. Every day, a steady stream of water trucks flows in and out of his station south of Carlsbad, filling up on his high-quality freshwater — an essential ingredient for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. 

Davis, whose property has been in his family since 1953, says he’s never seen so much water moving around the basin.

NMED discovers more potential methane emission violations

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) announced more possible emission violations produced by oil and gas operations around the state. The department said it acquired video footage collected by citizens using forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras documenting methane and other air contaminants. NMED believes the emissions depicted in the video footage are “potential violations of existing state permits or regulations,” the department said in a statement. RELATED: NMED issues first round of violation notices for methane emissions in Permian Basin

NMED is sending written notices to oil and gas operators about the emissions. Oil and gas producers will have 14 days to correct the issues.

NMED issues first round of violation notices for methane emissions in Permian Basin

The New Mexico Environment Department issued notices of violation to two oil and gas producers operating in southeastern New Mexico. Matador Production Company and Mewbourne Oil Company were both cited for violating the state’s Air Quality Control Act. NMED discovered the violations during an inspection conducted in April alongside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The violations included failure to capture emissions from storage vessels, failure to maintain pilot lights on flares, failure to comply with closed vent system requirements and failure to ensure natural gas is captured and not emitted to the atmosphere. The EPA also cited the two companies for violating the federal Clean Air Act.

Guv, NMED speak out against Trump administration’s EPA methane regulation rollbacks

The New Mexico Environment Department and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham strongly oppose the EPA’s proposal to roll back regulations for methane and other emissions from the oil and gas industry. The EPA proposed removing some regulations covering methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from transmission and storage sources and processing and production operations. The proposed rule changes will “save the industry millions of dollars in compliance costs each year,” the EPA said, “while maintaining health and environmental regulations on oil and gas sources that the agency considers appropriate.”

RELATED: While state grapples with new methane rules, EPA wants to end some methane emissions limits all together

NMED Secretary James Kenney submitted comments in opposition to the proposal to the EPA Thursday night. Kenney argued the proposed rule “preempts state law while imposing significant burdens upon state environmental agencies.”

“The proposed revisions will significantly degrade air quality and adversely impact public health throughout the U.S., including the State of New Mexico,” Kenney said.  

Kenny’s comments came after the EPA held a hearing on the proposal in Dallas last week. Several residents from New Mexico testified at the hearing, as did a representative of NMED.