Inventor argues against use of Ordinance 95
County officials used a business registration ordinance to shut down operations at a backyard refinery south of Bloomfield. The property owner describes his operation as research.
BLOOMFIELD — Over the past decade, Jerry Finney has been using coal fines — small particles of coal — mixed with waste and water as well as carpet and plastic to produce fuel at his property on County Road 5050 south of Bloomfield.
The operation went largely unnoticed until a few months ago.
After learning about Finney's refinery, county officials issued multiple code violations and ordered him to stop operating. The New Mexico Environment Department also began investigations at his property. Officials from New Mexico Environment Department's Ground Water Quality Bureau, Hazardous Waste Bureau, Radiation Control Bureau and Occupational Health and Safety Bureau visited Finney's property on Tuesday.
The New Mexico Environment Department had not responded by deadline today to a request for comment about the inspection and whether or not the facility poses any risks to nearby residents. The Daily Times contacted NMED spokeswoman Allison Scott Majure multiple times over the past week by phone, text and email.
While he stood near the equipment Wednesday evening, Finney described the events that alerted county and state officials to his refinery.
On July 30, an operator fired up a burner and flames shot up five feet into the air, he said. The flames prompted neighbors to call San Juan County Fire Department.
An incident report states that the firefighters responded to calls about a possible brush fire at approximately 12:25 p.m. July 30. When they arrived on scene, they found a small fire smoldering in wood chips at the facility, according to the report.
Finney said the operator lit a rag on fire and tossed it onto the ground, sparking the wood chip fire. Finney said he fired the operator the same day.
Once on scene, the fire department used provisions in Ordinance 95 — the business registration ordinance — to require Finney to halt operations. On Aug. 1, county officials gave Finney a stop work order, according to the incident report.
At a county commission meeting in October, officials highlighted Finney’s property as an example of how Ordinance 95 was being used to protect the community.
Finney disagrees with that claim and says the ordinance should not apply to his property.
“This isn’t a business,” Finney said. “This is pure research and development.”
Finney said he has not sold his fuel, but uses it in his own vehicles.
County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said Finney is doing research for a larger company, which is one reason the county considers the operation a business.
Carpenter said provisions in Ordinance 95 requiring businesses to identify potentially hazardous materials also help to protect volunteer firefighters responding to calls. He said the county learned about the facility when volunteer firefighters responded to the fire.
He said his biggest concern is the potentially harmful chemicals stored at the property, including diesel and jet fuel. Carpenter said these chemicals could create a dangerous situation for the houses on three sides of the property.
Carpenter said when he visited the property there were pools of liquid on the ground. He said he does not have enough knowledge about the liquid to call it a contaminant.
While there are no longer pools of liquid on the soil, he remains concerned. He said the county is waiting for reports from the New Mexico Environment Department.
Finney said his neighbors already know about his operation.
“My neighbors have been using my diesel,” he said. “They like it.”
While Finney said his neighbors have not objected to his work, Carpenter said county officials have received calls from neighbors complaining about the smell. County Commissioner Margaret McDaniel, who represents the area, confirmed that she has received complaints from neighbors about the smell.
During a county commission meeting last week, Carpenter said officials want to know whether materials at the property are flammable potentially placing nearby residents in danger.
Finney argues that statements made at an October county commission meeting that the refinery could have blown up the neighborhood are false. He said it would be impossible for an explosion to happen because the system uses a vacuum to capture exhaust and it has produced enough energy to run itself.
"There is no waste on this system," he said. "All in big bold letters — no waste."
Fire Chief Craig Daugherty said Finney has been very cooperative and is working to bring everything into fire code standards.
This is not Finney's first run in with the state environment department. In the 1980s, he operated a business known as Environmental Maintenance Services Inc.
The business took the liquid slurry from septic tanks and horse manure, according to Daily Times archives.
Until December 1987, his business was the only place in the county where it was legal to dispose of septic tank sewage, according to Daily Times archives. Finney mixed straw and horse manure with the sewage to produce fertilizer, which he planned to sell to farmers. Finney said he was producing high-quality compost and many customers were very satisfied.
When some of his septic storage tanks overflowed, the state's Environmental Improvement Division shut down the operation, leaving county and local city officials scrambling to find an alternative, according to the archives.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.