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New Environment Department policies invoke anger; State counters that it expects improved outreach

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New policies adopted by the New Mexico Environment Department in response to a federal civil rights complaint alleging that its practices discriminated against Spanish-speakers and limited public participation have been met with anger on the part of some of the people involved in the original complaint.

Lake Arthur artist Noel Marquez is involved in efforts to have the New Mexico Environment Department’s activities become more accessible to Spanish speakers and others in the public. He was one of the original signatories of a 2002 federal civil rights complaint that led to new policies in February that have yet to satisfy Marquez and some other environmental activists. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

“Frankly, the policies are grossly inadequate and they would not have necessarily been that way if they would have listened to us,” said Deborah Reade of Santa Fe, an environmental activist who helped write the original 2002 complaint. “Frankly, in my opinion, they will do nothing to make the process less discriminatory.”

But Environment Department General Counsel Jennifer Hower said the policies will improve its efforts to reach Spanish speakers and others who have felt sidelined in the past.

She also noted that the department has hired a translator and interpreter to accomplish its goals.

“I think as a department, we have always had good public outreach,” said Hower. “But I think, with these polices, we are going to have an enhanced outreach because the policies are applicable to the department as a whole as a opposed to having bureaus do it piecemeal.”

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A Lake Arthur artist and environmental activist is among those voicing discontent, saying the state government isn’t allowing “open and honest debate.”

“We are working with many groups in New Mexico and throughout the country to make our state government accountable to the people of New Mexico,” said Noel Marquez with the Alliance for Environmental Strategies.

Marquez was one of the signatories of the 2002 complaint filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights Compliance.

The original complaint originated out of opposition to the permit for the Triassic Park Hazardous Waste Facility about 43 miles southeast of Roswell, a facility that has yet to be built. Among the allegations were that information and documents were not translated into Spanish, the primary language for many in the region.

But Reade says those type of practices aren’t limited to that one project but instead characteristic of many of the Environment Department’s dealings over the past decades. In fact, she thinks the department is “hostile to public participation.”

Fifteen years after the original complaint, the Environment Department and the federal government entered an informal agreement in January 2017 to address the issues.

Although not admitting to any discriminatory practices, the Environment Department agreed to be more accommodating of Spanish-only speakers in the future and to exercise due diligence in the permit process to ensure that the Triassic facility would not endanger the environment or public health.

Then on Feb. 6, the new policies, approved by the EPA, were signed. They outline how the agency and its employees intend to ensure access and participation to those with disabilities, low English proficiency, low incomes or other factors that might limit participation in meetings or ability to obtain information they can understand.

“Because we wanted to do them right and they are a really important thing for our department and for the public of New Mexico, we spent a considerable amount of time with the EPA, almost a year, on those policies,” Hower said.

But Reade, Marquez and other groups, including the University of New Mexico Natural Resources and Environmental Law Clinic, cried foul upon their release, saying the policies were developed without public participation and fall short of addressing concerns.

Their major argument is that they were not allowed a seat at the table as the policies were developed, although NMED said that no outside parties, besides the EPA, were part of the process.

“We do not allow outside entities to be involved in our internal policies,” said Hower, “and Secretary (Butch) Tongate concurred with us on that when the outside parties asked to be involved.”

But the activists also list many specific concerns with the policies themselves.

For example, they say, the policies state that the department will provide information and documents in Spanish or other languages when warranted, but opponents say that policy is undermined by another section that says the department will not have to translate materials if translation would be cost-prohibitive.

“All their money and all their time goes to the applicants and the permittees,” said Reade. “Whatever else is left over is used for public outreach.”

For its part, Hower said the department has committed with funds and the new translator position to ensure that people with low English proficiency are reached.

“We will get translated what needs to be translated,” Hower said. “We have spoken with our financial staff and we are going to make that happen.”

Reade said that hundreds of permit processes occurring after the 2017 resolution agreement with the EPA have seen some of the same difficulties relating to access to information, especially in Spanish. Although most of those cases do not involve discrimination or environmental injustice, she said, it is an indication that the department has not changed its ways.

“They have set up something that is bare bones, it is totally inadequate and it won’t make a bit of difference,” said Reade.

Hower said she is confident more of the public will be involved in the future, and she also said they are avenues for them to do so, including proposing new rules for the department.

“I do think these policies are going to be very, very effective at increased public outreach and capturing communities that maybe we weren’t able to capture before and capturing limited English proficiency individuals.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.