AZTEC — After more than a year of public meetings and legal testimony, a hearing officer for the state Environment Department's Ground Water Quality Bureau last week recommended approving a discharge permit for a proposed sewage lagoon seven miles northeast of Aztec.
The 43-page report was released on Wednesday. In it, Felicia Orth, who presided over a public hearing on the permit application in April, wrote that "the application, the plans and all additional information provided by the applicant satisfy all requirements of the act and rules related to the proposed construction, operation, sampling, monitoring and closure of the facility."
The permit applicant is Tom Payne, who lives at 16747 U.S. Highway 550 and plans to open an RV park there. He applied for the permit in May 2013 to construct an evaporative lagoon that would receive up to 2,240 gallons of wastewater from as many as 64 recreational vehicle spaces at his planned home business.
Payne could not be reached for comment on Friday.
On Friday morning, members of the Animas River Water Quality Coalition — a group of residents who live near the Payne residence and have fought the permit's approval — stood along Highway 550 facing the property to show Aztec Mayor Sally Burbridge and Mayor Pro-tem Sherri Sipe the lagoon site.
Coalition founding members Jim Dahlberg and Mary Girardi handed Burbridge and Sipe a summary of their complaints against Orth's report, titled "Not in My Backyard!" The document addressed concerns raised during testimony in April over the lagoon, which Orth's report did not consider as compelling evidence to deny the permit.
"(The coalition) is opposed to allowing the construction of the Bar 7 Ranch RV Park in a highly environmentally sensitive residential neighborhood," Dahlberg wrote in the summary. "We were very disappointed that more conditions were not required, such as aeration, pre-treatment, financial assurance and odor mitigation."
Dahlberg said he was satisfied, though, that his group affected certain specifications over the lagoon, including its size, location on Payne's property and the addition of a retaining wall to protect the lagoon from overflowing in a flood.
Dahlberg said the coalition plans to write a formal letter with its concerns over Orth's report to Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn and the state's Water Quality Control Commission.
Public comments can be sent to the Environment Department by the Aug. 14. Thirty days from then, Flynn is expected to issue a final order over the permit.
Next week, Dahlberg said the coalition members will share their concerns over the lagoon with San Juan County Commissioners.
"The NMED's scope of their authority on the lagoon is so limited — all they care about is groundwater, nothing about potential problems like odor and liability issues if these folks walk away," Dahlberg told Burbridge and Sipe on Friday.
Burbridge told Dahlberg she would share the coalition's concerns with fellow city commissioners and ask the city attorney whether there was anything the city would need to approve or consider over the permit or planned RV park.
Sipe said county commissioners would be an appropriate group to ask about business licensing and other possible regulatory matters.
"We'll tell (city commissioners) that we met and took a look today," Sipe told Dahlberg and Girardi.
Jim Winchester, a spokesman for the Environment Department, said Orth's report is a recommendation of approval, not an approval of the permit application.
"The Hearing Officer writes a report and drafts an order but the Secretary (Flynn) has the ultimate decision to approve or deny the permit ... so the answer is that the permit has not been approved at this time," Winchester wrote in an email on Friday.