Inspectors wanted: New Mexico sets sights on public health

November 29, 2019 GMT

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — From taco stands to toxic waste, environmental regulators in New Mexico are tasked with inspecting tens of thousands of businesses, restaurants and industrial sites every year, but some officials are concerned that demand has far outpaced the number of available inspectors.

Environment Secretary James Kenney says the state Legislature needs to make a bigger investment to bolster the tools his agency has so it can meet its regulatory responsibilities.

“We have a direct correlation to public health and I think people don’t often remember that is in the forefront of our mission — protecting public health and the environment,” Kenney told The Associated Press this week.

Kenney is asking for an additional $8.8 million in state general funds and for flexibility to increase fees that would bring in more revenue from the permitting and other services the state environment department already provides.

The money would help pay for nearly 70 more employees and help the agency fill dozens of existing vacancies.

The request will be among many when the Legislature meets in January for a 30-day session to determine spending priorities. Another surplus is expected because of the continued record revenues coming from oil and gas drilling, but some lawmakers have warned that spending should be kept in check in case of a future downturn.

The environment department’s request has the support of first-year Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has spoken about curbing emissions from the oil and gas sector and creating new industries to offset reliance on drilling.

One of those burgeoning industries is hemp manufacturing.

The environment department is establishing the permitting and inspection infrastructure needed for the industry. Without legislative appropriations, Kenney said his agency has been forced to move inspectors from the food program to work on hemp and that has cost the state about $60,000 in federal grant money.

“That’s happening time and time again to the point where we are not — I will say it — we are not sufficiently implementing our mission in a way that I think this department could and should,” he said.

There are more than 9,200 food preparation and manufacturing spots that the environment department is responsible for inspecting. The current budget includes 22 full-time positions for the task.

That caseload has resulted in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration chiding the state for not having the capacity for follow-up inspections at problem sites.

“That’s largely a staffing and budgetary issue,” Kenney said. “We don’t have the luxury of going back to these places to confirm that they made the recommendations to bring them into compliance.”

The workload is just as high for inspectors overseeing drinking water sources, hazardous wastes, workplace safety, petroleum storage tanks and medical equipment, according to figures from the environment department.

When it comes to air emissions, the state has five inspectors to monitor 7,700 sources.

Despite the personnel shortage, the agency has turned to technology for help. Thousands of air inspections recently were done across New Mexico’s portion of the Permian Basin using a helicopter and an infrared camera that can spot methane emissions.

“There comes a point where our staffing needs to rely on technology because the universe is so large,” Kenney said. “We have to think that way. We don’t have the luxury to not think that way.”