Wednesday, October 24, 2007
NMED Sues to Keep Report Closed
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
The New Mexico Environment Department has gone to court to prevent the release of a consultant's report about the possibility of waste leaking from a Sandia National Laboratories landfill.
A lawsuit filed Friday in state court in Santa Fe argues that the report should be exempt from New Mexico's Inspection of Public Records Acts under a constitutional "executive privilege."
The Albuquerque-based group Citizen Action asked for a copy of the report, done for the state by the consulting firm TechLaw last year about the possibility that waste could leak from the Sandia landfill.
The Attorney General's Office ruled last week that the document should be public under New Mexico law. But the state Environment Department disagrees, said department attorney Tannis Fox.
Activists, led by Citizen Action, want the waste in Sandia's Mixed Waste Landfill dug up and moved to a safer place because of fears that it could leak and contaminate groundwater. The Environment Department has ruled that the risk of a leak is low enough that the waste can be left where it is.
The TechLaw report evaluated a study done by Sandia on the long-term risk of landfill leaks.
Fox said the report was used as one of the foundations for a later decision by NMED on the landfill, and that it therefore should be considered a part of the executive branch agency's internal deliberations, which she said should be exempt from public disclosure.
The Attorney General's Office disagreed. "When it was received and used by the Department," its ruling said, "the report fit squarely within the definition of public record."
David McCoy, head of Citizen Action, accused NMED of a "coverup" for refusing to release the document. "A court decision to grant the Environment Department executive privilege to withhold the document could set a precedent that would have a chilling effect on the public's ability to monitor government agencies throughout New Mexico," he said in a statement issued Tuesday.
Fox said releasing the document would set a dangerous precedent. "There's an important principle," she said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, "and that's executive privilege."