Residents Expand Fight Against Water Speculation in East Mountains

SANTA FE, N.M. – Residents of the communities in the East Mountains of Albuquerque, NM, have asked a judge to compel disclosure of the attorneys’ fees and costs of Aquifer Science, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of water development company PICO Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ: PICO) that seeks to obtain water rights in the East Mountains.

The non-profit New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) filed the motion for its clients—Deep Well Protest, San Pedro Creek Estates, and North 14—asserting that the fees and costs highlight the fact that PICO and its shell companies Vidler New Mexico and Campbell Farming Corporation (the owners of Aquifer Science) are merely water speculators with no real plan to put the water to beneficial use.

Go to case page.


“Given the crucial importance of water here in New Mexico, unmasking water speculation is an important thing to do,” said Jon Block, NMELC Staff Attorney. “The application in this case is merely an attempt by out-of-state speculators to use Aquifer Science LLC to secure New Mexico’s water for their speculative purposes to make profits for the company’s shareholders,” said Block, adding that, “under New Mexico law water speculation is illegal because it substitutes the intent to profit off of holding onto water rights for putting water to beneficial use.”

Aquifer Science, LLC filed the appeal to state District Court in 2014, after it lost its bid to appropriate 717 acre-feet of water in the Sandia Basin.  The New Mexico State Engineer denied Aquifer Science’s application on the grounds that there is no unappropriated water available to satisfy the application. At that time, NMELC and volunteer Attorney Paul Hultin, Bernalillo County and dozens of self-represented protestants persuaded the State Engineer to reject the 2012 application.

PICO Holdings, Inc. is a California-based investment holding company and water development corporation that owns Vidler Water Company, which has water holdings in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Vidler Water Co. owns Vidler New Mexico, LLC, which owns 95% of Aquifer Science, and has no employees.

Campbell Farming Corporation is a 5% partner in Aquifer Science, and owns the Campbell Ranch property. Campbell Farming Corp. no longer has an office or operations in New Mexico.

New Mexico Environmental Law Center is celebrating 30 years of fighting for environmental justice for the people of New Mexico.  It is working to prevent water speculation in the Sandia Basin and in the San Augustin Plains. The NMELC’s mission is to protect New Mexico’s communities and their air, land and water in the fight for environmental justice.

INTERVIEWS AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST

Posted on 04/18/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Residents Fight Water Speculation in East Mountains

“Water is life, especially here in the high desert country, and allowing water speculators to grab our precious resources is something we all must work hard to prevent.” Jonathan Block, NMELC

SANTA FE, N.M. – Residents of the communities in the East Mountains of Albuquerque, NM, have asked a judge to throw out an appeal filed by Aquifer Science, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of water development company PICO Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ: PICO) that seeks to obtain water rights in the East Mountains.

A motion for summary judgment filed by the non-profit New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) for its clients—Deep Well Protest, San Pedro Creek Estates, and North 14—asserts that the application should be thrown out on the grounds that PICO and its shell companies Vidler New Mexico and Campbell Farming Corporation (the owners of Aquifer Science) are merely water speculators with no real a plan to put the water to beneficial use.


“The undisputed facts and law demonstrate that the application is merely the attempt by out-of-state speculators to use Aquifer Science LLC to secure New Mexico’s water for their speculative purposes to make profits for the company’s shareholders,” says Jon Block, NMELC Staff Attorney. Under New Mexico law, water speculation is illegal.

The Motion also asks Second Judicial District C. Shannon Bacon to deny Aquifer Science’s appeal based on the fact that the application (which is based upon a Master Plan from 2002) seeks more than 100 acre-feet of water for a segment of the development that is not in the approved Master Plan.

“Water is life, especially here in the high desert country, and allowing water speculators to grab our precious resources is something we all must work hard to prevent,” says Block.

Aquifer Science, LLC filed the appeal to state District Court in 2014, after it lost its bid to appropriate 717 acre-feet of water in the Sandia Basin.  The New Mexico State Engineer denied Aquifer Science’s application on the grounds that there is no unappropriated water available to satisfy the application. At that time, NMELC and volunteer Attorney Paul Hultin, Bernalillo County and dozens of self-represented protestants persuaded the State Engineer to reject the 2012 application.

PICO Holdings, Inc. is a California-based investment holding company and water development corporation that owns Vidler Water Company, which has water holdings in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Vidler Water Co. owns Vidler New Mexico, LLC, which owns 95% of Aquifer Science, and has no employees.

Campbell Farming Corporation is a 5% partner in Aquifer Science, and owns the Campbell Ranch property. Campbell Farming Corp. no longer has an office or operations in New Mexico.

New Mexico Environmental Law Center is celebrating 30 years of fighting for environmental justice for the people of New Mexico.  It is working to prevent water speculation in the Sandia Basin and in the San Augustin Plains. The NMELC’s mission is to protect New Mexico’s communities and their air, land and water in the fight for environmental justice.

INTERVIEWS AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST

Posted on 04/18/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Albuquerque Air Quality Board Upholds Polluting Permit

…should the Air Quality Act be interpreted in order to protect the people who live around these facilities or should the act be interpreted as a way to issue air pollution permits as quickly as possible?” Eric Jantz, Staff Attorney

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Yesterday, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Air Quality Board unanimously voted to deny an appeal of an air pollution permit issued to Honstein Oil & Distributing, LLC. The Honstein facility is located near homes in the San Jose neighborhood in the South Valley of Albuquerque and holds a 6,000 gallon gasoline storage tank. The facility is one of many polluting facilities found in the South Valley, a community recognized by the US EPA as an “Environmental Justice community”.

The appeal was brought by the public-interest law firm New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) for Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) and San Jose residents Esther and Steven Abeyta. The appeal stated the Air Quality Board had failed to assess actual, cumulative air pollution impacts upon the people who live in San Jose neighborhood when it granted the air pollution permit. It also failed to uphold its mandate under the New Mexico Air Quality Control Act to “prevent or abate air pollution.”


Cumulative Impacts explained

“The heart of the matter is whether the Air Quality Control Act should be interpreted to protect the people who live around these facilities, or should the Act be interpreted in a way to issue air pollution permits as quickly as possible,” says Eric Jantz, NMELC Staff Attorney. “We and our clients believe it should be interpreted to protect public health. Based on tonight’s decision, the Air Quality Board believes otherwise.”

“Even with their track record of ignoring environmental justice communities, today’s decision by the Air Quality Board is truly shameful,” says Juan Reynosa, SWOP Environmental Justice Organizer. “Once again, every party at the table agrees that there is an air quality problem in San Jose, but nobody in a position of power is willing to do anything about it. It makes us wonder what is the point of the Air Quality Board and Environmental Health Department in the first place.”

The Environmental Health Division (EHD) granted Honstein’s permit application in June 2014. The permit allows the plant to emit 2.26 tons of volatile organic compounds per year. The EHD granted the permit without considering whether Honstein’s air emissions, either alone or in combination with emissions from other pollution sources, would pose a reasonable risk to public health.

“This community carries a disproportionate burden of polluting industries and has carried that burden for years,” says Jantz. “The EHD approval of this permit fails to take into account the host of other industries pumping pollution into the air over this predominately Latino community. It sends a message to the residents of San Jose that their lives don’t matter as much as those in non-minority and more affluent neighborhoods.”

“The resources spent on these hearings, attorneys and experts, could have just as easily been spent on air monitoring in the very communities they’re fighting against” says Reynosa. “Results like today are why the community can not in good faith attempt to negotiate solutions with the City government and Air Quality Board.”

NMELC and its clients will consider next steps.

Visit NMELC Honstein case page.

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Posted on 04/13/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Sprawling Santolina, Chapter 2

With your support, Law Center Attorneys Jaimie Park and Doug Meiklejohn and our clients have begun a new fight in the case to protect water and taxpayer dollars from the proposed 90,000-person Santolina mega-development slated for the west side of Albuquerque.

Santolina Level B.1 Master Plan Public Hearing:

When: April 4 at 5 PM
Where: Vincent Griego Room, Bottom level City/County Administration Bldg,
1 Civic Plaza NW, Albuquerque, 87102-9854 (map)
*Sign up online before 3 PM on April 4 to speak.*

As you may have predicted, the system is once again breaking down.


This development would be the third largest city in New Mexico if built today…yet there are critical unanswered questions, including where the development will get water rights and “wet” water; where it will get funding for infrastructure like schools, roads and parks; and how the project will deal with building on sand dunes. Still, in January, the Bernalillo County Planning Commission recommended approval of the incomplete Santolina Level B.1 Master Plan. The Plan is now before the Bernalillo County Commission, which illegally approved the Level A Master Plan and zoning change in 2015, and which will have final administrative say over this phase of review.

Because of you, we have been able to mount a tenacious challenge to both the proposed Level B.1 Master Plan and an attempt by the developer to file an appeal after the deadline.

While this issue is in front of elected officials, it is one of those cases where you can make all the difference. Santolina not only means the Phoenix-ification of Albuquerque, but it could have far-reaching impacts on our state’s water supplies. Please join us today to challenge this ill-advised development!

See our administrative appeal of Level B.1 Master Plan
Read the filed Appeal of the approved Level A Master Plan
See full case page.

Posted on 04/03/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Keeping Residents Safe from Uranium

McKinley County Residents Advocate for protections from uranium

As a result of dogged persistence on the part of uranium-impacted residents, the McKinley County Commission promised to create a blue ribbon task force to examine how the County should address possible uranium mining in the future.

The meeting where the task force was promised almost didn’t happen. 


Renal Cancer in New Mexico
    “NM has very low cases of renal cancer…until
    you get to Mckinley and San Juan counties,”
     - Community doctor’s public comment.

Early this year, after many months of working to get a 3 year moratorium on new mining, community advocates were stunned to discover that the Commission had quietly rearranged agendas to minimize public attendance at the January 3 meeting where the draft ordinance was discussed. Rather than adopt the moratorium, the Commission adopted a meaningless resolution that directs citizens to contact federal authorities about uranium concerns (as a Law Center supporter, you know that our clients have been doing this – to no avail – for decades).


Soon thereafter, the Law Center threatened to sue over the meeting’s failure to comply with the State’s Open Meetings Act. As a result, the Commission quickly scheduled a special meeting on March 14 to reopen the uranium discussion.

More than two dozen residents attended the meeting to share their stories about sickness and contamination. Not a single person testified against the moratorium. While the nearly two hours of testimony did not dissuade the Commission from readopting the meaningless resolution, the testimony did spur the Commission to state it would create a task force that includes community members. Our clients hope that this task force will be a starting point for meaningful local response to ensure that new mining does not occur while residents continue to grapple with Cold War-era contamination.

Thank you for supporting this critical work. We will keep you informed of our progress.

Posted on 04/03/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Bernalillo County to look at next step in Santolina development

Bernalillo County Commissioners will be looking at approving the next step in getting the controversial Santolina development started on Albuquerque’s Westside…The biggest concern by opponents from the beginning has been water. An appeal by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center has been filed an appeal on behalf of opposing organizations. KRQE.com

Go to KRQE.com for full story.


Posted on 03/14/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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30th Anniversary Celebration - Save the Date!

Save the date!

We are celebrating 30 years of protect the places, resources and people of our great state. Please reserve the evening of OCTOBER 7, 2017 for a special event!

Stay tuned for details!


Posted on 03/13/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Magdalena school board amends water grab protest

“Mr. Chambers had signed the petition in the name of Magdalena Schools and the problem is only the board can enter into a lawsuit for the school, not the superintendent. And this is a lawsuit,” Jaramillo said. “The concern by the school board at the time on Monday was is this going to cost us something…so we felt like it was OK to withdraw and instructed (Superintendent) Dr. (Vannetta) Perry to go ahead and write the letter to withdraw the [protest] on the petition.”

However, in a telephone interview, Meiklejohn told El Defensor Chieftain there was, in fact, no lawsuit and that the normal application process was on schedule. El Defensor Chieftain

Go to El Defensor Chieftain for full story.


Posted on 03/09/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Residents to Weigh in on Uranium Ordinance

Commission reverses effort to bury ordinance, Special meeting March 14

With help from the Law Center and its members, affected community members have a chance to push for a three year moratorium on uranium mining in McKinley County. 
   Click to read meeting notice
A special meeting on uranium mining is scheduled before the McKinley County Commission on Tuesday, March 14 at 1:30 pm.

Time: 1:30 PM - 2:30 PM
Location: McKinley Courthouse, 3rd floor in Commissioner Chambers
Address: 207 W. Hill, Gallup, NM 87301 (map)

Members of the public are strongly encouraged to attend.

This meeting comes after the Law Center threatened to sue the Commission for violating the state’s Open Meetings Act. In violation of the law, the commission had put the moratorium on the agenda of a little-publicized meeting on January 3; after telling community advocates that the moratorium would be heard on January 10. See case page.


Community groups, including Law Center clients Red Water Pond Road Community Association and the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, worked for years to put a draft ordinance in front of the McKinley County commission. The draft ordinance would place a three year hold on mining while the County holds public meetings to collect information “on the impacts of uranium mining in McKinley County in order to determine whether it is necessary and desirable to develop an ordinance regulating uranium development in McKinley County.”

At the January 3 meeting, Commissioners put aside this proposal. Instead, seemingly at the behest of the uranium industry and State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, they adopted an ordinance encouraging affected residents to contact federal agencies with concerns – something that communities have been doing for decades to little or no avail.

“McKinley County Commissioners have a responsibility to protect their citizens from the devastating environmental and health impacts from past uranium mining,” added Susan Gordon, coordinator for the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE), which includes five groups whose members are impacted on a daily basis by Cold War contamination. “The moratorium would not impact any existing or proposed new uranium mines because there are none that are financially viable in the foreseeable future. The Commissioners should be championing health studies and working to support uranium cleanup. That will bring real jobs and economic growth to McKinley County.”

“Most of the kids in McKinley County don’t know that they live near uranium mines. And the few that do know, understand that they are impacted because of their exposures. Kids are our future. We must take the time to find out about the health impacts and learn how to protect them now and in the future,” said Teracita Keyanna, with Red Water Pond Road Community Association. The Association includes residents who live in the shadow of three Cold War-era uranium Superfund sites.

See:
Draft Moratorium
Notice of Intent to Sue letter
McKinley County Response to Notice letter

Posted on 03/06/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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ROUND 2: Santolina Hearing

Despite its failure to meet critical requirements, the massive Santolina juggernaut continues to roll over county approval processes. In January, the Bernalillo County Planning Commission gave its recommendation to approve the B.1 Level Master Plan from the developer.

The Law Center already has lodged its appeal of the Planning Commission’s recommendation with the Bernalillo County Commission, which will be the next body to consider the Level B plans.

A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, March 14 at 3 PM to hear both NMELC’s appeal and the developer’s Level B.1 Master Plan. Get meeting details. Visit Santolina case page.


In the appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision, Law Center Staff Attorney Jaimie Park protested Santolina’s failure to satisfy the “smart growth” rules adopted by the Bernalillo County Commission for planned communities. At the heart of the appeal is the failure of the developers to prove that the development (or the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority) has the necessary water rights or “wet” water for the 90,000 person development.

Law Center clients, New Mexico Health Equity Working Group, Pajarito Village Association, South Valley Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, SouthWest Organizing Project and several individuals, have asked the County Commission to defer the hearing until the state District Court rules on the Commission’s Level A approvals and Santolina submits all the required documents required under the Level A Master Plan process.

Posted on 03/06/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen Supports the NMELC all Through March!

Sweetwater
Join us at Santa Fe’s own Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen all through March 2% of each cash purchase will be donated to the Law Center!

It’s a delicious way to support environmental protection in New Mexico. See you there!

Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen
1512 Pacheco Street (map)
Building B
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505
505.795.7383


Posted on 03/01/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Bill to bring back oil and gas pollution penalty moves forward

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can authorize states to take over certain regulatory duties. Under that program, states must be able to assess penalties against companies that pollute water. But in New Mexico, the state’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD) hasn’t been able to do that for years. New Mexico Political Report

Go to New Mexico Political Report for full story.


Posted on 02/23/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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McKinley County Gets Notified Over Open Meetings Act Violations

GRANTS, N.M. — On behalf of two community groups, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center submitted a notice of intent to sue today to the McKinley County Commission identifying a possible Open Meetings Act Violation related to a meeting held in January 2017. Groups signing onto the letter include Red Water Pond Road and Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining. The letter outlines that the county failed to give proper notice about the meeting to the public, and didn’t publish the agenda in advance of the meeting.


At the January 3rd meeting, the Commission took action on a proposed uranium mining ordinance by voting on changes that gutted the policy being considered. Participants at the meeting said that the changes were introduced at the last minute, providing little to no opportunity for the public to vet them and provide comment.

The notice was delivered to the County Commission electronically on Monday, February 13th 2017. According to statute, the commission has 15 days to respond to the complaint. In response to the letter delivery, organizations released the following statements: “The County Commission was voted in by the people. They are responsible to listen to the people and make sure we understand the issues and that we have the opportunity to provide our comments. This process cut out our voices and needs to be redone,” said Anna Benally, with Red Water Pond Road Community Association.

“Most of the kids in McKinley County don’t know that they live near uranium mines. And the few that do know, understand that they are impacted because of their exposures. Kids are our future. We must take the time to find out about the health impacts and learn how to protect them now and in the future,” said Teracita Keyanna, with Red Water Pond Road Community Association.

“McKinley County Commissioners have a responsibility to protect their citizens from the devastating environmental and health impacts from past uranium mining. The moratorium would not impact any existing or proposed new uranium mines because there are none that are financially viable in the foreseeable future. The Commissioners should be championing health studies and working to support uranium cleanup. That will bring real jobs and economic growth to McKinley County,” said Susan Gordon, coordinator for the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment.

“The proposed ordinance is a critical opportunity that allows the county to evaluate the risks of new mining, while also putting safeguards in place to protect McKinley County families, natural resources, and the local economy. We stand in strong support of this ordinance, and support efforts to improve transparency at the county level to ensure that all voices are heard in the decision-making process,” said Talia Boyd, with Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund.

INTERVIEWS AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST
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Posted on 02/13/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Lawyers, Sprawl & Money

Law Center Staff Attorney Jaimie Park and Executive Director Douglas Meiklejohn continue to challenge Bernalillo County’s efforts to approve the 90,000 person Santolina development, which is proposed for Albuquerque’s west side.

Fresh off defeating a third attempt by the developer to knock our appeal of Santolina’s “Level A” approvals out of state District Court, Staff Attorney Jaimie Park challenged a preliminary recommendation for the “Level B” approvals in mid-January.

You can read our appeal along with background information on the Santolina case page.


Santolina Level B Map

Bernalillo County continues on its march to approve the ill-advised Santolina development, where developers promise homes for 90,000 people and more than 100,000 jobs on the western bluffs overlooking Albuquerque.

Look closely, though, and there are gaping holes in Santolina’s story. Developers have failed to show that they can provide water, schools, transportation, etc. and that they can do it at “no net expense” to Bernalillo County/Albuquerque taxpayers.  Still, the Bernalillo County Commission (BCC) recently approved hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for the project, and the Bernalillo County Planning Commission (CPC) recommended that the BCC adopt the “Level B” approvals for the project.

In January, Staff Attorney Jaimie Park filed our clients’ appeal of the recommendation to the BCC – we anticipate a hearing will begin on March 15th. Two major points in our appeal:

  1. Santolina still has not proven that it has water rights and “wet” water (BCC ignored this for the first round of approvals, and now CPC has given the development a pass for its segment of the Level B consideration process); and

  2. the County Commissioners cannot consider the Level B approvals at this time, because the future of the Level A approvals is still pending in state district court.


Thanks to our members for investing in this important case!

 

Posted on 02/06/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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Fighting for clean air in Albuquerque

For years, the Law Center our clients and others have fought a practice by the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County to permit air polluting facilities—asphalt batch plants, concrete bagging plants, petrochemical facilities—in low-income neighborhoods of color.

And when we say fight, we mean it: decision-makers refuse even to admit that air quality problems exist in neighborhoods like San Jose, which is home to 1% of the County’s population but a whopping 28% of its air pollution permits.


With your support, Staff Attorneys Eric Jantz and Jon Block spent three days in January representing the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) and San Jose residents Esther and Steven Abeyta in a hearing on the Honstein bulk fuel facility. We don’t have a ruling yet, but we have a fascinating synopsis of the hearing from Esther, along with tweets from SWOP’s hearing correspondent (many of which called out bad behavior on the part of regulators…and at least one cameo tweet featuring comedian Dave Chappelle…)

Key to our case is this point: under the Air Quality Control Act, EHD is required to take into account “cumulative impacts” from multiple sources of air pollution in a neighborhood when determining if a new facility or expansion would exceed air quality standards. EHD denies that it is required to do so, and even denies that there is poor air quality in these neighborhoods, despite significant anecdotal evidence and data from citizen air sampling.

SWOP streamed the hearing on their Facebook page, and its staff tweeted their impressions of the hearing. We will soon submit closing arguments.

 

Posted on 02/06/2017 • PermalinkBack to top


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