In New Mexico and across the country, emissions from the oil and gas industry are closely monitored and drinking water is regularly tested to make sure it is safe. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is rolling back some of the regulations that ensure such protections – a move that went unnoticed by many as communities respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
KUNM spoke with longtime environmental reporter Laura Paskus of New Mexico PBS to find out what this means for the state.
LAURA PASKUS: On the 26th of March, reporters received an email from the US Environmental Protection Agency saying that because of the ongoing pandemic, it was putting in place a new policy that would allow regulated industries –and that can be power plant, oil and gas, industry military installations – to be doing some self-reporting and self-regulating.
KUNM: Do you have any information on why they decided to roll this back?
PASKUS: Like every agency and company and family in the world right now, the agency employees are largely working from home. There are limitations on what people can actually be doing right now. But given the Trump administration's track record, this does seem like a pretty concerning move, especially because the seven-page memo that explains what this policy is does not explain exactly when it will be rescinded and how enforcement will be returned to normal. I was able to trade some emails with a spokesman at EPA, but the questions that were most important in my mind were not answered. And the regulators are certainly overextended. People within their communities are supposed to be staying home, not out trying to track down whether facilities are polluting in their communities. It's a really distressing moment in time, obviously. I've been a little bit obsessed thinking about this even since the story published, and trying to think about what this could mean for New Mexico and, you know, for everyplace around the country. And the scariest part is we won't know what the impacts are until down the road. We won't know what pollution may have occurred that affects the environment, groundwater, public health, so many of these issues of pollution are potentially long-term problems. So, it's really important to be vigilant right now.
KUNM: Everyone has issues on their plate just for their own survival and may not have a lot of time or headspace to engage with the environmental rules and decisions. Can there be government transparency during a public health emergency?
PASKUS: That is such a good question, and that transparency is so important, so that someday we will get through this, and we need to be able to look back and find out what was happening. That transparency is hugely, hugely important, now more than ever.
KUNM: To you, does this feel like a sneaky way to kind of slip things by the public?
PASKUS: It does. Also, this email came out on March 26. The policy is retroactive to March 13, and the regulators and tribal regulators were not notified of this policy ahead of time. They didn't have input into it. They were finding out about it as reporters were calling and asking what's going on. The federal government is not even being transparent with its state and tribal partners.
KUNM: Have you seen any sort of community response? A virtual response? Anything?
PASKUS: That the conservation community has certainly tried to push back, amplifying news about this issue. But gosh, you know, people are just strapped. I'm very fortunate. My family is healthy. I still have a job. And yet in my day-to-day life, I know I certainly am not monitoring what's happening in my community with respect to pollution. We rely on these government agencies to enforce regulations. Congress believed enough in clean air and clean water back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We knew this was important. This is the country that we had wanted: one with clean water and clean air.
This is an excerpt from a longer interview that originally aired on our daily show Your NM Government. Catch it every weeknight at 7:30 p.m. here on KUNM, or subscribe to it wherever you get your podcasts.
Your NM Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter.
KUNM reporter Bryce Dix contributed to this report.