Environmental advocates say the ozone precursor pollutant rule developed by the New Mexico Environment Department should be strengthened, while supporters of the oil and natural gas industry say the draft rule is too restrictive and the costs of retrofitting equipment could lead to wells being plugged. Organizations on both sides had the opportunity to present arguments and answer questions during a two-week-long Environmental Improvement Board hearing that ended Friday. Ozone pollution is caused when volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen react in the presence of sunlight. This can be seen in the form of smog. Several New Mexico counties are pushing federal National Ambient Air Quality standards for ozone and, if the counties go into non-attainment status, they could lose access to federal funding for infrastructure projects such as roads.
Jeremy Nichols, director of WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program, is concerned about the air people are breathing in southeastern New Mexico. Nichols tracks ozone levels in Eddy and Lea counties, the state’s top oil producing counties in the Permian Basin. In early July, a key ambient air quality monitor near Carlsbad was abruptly shut down, after a monitoring station operator noticed the A/C unit at the site wasn’t working properly and the facility was getting too hot for the electronics. Nichols is worried about the incident because the monitor in question had recorded ozone levels in that area exceeding the federal standards before it was shut off. Now, it’s not reporting any data on air quality in the Carlsbad area. “It basically means that people are not getting any information on the quality of the air they breathe,” he said.
A state department has fined the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority more than $144,000 for several violations, the most serious of which is over the exposure of multiple employees to a toxic chemical. In May, New Mexico Occupational Safety and Health Bureau (OSHA) found 44 violations by the Water Authority after six months of investigation. More than a third of the dollar figure for the fines comes from exposing employees to hazardous levels of ozone, a toxic gas that at high levels can cause serious respiratory problems and trigger asthma attacks. Ozone is one of the many chemicals used to purify drinking water at the Water Treatment Plant in Albuquerque. OSHA classifies the ozone violation as “willful-serious,” noting that the Water Authority “was aware that there were no [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-certified] respirators for ozone” and instead allowed its employees to use air-purifying respirators.