El Paso Water will fight the $1.2 million fine issued to the utility by a New Mexico environmental regulator for pumping 1.1 billion gallons of sewage into the Rio Grande earlier this year.
Last week, the New Mexico Environment Department announced it was seeking fines from El Paso Water for the average 10-million gallons spilled daily from broken sewage pipelines on the Westside. The sewage was pumped into the riverbed near Courchesne Bridge east of Sunland Park, New Mexico. From that point, the river criss-crosses the Texas-New Mexico border for nearly two miles downstream.
In a written statement last week, New Mexico Environment Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said the El Paso utility violated New Mexico water laws because the spill was not reported to NMED. He said the agency was “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 denied NMED’s claims last week, and expanded on their rebuttal Tuesday.
In a written statement, El Paso CEO John Balliew said NMED’s press release, which contained information on sewage contamination and a call for the utility to submit remediation plans to New Mexico officials, required “public correction.”
“Given the serious nature of the emergency, we informed City Council last year that violations and enforcement actions are to be expected from regulators,” Balliew said. “What we didn’t expect was false and misleading claims from an organization with a public service mission.”
The utility reiterated in its own press release Tuesday that no drinking water wells were at risk of contamination in Sunland Park. An environmental review by contractor Arcadis, who was hired by El Paso Water, found “no fish kill, no bird kill, and no other wildlife that were harmed,” by the spill. In February, water quality tests showed no heavy metals or other toxins.
“The utility did find higher levels of E. coli, nitrogen, and phosphorus but there was no direct exposure of our residents to this water,” the El Paso Water release said.
The utility will counter the “inaccuracies” published from NMED by disputing the fine, said Ruben Rodriguez, El Paso Water’s environmental compliance manager.
“It was disappointing to learn that New Mexico would take this approach,” Rodriguez said. “We made sure that they knew about this early on,” adding that NMED was notified along with TCEQ in August.
El Paso Matters has filed a records request for those notifications.
Rodriguez said the utility emphasized public health in the spill and clean-up.
“When we get a press release from an outside agency, it makes it look as if we haven’t been trying or haven’t been doing,” Rodriguez said. “We have completed what they’re saying that we should do.”
Rodriguez said 71,000 tons of soil from the riverbed and surrounding floodplain was removed just before the June 3 arrival of Rio Grande water from Elephant Butte Reservoir.
El Paso Water does request permits for discharging treated wastewater into the Rio Grande from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), but does not have any permits from NMED.
“NMED does not necessarily have the authority to issue our permits,” Rodriguez said. “The EPA has not granted the delegated authority as they have with TCEQ.”
TCEQ has not yet completed its investigation into the spill and mitigation process, but Rodriguez said the agency “is on the tail end” of the inquiry, expecting results within the next few months.