*Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from the Environment Department.
NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico’s Environment Department monitors and protects the state’s water, air, and land for all New Mexicans. And the department’s latest report shows just where the state is making progress and where more work needs to be done.
The state has made big steps towards environmental protection in recent months. For example, state workers and federal partners began cleanup on an asphalt spill in the Gila Forest. And the Environment Department has awarded $800,000 to local communities for recycling and illegal dump cleanups programs.
But the latest report shows there’s still work to be done in some areas. For example, some of the compliance inspections the Environment Department is tasked with carrying out aren’t getting done. And some of the inspections that are getting done reveal some permit holders aren’t following the rules.
For example, in the most recent reporting period (the second quarter of fiscal year 2023), the Environment Department inspected a little under 20% of the state’s restaurants and food manufacturers. And 4.5% were found to be in violation of the state’s rules.
The state’s Environment Department has been chronically understaffed. And the impact of that is reflected in the inspections. For example, in the most recent reporting period, the Environment Department only inspected 3.9% of potential air-pollution sources. And the department only inspected 5.6% of the state’s groundwater permittees, according to the report. Similarly, the state only inspected 4.3% of the ionizing and non-ionizing radiation sources in the state.
The Environment Department has set a staffing goal of having no more than a 6% monthly vacancy rate. But throughout the second half of 2022 (the latest available data), they hovered around a 21% vacancy rate, the latest report shows.
During the legislative session, lawmakers did give the Environment Department a slight budget boost. This year, their overall budget is expected to be 13% larger than last year, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. But Matthew Maez, a spokesperson for the department says the Environment Department still won’t be getting proper funding for staff.
The department “netted $175,000 for staff increases which is approximately two or three new employees,” Maez says. “Our budget increases from this past legislative session are funding a mandatory 6% state employee raise which is approximately $2.7M annually (which consumes the entirety of any budget increase).”
Maez says the funding and raises could help, but not solve, the staffing issue. To fill in the gaps, Maez says the department will raise permit fees and continue recruiting efforts. And as of February 2023, the department has made some progress in hiring, reducing the vacancy rate to 17.8%, Maez adds. Click here for the full report from the Environment Department.