New Mexico regulators push ahead as virus disaster declared


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — While federal environmental regulators have waived enforcement on a range of legally mandated public health and environmental protections, New Mexico is marching ahead.

Food inspections are ongoing as is the tracking of methane emissions and other critical work related to drinking water protections and worker safety as the number of new coronavirus cases in the state grows. On Sunday, President Donald Trump signed off on a federal disaster declaration for New Mexico, freeing up funding to supplement state, tribal and local recovery efforts.

Officials say about 25% of the New Mexico Environment Department’s staff is focusing on COVID-19 related critical services. The rest are working on permitting actions and compliance activities to the extent possible during the public health emergency, from developing new water quality improvement projects to analyzing air quality data and answering questions about the state’s hemp program.

“States are the front line of enforcement efforts — whether faced with a pandemic or another natural disaster. We adjust and proceed using our authorities,” agency spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said when asked about the federal government’s recent move to relax some enforcement.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in late March announced it would forgo a sweeping range of enforcement, saying the pandemic could make it difficult for companies to comply with public health and environment laws. The EPA said it wouldn’t fine businesses for failing to monitor or report hazardous pollutants if they can show the outbreak played a role.

While described by federal officials as a temporary measure for “extraordinary conditions,” environmental groups and former EPA officials said it was a license to pollute.

In New Mexico, state regulators will continue investigating any circumstances that pose an imminent or substantial danger to public health or the environment. However, routine inspections of permitted and licensed facilities will otherwise remain a low priority for the time being.

If there are any complaints regarding noncompliance with the governor’s recent public health orders, state officials said they will manage those on a case-by-case basis.

At the end of March, the environment department conducted more than 100 inspections of restaurants and food establishments that are operating under new rules. Most were complying.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has issued a series of orders aimed at getting people to stay home to curb spread. Public schools have been shuttered for weeks and numerous businesses deemed as non-essential have closed as municipal officials from Albuquerque to Las Cruces warn residents to keep their distance from one another, especially headed into the Easter weekend.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

More than 130 new cases were confirmed over the weekend, bringing New Mexico’s total to more than 620. Sandoval County marked a jump of nearly three dozen cases Sunday. So far, at least a dozen people have died in the state.

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