January 2016

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center’s Top 10 Issues to Watch in 2016


There are a lot of environmental issues on which New Mexicans will focus in 2016—drilling near Chaco Canyon, coal-fired power plants and wildlife issues to name a few—but here are the top 10 issues that the attorneys at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) will focus on in the new year:

1) New Mexico Copper Rule. This Martínez-era regulation, written by the Freeport-McMoRan copper company, allows all copper mines in New Mexico to pollute groundwater above water-quality standards. The Supreme Court is currently considering challenges by the NMELC and its clients, Amigos Bravos and the Gila Resources Information Project, as well as the state attorney general. The NMELC anticipates that the Supreme Court will hand down a ruling in this major precedent-setting case later this year.

2) Santolina sprawl. In 2015, the Bernalillo County Commission gave its first level of approval for Santolina, a 90,000-person development on the western edge of Albuquerque. If built today, it would be the third-largest city in New Mexico. Even so, developers haven’t proven its water resources, developed meaningful school or transportation plans, or effectively rebutted arguments that Bernalillo and Albuquerque residents will have to foot a hefty portion of the bill to pay for infrastructure. The NMELC and some of its clients—Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), New Mexico Health Equity Working Group and Pajarito Village Association—have challenged the decision in court and expect a decision from state District Court this year.

3) Continued push for clean air in all of Albuquerque’s neighborhoods. Albuquerque has great air quality—except where it doesn’t: the South Valley, the North Valley and downtown; that is, neighborhoods that are predominantly Hispanic and lower-income. With mounting evidence that air pollution is linked to poor health and even learning disorders and violent crime, it is time that this issue get resolved. Through both local and federal actions, the NMELC is working with SWOP to ensure that regulators enforce the New Mexico Air Quality Act equitably so that everyone can breathe easily.

4) Uranium mining on Mount Taylor. With proposed oil and gas drilling near Chaco Canyon and a giant methane cloud hanging over the Four Corners area, Native communities continue to grapple with the negative impacts of extractive industries. One industry that continues to hold out hope for a renaissance is the uranium-mining industry: Look for continued resistance from grassroots organizations like the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE) and the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) as they fight permits for mines on Mount Taylor, as well as in Navajo communities.

5) Los Alamos National Laboratory. Managerial issues are not the only problems plaguing Los Alamos National Lab. It also continues to fail to clean up groundwater contamination. If the Lab’s legacy waste is not effectively addressed—and soon—experts estimate that contamination will hit the Río Grande within a decade. That’s why groups like the NMELC, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Tewa Women United will continue to fight in 2016 for better regulation and better cleanup.

6) Kirtland AFB jet-fuel spill. Albuquerque also has its share of federal groundwater contamination. The spill, which leaked 6–24 million gallons of toxic fuel into the ground (depending upon which source you read), threatens the city’s Ridgecrest area drinking-water well field. After years of inaction followed by a year of slow action (only one extraction well was brought online before Christmas 2015), the NMELC and SWOP could no longer stand by. They plan to file a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force in February, in hopes that a federal judge will require the adoption of enforceable goals and deadlines.

7) Return of New Mexico’s most highly contested water grab. The Office of the State Engineer is considering a third application from Italian billionaire Bruno Modena to speculatively appropriate more than 17 billion gallons of water every year—more than half of what Albuquerque used in 2013. The billionaire has already pulled his first two applications, but we’ll have to see if the third time’s the charm under State Engineer Tom Blaine. The NMELC will continue to represent nearly 100 residents of west-central New Mexico in their bid to keep water in the public trust in this hugely important water case.

8) Continued push by New Mexicans to gain international recognition of the “human right to water.” Communities of color and low-income communities across the United States grapple with lack of access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation. One example in New Mexico is the Red Water Pond Road community, a Navajo community north of Gallup, where residents are being asked to choose between living in a community surrounded by mountains of radioactive waste left from Cold War-era uranium mining or moving to a site that has breathable air but no water. The NMELC and its client, the Red Water Pond Road Community Association, will keep fighting for a tenable solution to this untenable problem.

9) Legislative efforts to preempt local control over the environment. You may be familiar with the Santa Fe Oil and Gas Ordinance or similar county-level ordinances that put common-sense protections in place to protect human health and welfare, as well as the environment. Those types of protections have been under attack by state legislators and their industrial allies for years, and the NMELC anticipates that 2016 will be no exception. Make sure to keep your eyes open for alerts from the NMELC and Conservation Voters New Mexico for all the environmental updates from the Roundhouse this session.

10) Regulatory cheerleading. In 2016, you’ll probably continue to see state regulatory agencies whose leaders act like cheerleaders for the industries they regulate. From oil and gas to hardrock mining to coal-fired power plants to wildlife management, officials in the Martínez administration have failed to be the regulators we need them to be for today and future generations. Rest assured, however, that New Mexico has a mighty crop of community advocates and environmental organizations that keep the pressure on them to do the right thing for our state and its people.


The New Mexico Environmental Law Center, founded in 1987, is a nonprofit environmental law firm whose attorneys provide free and low-cost legal representation to concerned residents, grassroots organizations and local/tribal governments across the state. Find more information at nmelc.org




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