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New Mexico Senate passes environmental protection bill

Clouds flow over the Sandia Mountains toward the Elena Gallegos Picnic Area. New Mexico lawmakers this month are considering new stricter environmental regulations. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico could set more stringent air quality and hazardous waste regulations than the federal government under legislation approved Friday by the state Senate.

The proposal, Senate Bill 8, will head next to the House with about a week left in the session.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the legislation would allow New Mexico to craft its own regulations tailored to local conditions, such as contaminants found in groundwater near Cannon Air Force Base.

“This bill is about states’ rights,” he said. “I think that it’s important for our state to be in a position to protect our air, protect our water.”

The legislation passed the Senate on a 23-15 vote, largely along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

The bill would amend the state’s air quality and hazardous waste laws to allow the state – or local agencies, in some cases – to establish rules more strict than federal regulations.

Republican legislators said the state should either stick with federal standards or go even further toward local control by allowing each county to choose either state or federal laws. They said the proposal could hamper the oil and gas production that fills state coffers with revenue.

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, said the proposed law could “be manipulated to shut down anything the governor wants to shut down, not just this governor, but any governor in the future.”

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said counties should have the right to opt out.

“I trust the county commission of Lea County to know what’s best for Lea County more than I trust the bureaucrats in Santa Fe,” Pirtle said.

Wirth, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the proposal has adequate “guardrails” that will ensure any departures from the federal standard are justified and well-vetted.

Debate on the bill was delayed by a procedural maneuver by some Senate Republicans. Earlier this session, they had placed a “call” on the item, a move that requires every senator to be present for the debate.

The motion is sometimes used to delay action if a legislator is absent or hard to track down immediately.

But senators lifted the call Friday afternoon, allowing debate to move forward. The bill was passed about two hours later.

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