New Mexico state environment officials are seeking $1.2 million in fines from El Paso Water, saying the utility’s dumping of 1.1 billion gallons of raw sewage into the Rio Grande near Sunland Park last year violated state laws.
In a Thursday news release, New Mexico Environment Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said the utility never formally reported the spill to New Mexico officials, violating New Mexico’s water quality laws.
“El Paso Water’s flagrant disregard for the health and welfare of New Mexicans in Sunland is astonishing,” Kenney said. “We are holding this polluter accountable for their malfeasance and will not stop doing so until the damage is corrected and El Paso Water can assure the New Mexico Environment Department such a discharge will not happen again.”
El Paso Water disputes the New Mexico Environment Department allegations.
“There was no adverse impact to the public health or the environment,” the utility said in a statement. “We are currently reviewing the Administrative Compliance Orders issued by the New Mexico Environment Department and will take any necessary and appropriate actions.”
El Paso Water first began diverting up to 10 million gallons of untreated sewage daily into the Rio Grande riverbed in August 2021, after a dual set of corroded steel wastewater mains on the Westside broke after heavy rains. At the time, utility officials said the riverbed was the only channel large enough to hold the sewage produced by 17,500 West El Paso households.
The sewage was discharged near Courchesne Bridge east of Sunland Park, New Mexico, and flowed down 1.9 miles of New Mexico-Texas border.
The utility stopped dumping sewage into the riverbed in early January, after expediting a replacement of a fiberglass replacement pipeline.
In its statement, El Paso Water noted that its efforts to quickly replace the broken pipeline and subsequently clean up the riverbed have been done “in coordination with state and federal regulatory agencies” including the Environment Protection Agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the New Mexico Environment Department.
El Paso Water spokesperson Denise Parra said the utility finished removing more than 70,000 tons of contaminated soils from the riverbed on June 3, just as irrigation water was flowing from Elephant Butte Reservoir downstream into El Paso.
The TCEQ, the state regulatory agency, is conducting its own investigation into the spill. There have been no findings or fines released yet, and TCEQ officials did not immediately respond to emails requesting comments on that investigation’s progress.
In addition to the $1,284,375 fine, New Mexico officials said El Paso Water will be required to submit corrective action plans to the New Mexico Environment Department and also “assess potential future impacts to the health and environment.”
El Paso Water can request a hearing to challenge the fine.