How New Mexico’s copper industry wrote its own rules
Close your eyes, and picture a radical. Bill Olson is not that guy. With a neat brown beard and a fondness for western shirts and jackets, even the occasional bolo tie, he’s the quintessential water nerd. When asked, over coffee and a blueberry scone, to talk about groundwater, he actually grins. Delightedly.
In short, he’s not exactly the person you’d expect to find at the center of a controversy over New Mexico’s environmental rules. And yet, here he is.
Olson is a former bureau chief at the New Mexico Environment Department, which regulates how industry impacts the state’s natural resources. Specifically, he has worked to keep groundwater—the underground aquifers that provide most of New Mexico’s drinking water—from becoming contaminated.
“I’m passionate about groundwater and protection issues,” he says. “It’s something that’s important to me.” It’s early May, and the state has just wrapped up a few grueling weeks’ worth of hearings about a new water pollution rule for copper mines.
To industry, the new rule represents the chance to profit and create jobs in New Mexico. Others see it as an abdication of the state’s responsibility to protect groundwater—and a move to hand over the public’s water to private companies.
“Really, we’re concerned that this copper rule turns back the clock, and turns back everything that New Mexico’s been doing to protect groundwater for 35 years,” says Phil Sisneros, a spokesman for the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
Bruce Frederick, a water rights attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, goes even further. In his view, the new rule violates the state’s 1978 Water Quality Act.
“We think it’s illegal,” he says frankly. “Now, they’re giving across-the-board exemptions for pollution from copper mines. It’s a sweet deal.”
And Olson—known for his evenhandedness—is caught smack in the middle. Before understanding the rule itself, it’s important to know why anyone would change it in the first place.
In 2009, the New Mexico Legislature passed a law requiring new groundwater rules for two industries: copper mining and dairy farming. At the time, the bill was cast as a way to clarify pollution rules by setting certain standards. The state’s Water Quality Control Commission—a 14-member group of state employees, gubernatorial appointees and citizens—would be in charge of writing the new rules.
The commission has no technical staff, so it delegated the task to NMED.
One critical aspect of the 2009 law, which was negotiated between lawmakers and industry, requires agreement from stakeholders before a new rule is approved. So not only did NMED need someone to write the rules; it also needed to hold meetings and revise the rules as needed. After NMED did the groundwork, the commission could accept or reject the changes.
That long, arduous process began in 2009.
First came the dairy rule. NMED tapped Olson, then chief of the department’s Ground Water Quality Bureau, to help rewrite it. At the time, Olson had weathered five different administrations and sat for 13 years on the Water Quality Control Commission. When it comes to technical jargon and regulatory mazes, he knows his stuff. He’s also known for navigating a middle line between industry and environmentalists.
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