Bill would make it a crime to lie to NMED

A bill before New Mexico legislators would make it a crime for a water utility to knowingly lie to the New Mexico Environment Department or falsify water quality data

Hannah Grover
  • The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-2 vote over the weekend.
  • AV Water Co. was highlighted as an example of a utility that allegedly falsified data.
  • The company's attorney says AV Water fired an operator accused of falsifying data.
  • The bill would affect future cases but would not affect AV Water's owners or operator.
Rick Mitchell, with the Flora Vista Mutual Domestic Water Association, checks the level of chlorine residual at a house in the Morningstar water system on Aug. 1.

FARMINGTON — A bill that would add criminal penalties if a water utility falsified reports or lies to the New Mexico Environment Department is moving forward in the New Mexico House of Representatives.

The bill would make it a crime for an owner or operator of a water utility to knowingly lie to NMED officials or falsify water quality reports. The bill was amended and passed the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-2 vote over the weekend. A similar bill was blocked last month in the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee due to concerns it was too broad.

"We’ve worked for years to make it a crime to lie about water quality because we care about the safety of New Mexicans," said NMED Cabinet Secretary Butch Tongate in an emailed statement to The Daily Times. "This bill is a critical step forward because it provides us with the tools to prevent cases of data falsification, which poses a significant threat to public health — as occurred with a privately held water system in the Four Corners region. We believe that potential criminal charges for such behavior will act as a deterrent."

Tongate's statement was in reference to AV Water Co., a privately-owned utility that provides water to thousands of San Juan County residents in the Crouch Mesa area and east of Bloomfield.

RELATEDAV Water fires operator after NMED inspection

The NMED claims an AV Water operator falsified turbidity readings. After an NMED inspection in June, both of the water systems owned by AV Water were placed under boil water advisories. One of those systems, Harvest Gold, is still on a boil water advisory.

New Mexico Environment Department Drinking Water Bureau Chief Stephanie Stringer talks about the Harvest Gold water system during a meeting Feb. 21 at McGee Park in Farmington

AV Water attorney Germaine Chappelle said when AV Water's owner, Mark Iuppenlatz, learned about the falsified data and confirmed it had taken place, he immediately fired the operator.

"The health of citizens is paramount," Chappelle said.

NMED Drinking Water Bureau Chief Stephanie Stringer said public health was harmed because of misinformation AV Water provided NMED. Stringer made the comments this weekend during a House Judiciary Committee meeting, which was streamed online.

Residents affected by the boil advisory have claimed the water causes gastrointestinal problems and rashes.

Chappelle said she has not spoken to her clients about the bill in the Legislature and could not offer a comment on their opinions. But, she said, in her personal opinion, there should be penalties for falsifying reports.

"If an operator is falsifying records or falsifying water quality reports, they should be held responsible," she said.

RELATEDAV Water general manager defends company during hearing

While the bill could be used to deter future cases, it could not be used to prosecute AV Water's owner or operators, Stringer told The Daily Times last month while visiting San Juan County.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said during the meeting that falsified data can have serious consequences for consumers.

"It's not using a firearm to put people's lives at risk, but it's serious," he said during the House Judicial Committee meeting.

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