New Mexico Environment Department can fine uncertified San Juan County septic pumpers $100, sue them

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — To enforce a regulation requiring state certification that all but three of San Juan County's septic pumping companies are ignoring, the New Mexico Environment Department can impose a fine of $100 per violation or take offenders to court, a department head said. But so far, neither of those options have been used here.

Only three of the 22 septic pumping companies advertised in a county phone book are certified through the environment department, according to department documents provided Thursday. If the 19 other companies don't certify by June 15, the department will mail them violation notices, Liquid Waste Program Manager Jim Vincent said this week.

One of the uncertified companies dumped thousands of gallons of sewage from its pumping truck between February and April 2013 on federal land in Crouch Mesa.

The Environment Department created the septic pumping regulation in November 2011, and its enforcement has since been lax, Vincent said. But after seeing the results of a study released in late February that found evidence of human feces in the San Juan and Animas rivers, his department is now serious about compliance with the regulation, he said.

"We're not going to forget about this," he said.

In light of the study, his department has been working more closely with the agencies that coordinated it, he said. The Environment Department is part of a group comprised of Aztec, Farmington and San Juan County officials, the San Juan Watershed group and the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District.

"We see this as a priority," he said. "We're going to be actively involved with the watershed group. Whereas in the past, I don't think we have been."

But the liquid waste department has no staff dedicated to enforcing regulations and was unable to provide the number of violation notices it has sent or responded to in the county in the past five years, he said. The department does keep information, but the data are in multiple databases, and doesn't track violations, he said.

Vincent said he hopes that by the end of the year the department will have contracted a company to create a database to track violations, he said. And once the database is online, maybe, he said, the department could consider hiring an enforcement coordinator.

"NMED can't be everywhere," Allison Scott Majure, environment department communications director, said in an email, "which is why we rely on the public through our (Environmental Notification Tracking System), a reporting website and phone number, that makes citizen reporting of noncompliance issues such as septic tanks a simple matter."

She said language in the law that created the department stresses "compliance assistance over enforcement."

"We do not seek to put 20 septic pumpers out of business. That would hurt business, the economy, and the citizens of San Juan County who rely on their septic services," she said. "Revisions to the (regulation) can be requested by citizens through the (Environmental Improvement Board)."

Part of the problem is that the only facility in the county where septic pumpers can legally discharge waste, Farmington's wastewater treatment plant, does not require pumpers to meet the environment department regulations, said Don Moats and Annette Davis, owners of D.J.'s Backhoe Service and Davis Plumbing and Mechanical Inc., respectively, two of the certified companies.

But such a requirement could have unintended consequences, they and many other officials say.

"If we don't allow somebody to dump sewage, where else are they going to go?" Farmington Public Works Director David Sypher said. "Yeah, nothing good is accomplished."

He said the city instead focuses on verifying that the sewage being dumped at the wastewater treatment plant is not toxic. The qualifications outlined in the Environment Department regulation, he said, are administered by the department, not the city.

If the city were to deny uncertified septic pumpers, more of them would illegally dump sewage in the county and on the Navajo Nation, Moats said. He said they already are. He sees evidence of it at least once a month in the county and on the reservation, he said.

"You get them out on them damn roads on the reservation — there's no one there," he said. His pumping truck can release 1,000 gallons of waste in about three minutes, he said. "You take 20 pounds of pressure coming out of a 6-inch hole," he said. He added that he doesn't dump his waste illegally.

But the Environment Department could curb illegal sewage dumping if it fined businesses, he said. "Just shut them down," he said.

Officials involved in the study that identified the river pollution have said leaking and improperly installed septic systems and illegal dumping could be the sources. But they also caution that there is no confirmation yet, and there could be others, such as the agriculture industry.

The Environment Department was unable to say how many septic systems in the county are unpermitted or are failing. But the department has, since 2005, started requiring a professional outside the department to inspect septic systems on properties in which ownership is being transferred, and this has allowed the department to catch and register approximately 1,400 septic systems, Environmental Health Bureau Chief Jack King told The Daily Times in late March.

Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington, a member of the Water and Natural Resources Committee, said the county's state lawmakers may consider this issue during the interim session, which begins Jan. 20, 2016.

The delegation could draft a bill, he said, if the issues with the septic pumper regulation are issues in the law. Scott Majure did not say whether the septic pumper regulation was structured in a way that allows the department to change it administratively.

Or maybe the regulation should specify that municipal wastewater treatment plants need to require it, Neville said. "That seems like the cure right there," he said.

But if the city doesn't take the sewage, he said, where will it go?

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.