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AP New Mexico

Gallup battles state on new requirements for wastewater discharge

The Rio Puerco, New Mexico, flood on Aug. 5, 2010. (Jared Tarbell via Wikimedia Commons)
Gallup relies on groundwater for drinking water

The city of Gallup has been allowed to discharge 12.5 million gallons of treated wastewater per day into the Rio Puerco since 1996. But this year, to protect groundwater, the state’s issued a number of new conditions that the city is trying to fight.

The Water Quality Control Commission decided on Tuesday to review the requirements and issue a decision in the coming months.

Gallup is entirely reliant on groundwater for its drinking water, according to a 2020 engineering survey. About 78% of New Mexicans do the same, according to the state Environment Department.

The New Mexico Environment Department issued an updated version of the decades-old permit on Aug. 11. Gallup has problems with three requirements in the permit, calling them unnecessary and difficult – if not impossible – to meet:

  • Plugging and replacing monitoring wells that are used to observe and collect data for groundwater.
  • Installing new monitoring wells by early February 2023.
  • Quarterly arsenic testing.

In 2012, NMED’s Ground Water Quality Bureau used a study conducted by Gallup’s engineer to verify that the city was following permit standards, according to attorneys. The state used the same study when drafting the 2022 permit renewal, they said, but this time, the bureau determined that the wells weren’t made correctly to begin with.

So the state would require Gallup to stop using three monitoring wells on the basis that they weren’t constructed correctly, and to replace them instead. Keith Herrmann, a lawyer representing the city, said plugging old wells and then building new ones would require too many resources and take too much time.

Gallup’s lawyers also argued that this deviation from past standards without justification calls other past approved permits into question. Herrmann said NMED must at least provide evidence for why different results were reached based on the same 2012 study.

Chris Atencio, representing the state, didn’t respond to this point during the meeting and said it should be discussed in the future.

“The department’s not making any admissions as to whether its decision was right or wrong,” Atencio said. “Merely, that is the subject of a permit review and should be properly considered after formal briefing.”

The city is also fighting the mandate to temporarily test for arsenic every quarter on the basis that the testing isn’t needed and would cost too much.

Arsenic isn’t present in sewage from the Gallup Wastewater Treatment Facility, according to DePauli Engineering, and is more likely coming from a different local source. The Ground Water Quality Bureau agreed in August that arsenic might be coming from somewhere else, Gallup’s attorneys pointed out, so the bureau allowed that testing would happen for only a limited period of time if no arsenic is found above certain levels.

But any testing at all “will be costly and burdensome,” the city argued, and the state should find the actual source of the arsenic instead. Herrmann said it would be a misappropriation of public funds and hurt the city financially to test for arsenic.

Deadlines approach

NMED is requiring that Gallup install new monitoring wells by early February, but Herrmann said COVID-caused supply-chain problems “make compliance with the conditions difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.” The city is seeking at least a year to build the wells.

Overall, Herrmann said the state didn’t take into account how burdensome many of the requirements are.

Gallup, like the state, wants to protect its groundwater, he added.

“The city would note that its interests and the interests of the Water Quality Control Commission and NMED are aligned,” Herrmann said. “The city of Gallup is highly reliant on groundwater and is greatly concerned about any impact that could potentially be there.”

While the permit is being reviewed, the deadlines are drawing nearer.

Due to scheduling conflicts, NMED and Gallup’s attorneys agreed to extend the hearing process. However, that could mean some of the deadlines might pass before the permit review is complete.

Gallup requested a pause on these requirements. The permit renewal process took six years to complete, so another few weeks of waiting shouldn’t be an issue, Herrmann argued.

But commissioners said the state’s Environment Department would be likely to grant a pause, and so Gallup’s lawyers should seek one from the state first.

Atencio agreed that the Ground Water Quality Bureau would likely extend the 180-day deadline to install new monitoring wells but couldn’t confirm whether the arsenic-testing requirement would also be given a new deadline or temporarily halted.

The city’s attorneys also asked the Water Quality Control Commission to redirect the issue to the NMED so the two could work together directly without having to go through the commission.

But the commission can only send cases elsewhere if there wasn’t an opportunity for comment and response about disputes. Commissioners voted to keep the case on their plate.

Source NM is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. To read more, go to https://sourcenm.com.