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Landmark New Mexico air pollution lawsuit will go to trial

WildEarth Guardians

A landmark lawsuit accusing the state of New Mexico of failing to prevent oil and gas pollution will now go to trial. A New Mexico judge Monday denied requests by various state agencies, the Legislature, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce to dismiss the case.

In his ruling, First Judicial District Court Judge Matthew Wilson agreed that there are “sufficient” facts for the case to move forward. Though, he was hesitant to rule that the New Mexico Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to a “beautiful and healthful environment.”

At its heart, the Atencio v. State of New Mexico lawsuit is the first to challenge the air pollution clause in the state’s constitution – arguing that efforts to increase oil and gas production violate the rights of all New Mexicans.

The state had argued in its motion to dismiss that the matter is a political one and should not fall to the courts.

Plaintiff Mario Atencio, who grew up in rural New Mexico, said he is very disappointed in the state’s response to their concerns, which include the impacts that fossil fuel extraction has on often poor, frontline communities.

“It’s essentially the whole state apparatus putting its head in the sand and saying: ‘There’s nothing else. There’s nothing going on out there. We’ve done enough,’” he said.

Oil and gas operations emit BTEX chemicals, like benzene, which can cause cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Other studies have found a connection between natural gas well activity and increased rates of birth defects. The Oil and Gas Threat Map shows tens of thousands of New Mexicans living within half a mile of oil and gas production sites, with disproportionate impacts on Native American and Hispanic residents.

The case has many implications, depending on its outcome, with plaintiffs seeking a complete halt to oil and gas permitting and sweeping fossil fuel policy reform.

Judge Wilson maintained that, regardless of the outcome, the state Legislature has absolute immunity from any liability under the New Mexico Civil Rights Act.

Julia Bernal, another plaintiff, said she is hopeful that the courts will rule in their favor. But, if not, she believes their fight still has value.

“If an outcome of this case outside of the courtroom is to speak to the story about historical legacies of extractivism and harm on traditional communities in New Mexico, then that will also serve its purpose,” she said.

In April, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office told KUNM that they do not comment on the specifics of pending litigation but that the state will defend itself “vigorously.”

Future hearings or trials in the case have not yet been scheduled.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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