AZTEC — An Aztec man who wants to build an RV park with a sewage lagoon that has neighbors concerned about potential pollution has been appointed to the North Star Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association's board of directors.
North Star, which is headquartered in Aztec, supplies water it pumps from the Animas River to approximately 1,200 residents.
Tom Payne became board president in September. He lives at 18767 U.S. Highway 550, about seven miles northeast of Aztec, and wants to build an RV park and lagoon on that property.
In May, Payne applied with the state Environment Department's Ground Water Quality Bureau for a permit to install a sewage lagoon to handle the 2,240 gallons of domestic wastewater containing dissolved solids the proposed park's 60 RV spaces could produce per day.
In July, residents who live near the property attended a public meeting about the proposed RV park's lagoon application. They expressed concerns over the lagoon system's potential to leak sewage into nearby Aztec Ditch and the Animas River, the sole source of drinking water for the city.
"They asked me to sit on the board and I agreed," Payne said. "I suggested to them (North Star's board of directors) that they wait until this (the lagoon permit application process) all blew over, but they said that wasn't an issue."
Payne said that he is a customer of North Star and is happy to serve on the board. He said that he is hopeful his proposed RV park's lagoon permit will be approved.
"It's always my feeling that an individual owes a debt to the community that he lives in," he said. "We're just going to have the process work itself out. We hope that we'll be successful."
Just before Christmas, the second of two, 30-day public comment periods expired.
"We have received requests -- plural -- for a second public hearing," said Gerald "Jake" Knutson, environmental scientist for the state's Environment Department and technical reviewer for the proposed lagoon. "There's heartache and heartburn on both sides."
"A Request for Determination to Hold a Public Hearing for Payne RV Park (DP-1811) is currently being prepared," wrote Jim Winchester, communications director for the New Mexico Environment Department, in an email. "To date, the department has received 42 requests for a public hearing. If a public hearing is to be held, it will then go through a formal notification process leading up to a scheduled hearing date."
Knutson is currently working on a memorandum to update the department's secretary and project manager about the public response. A decision on whether to approve the permit application or hold a public hearing has yet to be decided, Knutson said.
Loren Linville, a retired engineer and president of the North Star board, confirmed Payne's election.
"It was unanimous," Linville said. "He seemed like a good type of guy to be a board member. He said he'd served on boards before, including a water conservation group."
In the 10 or more years he has been active on the board, Linville said flooding has not been a problem at North Star.
"We pump water -- on the weekends, mostly, because it's cheaper -- out of the Animas just downstream from where the Paynes' park would be," Linville said. "We have a 17-million-gallon reservoir and use the latest technology. We like to brag a little. We have the best water in the valley."
Concerns over the lagoon polluting the sole water source for residents in the area are unfounded and misinformed, he said.
"If the lagoon did flood, it would probably be better and safer than what would be in the river. It would be so contaminated with things like cow and horse manure, insecticides and pesticides, industrial run-off, you name it," Linville said. "In a flood, we don't pump. We use our reservoir, which affords us a 30-day supply."
Linville said a single lagoon is safer than a number of individual septic tanks since it's easier to monitor because it's above ground and doesn't rely on many residents for maintenance.
"The lagoon water would be good enough to drink from," Linville said. "You put a gallon of sewage in 10,000 gallons of aerated water and you let nature help clean it."
Clarence Hunter, a retired firefighter who lives in nearby Cedar Hill, is not so sure. As a North Star consumer, he attended the board's annual meeting in September and said he was told he was out of order for asking questions.
"I asked how much time it would take to shut off the pump and what you would do with the (polluted) water (after a flood), and the board member threatened to call the police on me. I walked out," Hunter said.
He and his wife, Mary Hunter, are both against the lagoon and cite water pollution during and after a flood as their primary reason.
Clarence Hunter said he called the state Environment Department to express his concerns over the lagoon and request a second public hearing so more people could have the chance to speak their minds on the issue.
"If it floods, it's really going to be a mess," he said. "During the storms in September, it flooded and that wasn't even that much rain. I don't like to drink toilet water in my breakfast. And brush my teeth with it. Some people must think water comes from the tap and don't put two and two together. If they did, they'd be scared."