New NM dairy industry regs may become focus of incoming Martinez administration

Dec 23, 2010

Albuquerque, NM – New regulations just established for the dairy industry in New Mexico may prove to be one of the first battles of the incoming administration of Governor-elect Susana Martinez. Martinez, in her campaign and after the election, spoke often about regulations in the state needing to be based on, in her words, "sound science". But as KUNM's Jim Williams reports, clean water advocates say rolling back these new regulations would be contradictory.

Williams: In 2009, the New Mexico dairy industry went to the state legislature and asked lawmakers to pass a bill that would clarify regulations for them. The bill required the New Mexico Environment Department to craft new regulations and get them approved by the state's Water Quality Control Commission. That approval happened on December 15th after many months of public hearings, scientific analysis, and input from environmental advocates and the dairy industry. Rachel Conn, with clean-water-advocacy organization Amigos Bravos, celebrated the decision.

Conn: This is the end of a long process, and we view it as a victory for clean water, and we think the regulations are long overdue.

Williams: The biggest change in regulations for dairy operators, as mandated by the state? Put a synthetic liner at the bottom of your manure ponds. Conn says that's overdue because of the amount of manure produced in the state.

Conn: Dairy cows in one county alone in New Mexico, which is Chavez County, produce as much waste as the human population of Los Angeles and Philadelphia combined. That's just in one county.

Williams: Indeed, dairy is big business in New Mexico. 2008 stats had 342,000 dairy cows in the state. KUNM's Kent Paterson wrote about the industry earlier this year for Frontera NorteSur, indicating that New Mexico-produced milk generated 1.35 billion dollars in 2008. The dairy industry has suffered in the recession along with most other businesses, and has seen layoffs. But the state's dairies have grown significantly over the past thirty years, both in number, and in size. And the resulting animal waste, Conn says, has polluted New Mexico's groundwater.

Conn: We believe that industry needs to be held accountable for this widespread contamination, and make sure that there's no further harm to our water and our communities.

Williams: Marci Leavitt is acting director of the groundwater quality division in the state Environment Department. She describes the dairy waste ponds as large depressions in the ground into which a sludge of manure and water flows from the dairy's milking parlor.

Leavitt: As the cows are being milked, there is wash water that rinses out these dairy barns and picks up whatever manure is on the floor of these dairy barns and washes it into the lagoon.

Williams: The issue, she says, is that the manure is high in nitrogen.

Leavitt: Nitrogen converts to nitrates, which is a health-based contaminant. So our job is to make sure that nitrate doesn't get into groundwater, because if people then pump nitrate out of the ground through their wells, that can make their children very sick.

Williams: There are two types of manure lagoons: in one, the sludge is pumped out and applied to nearby crops that absorb large amounts of nitrogen. In the other, the sludge simply sits and evaporates, and in some cases, is apparently leaking into the water table below. Leavitt says more than half of the dairies in New Mexico have contaminated groundwater beneath them. The dairy industry disputes contentions that it's polluting the water, and is opposed to the new synthetic liner mandate. Beverly Idsinga is director of the industry group Dairy Producers of New Mexico. She says many producers use clay liners in their manure pits, and says they work fine.

Idsinga: In some of the regions, clay lining is more acceptable, and we did have engineers come to testify on those, on behalf of that. I'm not an engineer myself, but the information they came out with seemed pretty sound to me. And if some of our producers think that that works better, that's what we're fighting for for them.

Williams: Leavitt disagrees with the idea that clay works as well as plastic.

Leavitt: Clay liners seep. You know, if you think of pouring water onto the clay on the ground, the clay allows that water to infiltrate into the ground. If you pour water onto a piece of plastic, then the water is held on top of the plastic.

Williams: In fact, she says, much of the Environment Department's case was based on the idea that clay seeps.

Leavitt: We provided days of scientific data, scientific evidence, to support our case. And any claims that these regulations are not based on sound science is just not true.

Williams: New regulations aside, Leavitt says the Environment Department has actually been requiring plastic liners for each new dairy permit for the past five or six years. The opposition to the plastic liners may be as much about cost as anything else. Beverly Idsinga says for producers currently using clay liners, it could cost them up to a quarter million dollars to put in synthetic liners. Another argument made by the industry has been that the permitting process has taken too long and been too unpredictable. Susana Martinez, when she was campaigning for governor, echoed those sentiments, saying that too often, regulations aren't based, in her words, in "sound science". Here she is just after the election, when KUNM asked her specifically about dairy regulations.

Martinez: Someone, for example, had just lined, with the latest newest regulatory lining of their lagoon, and four months later was told "the next time you come up for re-licensing, it's gonna cost you another million dollars because we've just changed the regulations on you." And it was four months old. And it's that changing, that constantly changing of regulations in mid-stream, that they couldn't predict anymore how long they could stay here. They were getting ready to, I mean they were very much considering going to another state where they knew the rules and how long they lasted.

Williams: Both Rachel Conn and Marcy Leavitt say the newly-passed regulations will eliminate that uncertainty. Here's Conn:

Conn: You know, this is sixty pages of specifics about what exactly is required and what isn't required. And I believe that this is a win-win situation in that it provides regulatory certainty for the industry and it provides protection for groundwater resources here.

Williams: Leavitt adds that the new regulations will allow the state to issue permits more quickly to industry.

Leavitt: It'll be a more cost-effective program for industry and for the state, and it makes sense to spell out in detail the types of requirements that would apply so that we don't have to argue every specific permit and waste time doing that rather than getting businesses the permits that they need to operate.

Williams: But when Leavitt says "we", she's referring to the Richardson Administration's version of groundwater quality division. Things are likely to change substantially when Martinez takes office. Just before the election, in an interview with KUNM, she gave some indication of where she might go with regard to environmental policy, in part by slamming Richardson.

Martinez: There's always something in return for the extreme decisions that are being made by this administration. If the science is what leads the decision, then great, that's where we should go. But if the science is being ignored, or there is a science that is meeting the standard and we go beyond that just for the sake of getting, giving favors to individuals

Williams: She didn't really finish that thought, but the insinuation seemed clear: political contributions were leading to environmental policy. And to be sure, Richardson had received substantial contributions from the environmental advocacy community. But when KUNM decided to check Martinez's contributions for the 2010 campaign, we found that the dairy industry, in the form of 44 different dairy operators, had given her nearly 50-thousand dollars. Her opponent, Democrat Diane Denish, got one contribution of 5 thousand dollars. Richardson didn't get a single contribution from the dairy industry in eight years. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Martinez spokesman Danny Diaz, in an e-mailed statement, said the new dairy regulations -quote- "unnecessarily drive up the cost of doing business in New Mexico and place an onerous burden on dairy farmers" -unquote-. He says the incoming administration is reviewing them and will make recommendations at the appropriate time. The Groundwater Quality Division's Marcy Leavitt says if the Martinez administration rolls back the dairy regulations, it will be returning to that time of uncertainty around permitting that Martinez, and the industry itself, have said they want to end.