ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Earlier this year, KRQE News 13 revealed that the state’s Environment Department is having a hard time keeping up with regulatory inspections. Now, new numbers from the department reveal that everything from OSHA inspections to groundwater permits often go unchecked for years.

“We don’t have the staff that New Mexicans think we have to do what they hope we’re doing, which is assuring compliance,” New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney told legislators in a recent budget hearing. What this means is that businesses subject inspections, regulations adopted by state boards and commissions, and permits issued by the
Environment Department go largely unchecked for years, according to the a recent department report.

The lack of staff impacts a range of inspection programs throughout the state. One is the Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) inspection program.

“We [New Mexico] have approximately 20 occupational fatalities a year,” Kenney said. “It would take us 24 years to get to all those facilities to look for those hazards.”

A recent report shows that there are 5,670 facilities to inspect per every single OSHA inspector at the Environment Department. And other inspection programs face a similar problem.

When it comes to petroleum storage tanks (which are supposed to be inspected to ensure they aren’t contaminating groundwater), there are 4,346 tanks across the state, but only two staff members working on tank inspections, according to the Environment Department. And those two only dedicate half of their working time to inspections. Meaning that if they were able to inspect a tank a day, it would take over nine years to do all inspections.

Last year, the state of New Mexico ranked last in terms of petroleum tank inspections compared to other states. At the time, Bruce Thomson, a civil engineering professor at UNM who was on the state’s Petroleum Storage Tank Committee in the 1990s and late 2000s gave a warning: “The Environment Department does need to stay on top of this, because if they become too lax, you know, there’s always the risk that someone will take advantage of the lack of oversight, and we’ll have some problems in the future.”

The Environment Department chalked up some of the issues last year to the pandemic. But the latest data shows that staffing now seems to be the greatest challenge. And that’s true for preventing groundwater and air pollution as well.

At current staffing levels, it would take 6.5 years for the department to visit all air quality permittees releasing emissions into the air. And it would take 2.5 years for the department to inspect all those discharging waste and industrial water back into the ground, according to the Environment Department.

Like many government departments, the Environmental Department has been trying to boost staffing. They say they have seen some progress.

“We are the most progressive department in state government right now with recruitment and retention,” Kenney says. “That’s paying off.” Kenney told legislators that they are seeing more people wanting to work for the department. And their agency-wide vacancy rate is about 22%, which is better than some government agencies, such as the Department of Health, which has a 30% vacancy rate.

Still, if the department is to check the thousands of regulated workplaces, the thousands of petroleum tanks across the state, and monitor the 6,698 miles of perennial streams and lakes around New Mexico, they need more staff.

In a recent legislative hearing, legislators raised the question of pay as a means of staffing the Environment Department. Kenney responded by applauding state legislators for passing a 7% pay raise for state employees in 2022. But he said he didn’t get funding from the legislature to cover the roughly $4.5 million in salary increases that 7% translates to. He says legislators and the Governor gave the department less than a quarter of that, meaning the Environment Department had to divert federal funds and state revenue funds to pay for the raises.

“If the legislature is going to increase state salaries, we would ask that you do that in a way that you appropriate the full amount,” Kenney fired back to legislators.

One legislator asked why some inspection staff only do inspections part time. Kenney explained that for the most part, there’s no legal requirement from the state for the Environment Department to do inspections within a set time. But there is a statutory requirement for the department to issue permits for various activities. So, issuing permits takes up a lot of the department’s time at the expense of completing inspections, Kenney says.