New Mexico Environment Department investigation claims Morningstar operator falsified turbidity readings for the water system for more than five months

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FARMINGTON — A New Mexico Environment Department investigation into AV Water Co.'s Morningstar water system has led to new operators for both Morningstar and Harvest Gold.

The results of the investigation allege operator Jose Grijalva falsified turbidity readings for the Morningstar system from Nov. 25, 2015, until April 30.

“It was a shocking discovery,” said Germaine Chappelle, an attorney with AV Water.

Chappelle said Grijalva was fired Thursday after the company learned of the falsified readings from the state's investigation.

Grijalva was one of two operators serving the Morningstar and Harvest Gold systems. The other operator will be off work for several weeks for health reasons. That led AV Water to ask the Blanco Mutual Domestic Water Users Association and the Flora Vista Water Users Association to operate the two water systems.

Chappelle said that since Thursday the Blanco MDWUA has been operating the Harvest Gold system, and the Flora Vista association has been operating the Morningstar system.

Efforts to reach Grijalva today were unsuccessful. A phone message left a Jose Grijalva whose number was listed in the phone book was not returned this evening.

When reached by phone today, customers defended Grijalva.

“My opinion is that they fired Jose (Grijalva) to use as a fall-back guy,” said Kevin Wright in a phone interview.

Wright and other customers gathered at Dino's Hideaway and Lounge, a Crouch Mesa business that has served as a rallying point for the protest movement, to fax more than 700 customer complaints about the Morningstar system to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission prior to a public hearing Wednesday in Aztec.

The customers recalled how Grijalva would go out to work on the system in the middle of the night if they called him.

“Jose (Grijalva) has given everything to help out this community,” Wright said.

He said he was upset when he heard Grijalva had been fired, adding he was "the only person in that company who cares about the community."

On May 26 — the day after AV Water issued a boil-water advisory for the Morningstar system — NMED investigators toured the system, according to an administrative compliance order NMED announced today. During the visit, Grijalva allegedly showed an inspector a monthly operating report containing turbidity data for May 2016.

The inspector noticed a partially completed monthly operating report under the May report. When questioned, Grijalva allegedly told the inspector that report was for the next month. The order states Grijalva crumpled up the partially completed report when asked how he could have completed entries for a future month.

When NMED inspectors downloaded turbidity data from a turbidimeter, they found less than 1 percent of the data points from Nov. 25, 2015, through April matched the numbers AV Water reported, according to the order. The data from the turbidimeter indicated the water had exceeded maximum values daily from Nov. 25, 2015, to April 30.

The administrative compliance order also announced fines of $163,000 for the Morningstar system. The fines were issued for three violations — $158,000 for failing to report turbidity measurements exceeding maximum compliance values, $4,000 for failing to submit monthly operating reports in May, June, July and August, and $1,000 for failing to submit coliform samples in August.

The May boil-water advisory for the Morningstar system was lifted June 1. Both Morningstar and Harvest Gold customers were issued boil-water advisories on June 3. The Morningstar system’s advisory was lifted Sept. 3, but Harvest Gold's remains in place.

In a meeting Monday evening, the Blanco MDWUA voted to not only operate the Harvest Gold system, but to also initiate negotiations to buy the system.

“I think it would be a good deal for the community,” said Lloyd Ayliffe, the operator for Blanco MDWUA, when reached by phone today.

Ayliffe said his children have lived in the Harvest Gold subdivision, and he is familiar with the water system. The Blanco MDWUA has a water storage tank on a hill above the subdivision. He said the tank's location will allow Blanco to connect to Harvest Gold’s system without installing a pump station. Instead, the gravity-fed connection may require valves to control pressure.

Ayliffe said his concerns center around getting the Harvest Gold water system within turbidity requirements before the connection can be completed.

“The thing’s in really bad shape,” he said.

Ayliffe said Blanco will apply for funding, such as grants, to connect the Harvest Gold system to the Blanco system.

Once the connection is complete, Blanco will abandon the Harvest Gold treatment plant. Blanco will also use its own water storage, rather than the Harvest Gold storage tanks.

“We have enough water for the community, and we have enough water for fire suppression,” Ayliffe said.

Harvest Gold customers Tim and Peggy Hogan, who live below the Harvest Gold water storage tank, were excited to hear about Blanco operating the system. Harvest Gold's rusted and leaking tank was decommissioned earlier this year after a video showed it had been plugged with wood.

“It’s a piece of junk,” Tim Hogan said. “They need to tear it down.”

The couple also complained about water outages. Peggy Hogan said they keep containers of water outside to water their livestock when there is no tap water. Even when there is water, she said she never knows how the water quality will be.

“Sometimes it’s brown, sometimes it’s clear,” she said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

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