State leaders need to end retreat on pollution - Albuquerque Journal

State leaders need to end retreat on pollution

New Mexico’s children need clean air, water and soil. Our economy depends on our protected public lands and our ample recreational opportunities. But as a recent report points out, New Mexico’s environment has unaddressed environmental problems that threaten our health. As political races heat up, the public needs to let candidates know that strong environmental protections are supported by voters across the spectrum.

The report, Enchantment at Risk, published by the Environmental Defense Fund, details how New Mexicans are being negatively impacted by polluted air, water that doesn’t meet drinking water standards and all of the impacts of climate change, including wildfires, drying lands and desiccated rivers.

The challenge of environmental protection has been compounded by a retreat by state and federal political leaders. The Trump administration has opened national monuments to energy development, withdrawn our commitment to the world to reduce global warming, allowed dangerous pesticides to remain on the market, and on and on. Gov. Susana Martinez cut New Mexico’s Environment Department budget more than 20 percent shortly after taking office and has kept it flat since. The agency, and the Oil, Conservation Division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, have not stepped up in light of federal retrenchment, unlike other states and cities.

Make no mistake, New Mexico has real environmental threats. Twenty-four million gallons of jet fuel – double the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 – has been estimated to have leaked from pipes at Kirtland Air Force Base into aquifers in Albuquerque. Los Alamos County’s water supply is jeopardized by tens of thousands of pounds of highly carcinogenic hexavalent chromium leaking from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The state identified 60 ongoing groundwater cleanup projects in February of last year.

Unfortunately, our state currently lacks the political will, or in some cases even the basic tools, to hold polluters accountable. Because of a case decided by our state Supreme Court, the state’s main oil and gas regulator can’t even levy administrative fines against oil and gas polluters. And the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association is advocating to weaken air safeguards for methane, federal rules that protect New Mexicans from pollution and ensure that our natural gas resources are not wasted. Not to mention that this pollution is fueling climate change – which is already affecting our state in the form of droughts and fires.

New Mexico is home to 16 priority Superfund sites, where careful cleanup is needed to keep toxic chemicals like lead, mercury, arsenic and dioxin from poisoning our water and soil. And we have a backlog of more than 830 leaking underground storage tanks, which threaten to foul drinking water with oil, gas, benzene and toluene. Indeed, more than 1,100 of New Mexico’s water systems received safety violation notices between 2004 and 2016 – an average of 50 per system.

Given all these growing threats, it’s discouraging that Gov. Martinez and our other leaders have not been doing more to protect our health. New Mexico’s Environment Department has taken dramatic budget cuts under her leadership, and she has proposed some of the weakest oil and gas air-quality standards in the nation. And she joined a handful of states suing to keep the national Clean Water Act from applying to smaller waterways that feed larger bodies of water.

For many years, industries in New Mexico argued that regulations would destroy our economy. After all these years, and with the examples of other states that have protected their water and air, it seems pretty dated to make these arguments. Regulation, done properly, can stimulate technical innovation among industries, bringing about lower-cost pollution controls. Indeed, taking environmental costs into account can even be a win-win, lowering pollution and providing additional revenue for industries. So, why not let everyone regulate themselves? It sounds good, but we have experience with this route. There are companies that control their waste, but others flout the social contract and pollute until required to stop. It’s not surprising that oil and gas interests argue against regulation, but we’ve seen the result of failing to regulate.

It’s time for New Mexico’s leaders to protect our children’s health and our families’ futures, beginning with full funding for the state’s Environment Department. The state’s capacity to levy effective fines against oil and gas polluters must be restored. We need policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change and create effective safeguards for methane, and we need to stand up for a functioning federal EPA that will help protect New Mexico’s health and environment.

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