NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – From examining potentially leaking oil tanks to inspecting hazardous waste facilities, New Mexico’s Environment Department is tasked with making sure a range of potentially dangerous pollution doesn’t make its way into our air, water, and soil. But the latest progress report from the agency shows that the department is having a hard time completing a range of inspections.
“We’re always trying to increase the inspection numbers,” James Kenney, the cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, told KRQE News 13. “Setting a permit out there and never checking on it does not mean the environment is protected or public health is protected.”
The latest report puts it this way: “Regulatory compliance is essential to protect the environment and prevent harm to human health,” the report from June 2022 says. “Inspections are a valuable tool for NMED [the Environment Department] to determine whether regulated entities are in compliance with applicable laws, rules or permits.”
Those inspections include checking for air pollution at industrial facilities, inspecting groundwater well permits, keeping tabs on hazardous waste facilities and radiation-emitting sources, looking for leaks in septic systems, and making sure New Mexico’s lakes and rivers don’t get contaminated. But the agency’s latest report shows that some of those inspection programs have only been able to inspect less than 10% of emission sources and permit holders.
“I think we should be concerned about it as a state,” Kenney told KRQE News 13. “Southeast New Mexico, has now gotten federal attention, and the feds are going to say, in all likelihood, that New Mexico does not meet ambient air quality standards. In other words: our air has degraded.”
Part of the reason, he says, is that the Environment Department just doesn’t have the budget and the staff to enforce existing and new regulations. Kenney says they haven’t had enough inspection staff or legal and technical staff to hold polluters accountable.
“Not only do we have low inspection numbers, but where we have violations, we have even less people working to bring that polluter back into compliance,” Kenney says. “That’s going to perpetuate the cycle of degrading air quality.”
Over the first three quarters of the 2022 fiscal year (July 2021 through March 2022,) the department was only able to inspect only about 9% of emissions sources for air pollution. The department’s goal was to inspect 50% of emission sources by July 1, 2022. The final numbers won’t be released for a few more weeks, but it looks like the department didn’t reach their air quality inspection goal. And other inspection programs fell short as well.
The department was only able to inspect 8.2% of all radiation machines they’re tasked with ensuring are in proper order during the first three quarters of fiscal year 2022. This includes radiation machines in hospitals. The Environmental Department is supposed to ensure that the machines are used properly, but two-thirds of the way through the reporting period, the department hadn’t reached 10% of their inspection goal.
Similar shortcomings occurred in the realm of groundwater inspections and solid waste management facility inspections, according to the report. But some inspections are being done.
The Environmental Department has had a relatively high inspection rate for septic systems and surface water permits. The department did meet its goal for inspections of hazardous waste facilities, they’ve made progress on other projects as well, such as investing millions of dollars in water infrastructure across the state, the report notes. Kenney says using technology, such as aerial surveillance, has helped offset staff shortages to some extent.
Still, Kenney says it will take a big budget hike to get all of the state and federally mandated inspections done, to ensure New Mexico’s environment is preserved. More funding is something the Governor asked for during budget surplus and the 2022 legislative session. But Kenney says the majority of the funds were never approved by the Legislature.
“We are limited in our ability to protect communities equally around New Mexico because of funding,” Kenney says. “But I’m always optimistic that the Legislature will see the value of our department.”
The department, which is authorized to employ about 700 workers, has been operating with a shortage of more than 100 workers, according to their third quarter report. Those who’ve left the Environmental Department recently cite issues such as “frustration over compensation” and a workload that’s too high given the pay, the report notes.
Kenney says they’re actively hiring — or at least trying to. And they have been able to decrease the time it takes to get jobs filled.