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NM needs to fully fund its environmental agencies

New Mexico is blessed with abundant natural resources that support important segments of our economy, including the mining and the oil and gas industries. Unfortunately, New Mexico has also struggled to protect the health of New Mexicans from the pollution and other adverse impacts that go along with these sectors.

According to federal data, residents of New Mexico’s counties with greatest oil and gas activity – Lea, Eddy and San Juan – are at a high risk of cancer due to the releases of toxic air pollutants. Residents in San Juan County are also at high risk of breathing illnesses such as asthma. On Navajo lands within New Mexico, high levels of lung cancer have long been associated with uranium mining and toxic metals contamination.

One simple step that our state can take to protect public health is to fully fund the agencies charged with enforcing our health and safety laws. Over the past decade we have starved our environment and natural resources departments. They simply can’t hire enough skilled workers to ensure that our laws are followed.

Our air and water should be protected by the New Mexico Environment Department, but the agency’s budget was cut by over 30% during the (Gov. Susana) Martinez administration. The Department lost over 60 employee positions in the past decade. The cuts place NMED in the top 10 of state environment departments experiencing funding losses. Now seven inspectors are charged with monitoring over 7,000 sources of air pollution, ranging from power plants to oil and gas wells. Less than five full-time staff are tasked with ensuring safe drinking water in over 1,000 water systems.

The Martinez administration similarly cut the budget of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department by nearly 25%. Today there aren’t enough inspectors to ensure that safety rules for oil and gas drilling and waste disposal are being followed. The agency is increasing the number of oil and gas permits it grants in response to the boom, but the number of sites it is able to inspect has decreased. A lack of staffing also slows down permitting time for developers.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham proposed a budget that would significantly increase funding to these and other natural resource agencies. These proposed funding increases are significant and critical, but they don’t even go as far as matching prior levels of funding when adjusted for inflation.

On Feb. 4, the House passed a budget that includes some funding increases for these agencies, but it doesn’t meet the levels requested by the governor. The House budget would leave the state’s Environment Department $4.7 million short of the governor’s request, substantially below prior funding levels. The House budget would also leave EMNRD short when all funding sources are considered.

We urge the state Senate to work with the House to pass a budget that provides the full level of funding requested by the governor. Much of this year’s budget surplus comes from the boom in oil and gas. It’s only fair that as the state allows greater oil and gas drilling, it also ensures we have the people and resources to safeguard the health and safety of New Mexicans impacted by these activities.

Cliff Villa, a native New Mexican, spent over 20 years in public service and presently teaches environmental law at the University of New Mexico School of Law. Gabe Pacyniak is also a law professor in the school’s Natural Resources and Environmental Law Program.

 

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