Local plants that could be affected include the San Juan gas processing plant in Kirtland and the San Juan Gas Plant in Bloomfield

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FARMINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a rule that would add natural gas processing plants to its list of facilities that are required to publicly report toxic chemicals — including benzene, formaldehyde and hexane — that are being released into the environment.

The EPA announced the news, which was praised by environmental groups, on Friday.

The proposed rule is in response to a petition signed by the Environmental Integrity Project — a Washington, D.C., nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for enforcement of environmental laws  — and 18 other environmental and open-government groups.

A spokesman for the EPA declined to comment further about the proposed rule and referred questions to the agency's website.

Natural gas plant toxins reporting for the rule would fall under reporting requirements of section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, or EPCRA, which is also known as the Toxics Release Inventory, and a section of the Pollution Prevention Act, according to the EPA website.

Adding natural gas plants to the Toxics Release Inventory "would meaningfully increase the information available to the public and further the purposes of EPCRA section 313," according to the proposed rule.

The EPA estimates at least 282 natural gas plant facilities in the country would meet the Toxics Release Inventory's chemical reporting thresholds for 21 toxic chemicals.

Local plants that could be affected by the rule include the San Juan gas processing plant in Kirtland, operated by Castleton Commodities International, and the San Juan Gas Plant in Bloomfield, which is run by ConocoPhillips.

Efforts to reach officials at Castleton Commodities were unsuccessful.

ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Davy Kong said her company is still reviewing the EPA's draft regulation. She said it's too early to provide a comment on what impact the rule could have on the San Juan Gas Plant.

The EPA website states the Environmental Integrity Project and 18 other organizations submitted a petition to the agency on Oct. 24, 2012, that requested the EPA add the oil and gas extraction industry to the sectors covered by the reporting requirements of the Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI.

The EPA on Oct. 22, 2015, granted part of the request "insofar as it requested that that EPA commence the rulemaking process to propose adding natural gas processing ... facilities to the scope of TRI," according to the agency's website.

Erika Brown is the communications manager for the environmental group San Juan Citizens Alliance in Durango, Colo. The organization was among the groups that signed the petition that led to the rule proposal.

"This is a hugely important rule," Brown said. "The public has a right to know what toxins are being released, and so far, the oil and gas industry has been exempt from that rule. This is a big step forward."

EIP senior attorney Adam Kron said that in addition to the petition, a lawsuit was filed in 2015 to compel the EPA to take action. Kron believes the suit was the catalyst that spurred the EPA to action, but, he said, he does not know why it took the agency so long to reach this point.

"One of the reasons may be because it’s been about 20 years since the EPA added another industry to their toxic reporting requirements," he said in a phone interview from his office in D.C. "Maybe they had to get reacquainted with the process and get familiar with the idea."

Kron said most natural gas facilities are owned by large companies and probably already have mechanisms in place to make it possible to measure toxins.

The next steps, Kron said, will involve the EPA holding an open-comment period to make sure facilities and the public can weigh in on the rule. The EPA anticipates it will make its final action by filing the rule in the federal register by August 2018, Kron said.

"It’s been a long process, but we’re glad it turned out this way," he said.

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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