ACTION ALERT! Why we need the Legislature to FULLY fund NM Departments

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Do you like eating fresh tortillas? How about some local salsa made right here in New Mexico? Of course, you do. But how do you know if it’s safe?

Well, that’s the job of a food safety inspector whose job is funded through the state’s New Mexico Environment Department. But for the last few years, about 2,000 New Mexico food preparation and manufacturing facilities have gone unchecked because underfunding from the Martinez administration led to unfilled health inspectors. 

Why is this important? Because right now the legislature is deciding on budget and staffing levels for key agencies that protect our public health and the environment. Fortunately, we have an excellent head start thanks to the leadership of our governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham. But without more public pressure, it might take several more years to make these agencies whole again. 

“Our ability to implement the mission of the Department – to protect public health and preserve our environment – is at stake,” said NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney. “The funding increase requested by Gov. Lujan Grisham recognizes the necessity of fully implementing the Department’s mission for all New Mexicans.”

More frightening are the missing inspectors around the oil and gas industry who protect our health from harmful emissions and protect our land and water from leaks and spills. According to the NMED Oil Conservation Division (OCD), HALF of its positions for inspectors is unfilled. And considering what just happened in Eddy County, it seems imperative that these positions be filled as soon as possible.

Penny Aucoin and her husband Carl George were awoken in the early hours of Tuesday morning by the sound of a loud pop and gushing water. 

“We went out and it was dark at 2:30 in the morning. But when we walked outside we were getting rained on and it smelled like gas — it smelled strongly of gas,” Aucoin said as she recounted the events of the night to NM Political Report. “I said, ‘Honey, where’s it coming from?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know!’ So he was using his flashlight on his phone trying to figure out where it was coming from.” 

The “rain,” it turned out, was produced water, a fluid byproduct of oil and gas extraction activities, spewing from a broken pipe across the street. The water pressure was so high in the pipe that the produced water rained down on the family’s home, livestock and yard a good 200 yards away. 

“It was going all over our yard and all over my animals,” Aucoin said, referring to her chickens and goat. “They were spooked, so they were all running everywhere. And I’m trying to shove them all into this little tiny chicken coop, to try to get them out from under it.” 

Aucoin said the wastewater poured from the pipe for an hour before the operator that owned the pipeline, WPX Energy, was able to shut it off. (our emphasis)

That’s a hard story to read by itself, knowing the people in the state who are supposed to be inspecting these things BEFORE they happen are severely underfunded and short-staffed. But Mr. George’s quote from another article about the explosion really might break your heart when you think about the LARGER impact that oil and gas has had in these communities during years without the proper oversight: “George said the formerly quiet, rural community where he lives with his wife and kids recently became surrounded by tank batteries, flare stacks and drilling rigs as operations grew. “At one point, I had 27 flares around me. It’s all around. There’s not enough oversight,” George said. “I’m not comfortable with it. I think I have to leave, and it’s just finding the way to do it. That’s the problem.”

So we know about the food inspectors and the oil and gas inspectors, but else is missing? Here’s a quick look at other key positions still needing to be filled: 

  • There are seven inspectors used to monitor up to 7,700 sources of air emissions across New Mexico, a ratio of about 1,100 sources per inspector.
  • The NM State Parks Division saw a 13.8 percent cut during the Martinez administration, while 72 full-time employee positions were eliminated, leaving the Parks Division with a 24 percent vacancy rate.
  • Educational programs at state parks were also cut by more than half since 2016, leading to a decline of almost one million visitors since 2016.
  • The Department of Game and Fish has averaged a vacancy rate of 14-22% since 2012, and in 2019 has a vacancy rate of 16%.

We’d be remiss to not mention that these stats largely came to light thanks to a report from our friends at NM Wild, so please go and check out that whole report to see how some of these vacancies have had negative impacts on the state beyond what we’ve pointed out. 

So, what can be done? Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has asked the legislature to increase funding for all these agencies we’ve been talking about so they can more fully operate as intended. So we just need to encourage our legislators to do just that, PASS THE GOVERNOR’S BUDGET! 

Call to Action:

  • On Tuesday, February 4, 2020, at 1:30 p.m., the Legislative Finance Committee will have a hearing on the NMED and EMNRD budgets. Please take a moment to call your representatives to tell them to fully fund the governor’s request for these budgets, NOT the Legislative Finance Committee recommendations, which are far too low.

We’ve worked hard to restore progressive leadership in the governor’s office and the Roundhouse, which trickles down to all state agencies that protect our health and the environment. With oil and gas money pouring in, legislators have no excuse not to fund Governor Lujan Grisham’s request. Please make your voice heard before February 4 to help recover lost ground for the sake of clean water, clean air, our children’s health and of course, yummy and safe tortillas.