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Environment officials ask state authorities to look into Southern NM utility

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Environment officials ask state authorities to look into Southern NM utility

Apr 02, 2024 | 5:20 am ET
By Danielle Prokop
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Environment officials ask state authorities to look into Southern NM utility
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NMED issued a notice of violation saying the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority failed to inform the agency or the public that all three arsenic treatment plants were bypassed and offline for a year, meaning that water with 'high levels of arsenic' were sent to customers. (Danielle Prokop/Source NM)

New Mexico state agencies are taking a closer look at the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority at the request of environmental regulators.

The state’s top environmental official penned a letter recently requesting the state’s top prosecutor and auditor investigate the southern New Mexico utility for “potential violations of consumer protection laws, and possible waste, fraud and abuse,” of public money.

In the March 14 letter, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said the agency has been in negotiations over years on issues, including the utility’s violations of arsenic levels in drinking water.

“NMED is aware of millions of dollars that CRRUA has received to achieve mandated arsenic levels, yet the arsenic issues persist,” Kenney wrote.

The New Mexico Department of Justice is “actively investigating,” spokeswoman Lauren Rodriguez told Source NM Monday but provided no additional details beyond a response letter acknowledging Kenney’s complaint.

The department highlighted $4.2 million in federal loans the state passed to the utility. Lawmakers also granted $100,000 in capital outlay for the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority to replace a water well in 2023.

In December, regulators said the utility had “intentionally” diverted water from three of its four treatment plants, allowing water untreated for arsenic to go to the public. The utility failed to tell the public or state regulators about the bypass, and sent water with “high levels of arsenic” that violated state and federal safety standards for more than a year, according to the state agency.

Arsenic naturally occurs in high levels in the region, but if consumed over time, even in very small amounts, can pose greater risks of diseases such as diabetes, cancers, and can contribute to heart and lung diseases and skin problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

NMED: Water utility in Doña Ana Co. sent customers ‘high levels of arsenic’ in their tap water

“Despite the significant funding made available to CRRUA, NMED’s concerns include a complete disregard for consumer protections and lack of accountability related to proper use of this funding to protect public health,” the letter stated.

In response to questions from Source New Mexico, the New Mexico State Auditor’s Office issued a written statement that acknowledged it received the letter and said the agency had referred the request to the Special Investigations Division, to review if any action should be taken. Christopher Hall, the assistant general counsel at the agency, said that the auditor has not received additional complaints about CRRUA.

In late November, a cascade of water-quality incidents triggered concerns about the long-term safety of the water for the 19,000 people living in the border communities of Santa Teresa and Sunland Park. It started with a “do not drink” order the utility issued over high-alkaline water sent to homes.

The utility’s then-executive director told Source NM he was aware there were concerns with the water days before telling the public.

Executive Director Brent Westmoreland abruptly quit – calling it a retirement in subsequent interviews – after the board did not renew his contract.

An investigation into the water quality incident culminated in a 132-page report that environmental officials released in December, reporting the utility had “systemic failures by management.” This included sending drinking water with arsenic to customers.

State officials say Doña Ana Co. water had ‘systemic failures by management’

Neither members of the utility’s board nor the interim executive director John Carlos Crosby gave interviews, instead the utility issued a written statement in response to Source NM questions.

“We at CRRUA face ongoing criticism and negativity and understand that customers are sometimes unhappy and frustrated. But I want to assure them that we have made many improvements and continue to move forward in providing reliable service and quality water,” said Crosby. “What we were handed did not occur overnight and cannot be fixed overnight. But we continue to achieve positive results and we thank our customers for their patience and understanding.”

The written statement emphasized the utility was making progress in addressing the 58 significant deficiencies, by pointing to a checklist of the violations it has addressed published on the utility’s website. It also highlighted its posts on social media, including a YouTube video on arsenic treatment.

Board Chair Susana Chaparro, who is also a Doña Ana County Commissioner, requested additional funding for the utility.

“We’re proud of our achievements and ongoing improvements at CRRUA since the new administration began in January,” Chaparro said. “This is a perfect opportunity for our state and federal elected officials to help our constituents by supporting CRRUA’s efforts in spirit and with funding,” Chaparro said.

Both said the utility will “fully cooperate with any investigation to the greatest extent possible.”

The utility has contested the $251,580 fine the New Mexico Environment Department issued in early March over the incident, requesting an administrative hearing. Attorneys for the utility said in filings that the utility did not use the arsenic treatment plants because of a “failure to obtain repair parts in a timely manner,” disputing that it was intentional.

State officials are still concerned about water quality, said Sydney Lienemann, the deputy secretary of administration said in an interview Monday.

“We never like to see water being delivered to customers that is above the (maximum contaminant level),” she said. “Certainly, things happen. But this is, I would say, a sizeable problem, a sizable constituency that is served by this utility, and their customers and members deserve better.”

The Camino Real Regional Utility Authority met a deadline to submit an emergency response plan by March 31, but the state agency was still reviewing it, said Matthew Maez, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Environment Department.

Required quarterly tests for arsenic published last week showed that one of the 10 samples, in the Industrial Park area of Santa Teresa, exceeded the federal standard.

“Our concern is that we’re continuing to see arsenic levels above the (federal standard), even in just that one sample,” Lienemann said.

A spokesperson for the Camino Real Regional Utility Authority declined to further comment Monday on NMED’s publication of the arsenic results.