by Douglas Meiklejohn

The departure of Ryan Flynn from the position of secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department gives the governor an opportunity to do the right thing: appoint a secretary who will carry out the mission of the department.

Published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on August 6, 2016.

Set by the State Environmental Improvement Act, the mission of the Environment Department is to “ensure an environment that in the greatest possible measure will confer optimum health, safety, comfort and economic and social well-being on its inhabitants.” As an organization that provides pro bono legal services for protection of environmental resources and communities that depend upon those resources, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center urges the governor to appoint a new secretary who will follow this mandate.

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center and other community and environmental organizations recognize that the Environment Department secretary will not always agree with their points of view, and they do not expect that there will always be such agreement. On the other hand, those organizations do expect they will be provided with opportunities to participate in proceedings that affect their interests and the interests of their clients, and that the evidence and arguments that they present in those proceedings will be taken as the law requires. Previous secretaries, such as Judith Espinoza and Ron Curry, were able to afford this consideration to community and environmental groups as well as to industry interests, and the governor should appoint a new secretary who also will do so.

The appointment of such a secretary would be a dramatic change from Flynn because the statutory mission of the department is not the mission that he pursued during his tenure. Contrary to the statement from the Governor’s Office, Flynn’s approach was to favor industrial interests even when they conflicted with the department’s mandate to protect the environment.

One example of this approach was Flynn’s advocacy for the Copper Rule that governs pollution of the state’s most precious resource, groundwater, by copper mining companies. (Approximately 90 percent of New Mexicans obtain their drinking water from groundwater.) Before the Copper Rule was adopted, the Environment Department required that groundwater that was not already polluted be protected essentially anywhere it was located.

That approach was consistent with the State Water Quality Act, which was designed to prevent and abate water pollution. The adoption of the Copper Rule, in accordance with the urging of Flynn’s Environment Department, changed that by authorizing all copper mines to pollute the groundwater beneath their facilities beyond the state’s human health and other groundwater quality standards.

And the amount of groundwater that is affected by this authorization is staggering. The area under which groundwater has already been contaminated by Freeport-McMoRan’s Tyrone copper mine in Grant County has been estimated to cover 9 square miles. The area under all of the Freeport-McMoRan copper mines in Grant County in which groundwater contamination would be allowed has been estimated at 20,000 acres.

A second feature of Flynn’s tenure has been to restrict the ability of members of the public to participate in Environment Department decision-making proceedings and, in some cases, to prohibit the members of the public from taking part in those proceedings at all. This has happened in situations involving permits for various facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory, even though the law clearly indicates that such participation is to be allowed.

We urge Gov. Susana Martinez to appoint an Environment Department secretary who will welcome public participation, promote transparency, balance interests and protect our state’s resources for the future.

Douglas Meiklejohn is executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.