Clean water regulators at the brink — Changes to the Clean Water Act spell trouble for New Mexico

Earlier this year, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its proposal to dismantle significant portions of the Clean Water Act. Historic federal protections for some rivers and streams and wetlands will no longer be there — essentially allowing polluters to dump untold amounts of waste into our waterways unless state provisions stop them.

The decision could generate unknown repercussions to waterways across the country, and perhaps no state is more vulnerable than New Mexico.

The reason? New Mexico has very few surface water protections of its own, which means without federal standards, the state is facing an uphill battle to develop the tools it needs in order to step in and prevent polluters from contaminating water.

Rebecca Roose, director of the New Mexico Environment Department Water Protection Division, recently said, “We don’t have the staffing we need for our groundwater permits that are in place right now, let alone to cover the gaps created by the rule replacement.”

And the “gaps” created by the administration’s rollbacks are huge. According to NMED, as much as 96% of New Mexico waterways may no longer be subject to pollution protections. The Santa Fe New Mexican recently called EPA’s plan “devastating.”

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There’s never a good time to abolish clean water standards — but this is an exceptionally risky period for New Mexico due to another water issue already turning heads in the state.

The issue is dirty oilfield wastewater.

The state is currently one of the nation’s largest oil producers, and every barrel of oil pulled from the ground carries with it up to seven times as much wastewater. This wastewater is salty, and can contain hundreds of chemicals, from heavy metals to toxic organics and radionuclides. Despite these concerns, some in the state are eager to repurpose this water for irrigation and other needs, including treating and discharging it to surface waters. Unleashing this wastewater in new areas is extremely risky because we don’t know enough about it today to set protective standards for its treatment or release.

So, how should New Mexico, a state that’s already facing major new challenges when it comes to clean water protections, juggle this additional test without putting resources at risk? EDF has three recommendations.

Re-balance the budget

To meet these challenges, New Mexico needs resources. Statewide there are only six water quality inspectors responsible for enforcing clean water standards. And yet, under the last administration, Gov. Susana Martinez slashed 20% of the NMED’s budget — one of the largest cuts anywhere in the country. Similarly, the division that oversees the oil and gas industry lost a third of its budget.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made great strides in her first year in office to chart a better environmental course for New Mexico. Her administration should seize the opportunity to right this funding wrong and rebalance the equation. Fully funding NMED and the Oil Conservation Division is vital to securing the resources needed to keep pollution in check.

Fill the data gaps

We know far too little about the oil industry’s wastewater to say it is clean enough to be used for anything other than oil and gas production. EDF researchers recently identified nearly 1,200 different chemicals that could be present in this water — over half have never been studied for health or safety and 86% lack the type of toxicity data needed for an agency to do a risk assessment and set a water quality standard.

What’s more, we only have accepted tools to detect and monitor about 25% of these chemicals. As a result, without more research, it’s virtually impossible today to establish permissive reuse or discharge permitting programs that we know for sure will keep dangerous pollutants at bay.

New Mexico State University recently launched a Produced Water Research Consortium tasked by the NMED with finding out some of these very things and EDF has joined as a member. This is a promising step in the right direction — putting research before regulations. But the group must make sure it asks the right questions and is transparent about what they learn in the process. Rushing to decisions without doing the homework could do more harm than good in the long haul.

Update the rules

Once (but not before) the science is sound, New Mexico will need to implement its own standards to address various options being considered for oil and gas wastewater reuse. They will need to do this for surface water (to make up for the protections EPA is removing) and they’ll need updated rules to protect groundwater from potential reuse practices like irrigation or aquifer recharge. Right now, there are 47 pollutants that are limited to protect the state’s groundwater and human health. About 72% have been detected in the industry’s wastewater. Over half of the time, those chemicals are present at levels that would violate those standards before treatment. Not to mention the 1000 plus chemicals that simply aren’t covered by those standards at all.

Developing and modifying pollution standards takes significant work and time. We need all stakeholders — potentially impacted communities, energy companies, researchers, regulators and environmentalists — to work together to solve these challenges before the state really considers taking on these new permitting programs. Otherwise, we risk creating a multitude of new ones.

Make no mistake about it. The loss of historic clean water protections is going to be a challenge for New Mexico, and the state is going to have to step up in a big way to protect its surface waters and wetlands. That’s why New Mexico should exercise real caution before opening the door to additional risks from oil and gas wastewater reuse and discharge. And that means investing time, investing in people and investing in new research to make smart decisions.

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