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NMED files complaint against Bloomfield-area inventor
Jerry Finney says his operation poses no threat to groundwater
BLOOMFIELD — A Bloomfield-area inventor has found himself in a legal battle against the New Mexico Environment Department.
The environment department has said Jerry Finney, who owns an operation that turns small particles of coal and old carpeting into fuel south of Bloomfield, must obtain a groundwater discharge permit.
The environment department filed a complaint for injunctive relief last week in district court. In addition to requiring Finney to stop operating his equipment until he obtains the permit, NMED is asking the court to impose a fine of $310,000 against him for improperly discharging contaminants.
“I challenge them to prove I have a discharge,” Finney said.
He said he cannot fill out an application for a discharge permit because the form asks him to identify where the discharges are coming from his equipment.
Finney said he would like the environment department to come to his property and watch him run his equipment for eight to 10 hours. He said the environment department should show him where it is discharging contaminants.
“If they can’t do it, they need to back off,” Finney said.
He said if the environment department shows him discharge from his equipment, he will apply for a groundwater discharge permit.
Containers in front of experimental equipment at Finney's operation just south of the Bloomfield city limits are filled with coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.
Finney picked up some pieces of the coal Friday morning and broke them into smaller bits. He explained that his patented enzymes are breaking up the coal and turning it into oil.
Finney describes his technology as a solution to some of the problems several industries face, including the energy industry and the carpet industry. Both industries have been facing pressures to become more environmentally friendly, according to Finney.
He explained that as coal-burning power plants close, the coal industry is looking for markets for the coal. The carpet industry is also taking back carpet to prevent it from ending up in landfills. Some places, like California, have mandatory carpet recycling laws. One carpet manufacturer has been sending Finney rolls of carpet to use in his process to create fuel.
Finney takes coal fines — small particles of coal — and mixes them with carpet and plastic. He then uses that mixture to produce fuel.
But NMED views the make-shift refinery as a potential source of contamination to water sources.
The environment department alleges Finney is discharging contaminants at three locations:
- From scrubber tanks into an open, unlined trench
- From a stockpile of contaminant-laden soil onto unprotected ground
- From releases of coal slurry at various locations on the property
The environment department states in its complaint that coal fine slurry is a water contaminant and claims Finney stores it in several tanks that have fallen into “significant disrepair.”
The environment department also states that Finney does not have secondary containment, which makes the coal fine slurry susceptible to “imminent release onto or into the surface and subsurface of the ground.”
According to the complaint, that could result in benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes, naphthalenes and metals being discharged onto the ground. The environment department states that those chemicals and metals could impact groundwater and the San Juan River.
The environment department states that groundwater beneath the property could be less than 30 feet from the surface.
Finney produces a variety of products at the facility using enzymes he discovered while operating a business that created compost using septic waste, horse manure and straw. The environment department shut down his previous business in 1987 when septic storage tanks overflowed.
Now Finney uses those enzymes to manufacture products ranging from fuels like kerosene and diesel to fertilizer.
On Friday, Finney pointed out a pile of dirt on his property. He said every time there has been a spill at his operation, he has put the contaminated dirt in the pile and mixed it with fresh dirt. He said he then added his enzymes to the mixture to remediate the soil.
Finney said soil samples from the pile of dirt have tested negative for hydrocarbons.
He said the only time he has used his equipment recently was to process the coal from the Powder River Basin. Finney is sending the results to the University of Wyoming. The college is looking at his operation as part of its emerging projects and technology program. It is evaluating whether the equipment meets criteria that it has set for new technology that could process the coal from the Powder River Basin.
Wyoming is one of the major coal-producing states, but it is facing a decrease in demand for its coal. The university hopes to find new uses for coal that do not involve burning it to generate electricity.
University of Wyoming deputy director of emerging projects and technology Richard Horner said university officials visited Finney’s property earlier this year and will evaluate Finney’s technology over the upcoming months.
Horner said the university is trying to identify technologies that can convert Wyoming coal into valuable products. He said the university is looking for noncombustion technologies that use low temperatures and chemical processes.
San Juan County and New Mexico Environment Department officials learned about the operation in 2016 when the San Juan County Fire Department responded to a report of a fire on Finney's property.
San Juan County Fire Chief Craig Daugherty said Finney was issued a stop-work order due to fire code violations discovered in 2016.
In January, the fire department responded to a report of a possible gas leak at Finney's property.
Finney maintains his operation didn’t cause of the odor that prompted his neighbor to report the potential leak. Finney said a nearby resident burning trash caused the smell. He said his equipment was not operating that day.
According to the complaint filed by the environment department, the neighbor who reported the possible gas leak later went to the hospital with nausea and a headache.
Daugherty said there was equipment leaking when firefighters arrived at the scene, but he does not know if the leaks were new. The fire department also discovered leaks in 2016 when it first visited the site in response to the report of a fire.
Finney was not home in January when firefighters responded to the call about the gas leak. He said he did not learn of the call until two days later, and he maintains that none of his equipment was leaking.
"There is no threat to the surface or groundwater of the state of New Mexico," Finney said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.