New Mexico Environment Department silent about septic pumpers

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Environment Department has not provided updated information on how many companies in San Juan County are state certified to pump septic tanks despite setting a certification deadline that expired almost four weeks ago.

In late August, department officials said only four companies in the county still needed to become certified. Officials set a deadline for the companies to do so by the end of that month, though they said they wouldn't issue fines after that date as long as the companies were making progress toward becoming certified.

Since May, 19 companies in the county have become certified through the department to pump septic tanks. The department's effort to enforce the certification requirement began after local officials released the results of a study that found human feces pollution in the San Juan and Animas rivers.

The San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District and the San Juan Watershed Group partnered in the two-year study. Some officials say leaking septic tanks are the source of the pollution, and others point to illegal dumping.

The Daily Times filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request with the environment department on Sept. 9, seeking information about whether the four remaining companies had become certified and, if they hadn't, whether the department had issued fines. The request also sought information about free well water testing the department provided for county residents in late August.

The department's deadline to respond to the records request, established under state law, was Thursday. Prompted for a response on Friday, the department forwarded two emails that didn't answer The Daily Times' questions.

One email stated the Environmental Health Bureau, the department division that handles such matters, "does not have any documentation on this site."

When reached by phone, records custodian Melissa Mascareñas could not explain what the email meant, and efforts on Friday to reach its author, Jack King, were unsuccessful. When The Daily Times interviewed King in late August, he was the chief of the Environmental Health Bureau.

Department spokeswoman Allison Scott Majure did not respond to questions by deadline on Friday for this story.

The other email the department provided, dated Aug. 21, was in response to earlier questions about septic pumpers The Daily Times asked of the department.

Mascareñas said according to information that officials provided to her, the department responded to the public records request, and it is closed.

"That's how I see it," she said.

But state law specifically outlines a public agency's duties to respond to records requests, said Greg Williams, president of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government's board of directors. If department officials don't comply, they're exposing themselves to a lawsuit, he said.

"This is certainly a matter of public importance," he said, "and we would hope that NMED is doing everything in its power to comply with the law."

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