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NMED agrees to more public involvement in permitting process

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The New Mexico Environment Department recently released new policies on public participation in its permitting process, but some community groups are concerned there was no public participation involved in creating them.

“I can’t imagine anything more ironic,” Deborah Reade, research director of Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping (CARD), said in a news release sent along with three other groups. “While these policies are supposed to be designed to protect communities most directly impacted by the potentially adverse environmental effects of such facilities, NMED closed the door to all public input when drafting these policies.”

NMED in late February released three new policies covering public participation, limited English proficiency and non-employee disability as part of an informal resolution agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The January 2017 agreement was reached after CARD and other groups filed a complaint in 2002 that claimed NMED’s public participation process, namely during the permitting process and decision to permit southeast New Mexico’s Triassic Park Hazardous Waste Facility, violated federal civil rights laws.

NMED admitted no fault through the agreement, which states, “NMED understands that meaningful public involvement consists of informing, consulting and working with potentially affected and affected communities at various stages of the environmental decision-making process to address their needs.”

The alleged violations included insufficient access to translation and interpretation services for Spanish speakers in the affected area.

NMED general counsel Jennifer Hower said the department denied requests from CARD to participate in drafting the new policies as outside groups are not permitted to assist in internal policymaking.

NMED has also recently hired a full-time translation and interpretation manager.

But Reade and others throughout the state still feel the new policies are inadequate.

The policy’s definition of “vital documents” that should be translated is too vague, said Lindsay Olsen of Yale Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic, which represents CARD.

Another issue Olsen identified is the four-mile radius around affected sites that would be preliminarily screened to form a Public Involvement Plan, which would include translation services and other outreach efforts.

The groups also contend that the NMED has proceeded with 200 public processes since the agreement and that “none of these processes has complied with the provisions of the agreement.”

“Development and implementation of the policies throughout our 21 Field Offices and 14 Bureaus was not instantaneous – however public outreach continues as we work to thoroughly integrate the enhanced best practices that flow from the new policies,” NMED spokeswoman Allison Scott Majure said in an email.

Hower said the “strong” definition of vital documents was taken directly from the EPA.

The policies also allow for flexibility in determining the area around sites to be used in creating a Public Involvement Plan, Hower said.

“Because of New Mexico’s vast and varied topography and populations, the above parameters are subject to revision,” the policy states.

Hower said the department does provide adequate accommodations for Spanish speakers but still views the agreement and new policies as opportunities for improvement.

“We wanted to make sure they were really strong policies,” Hower said. “We didn’t decide to do these policies just to get rid of the complaint. We did this because it was the right thing to do.”

CARD sued the EPA in 2015 for an unreasonable delay in dealing with the complaint.

The EPA is mandated with completing investigations of civil rights complaints within 180 days.

That lawsuit is pending.