On Monday, April 6, the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission expressed support for a settlement between the Citizens Dairy Coalition (which includes the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter), the dairy industry, the New Mexico Attorney General and the New Mexico Environment Department that retains some of the protections of our state’s current, unenforced Dairy Rule. The commission will vote on the new rule at its May meeting in Santa Fe.
The agreement is far less threatening to our drinking water than the industry’s original proposed amendments. This compromise retains baseline protections through the regular testing of groundwater from monitor wells and contains contingencies to implement additional groundwater-protection measures if dairies pollute groundwater.
“Because the Environment Department has not been enforcing our current groundwater protections, and many dairies are operating without a discharge permit, this agreement is an improvement on the status quo,” Lorimier said.
Citizens Coalition attorney Jon Block of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center approached attorneys for the industry group to initiate settlement discussions about six days before the hearing. The Coalition offered changes to the industry-proposed amendments that became the basis of the settlement. The Citizens Dairy Coaltion includes the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, Amigos Bravos and citizens who live near dairies.
“This agreement, while offering more flexibility to both the industry and the Environment Department in permitting requirements, retains a system for monitor wells to provide early detection of groundwater pollution. Dairies will still be held responsible for cleaning up pollution they cause,” said Dan Lorimier of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter.
Under the settlement, dairies would be allowed to use clay liners on the lagoons that hold waste. Clay liners have been shown to be less effective than synthetic liners at keeping dairy waste from leaching into groundwater, but if monitoring wells show that the clay liners are not working, the dairies will have to switch to synthetic liners.
The average New Mexico industrial dairy, or confined animal feeding operation, holds more than 2,000 cows and produces more waste daily than a small city. But unlike municipalities, dairies don’t treat their waste – they dump it into lagoons to evaporate or be sprayed over fields.
“More than half of New Mexico dairies have contaminated our groundwater in excess of standards, and dozens are in abatement. Nine out of 10 New Mexicans rely on groundwater for their drinking water, so our families’ health depends on holding these operations accountable.”
In 2009, the New Mexico Legislature passed a law requiring creation of a groundwater rule for the dairy industry that specifies the measures to be taken to prevent water pollution and monitor water quality.
In 2010, after months of stakeholder input and hearings, the Water Quality Control Commission passed a strong set of water protections.
As her first act in office in January 2011, Gov. Susana Martinez issued an executive order attempting to block the dairy rule from being published. It was later revealed in an email that dairy-industry lobbyist Walter Bradley said dairy lobbyists had written the executive order.
The state Supreme Court reversed this illegal action. Soon after, the dairy industry agreed to enter settlement talks on the rule provisions. After many concessions by the coalition that includes residents living near dairies, clean-water advocates and community groups, all parties agreed to a less-protective rule that was passed by the commission in 2011.
But a little over a year later the dairy industry came back once again and, after closed-door meetings with the Environment Department, initiated yet another rulemaking to redo the rules and dismantle groundwater protection and monitoring requirements that all parties agreed to in 2011.
Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn subsequently decided not to enforce the current rule in anticipation of the redo. The Environment Department then held closed-door meetings where the public was barred from open discussions of the proposed rule changes with the dairy industry.
Featured photo by CAFNR