The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) fined El Paso Water $1.2 million Thursday for illegal sewage discharge into the Rio Grande in Sunland Park, New Mexico.
Between August 2021 and January 2022 El Paso Water dumped an estimated 1.1 billion gallons of raw sewage into the Rio Grande, at a rate of six to 10 million gallons a day. The sewage discharge took place in the Sunland Park area, along the Texas-New Mexico border, and also impacted water quality in Chihuahua, Mexico. El Paso Water recently completed cleanup of the sewage in the river and adjoining canals.
NMED also issued administrative compliance orders that require the utility to clean the impacted area and fix the problems that caused the diversion into the river.
“El Paso Water’s flagrant disregard for the health and welfare of New Mexicans in Sunland is astonishing,” said NMED secretary James Kenney. “We are holding this polluter accountable for their malfeasance and will not stop doing so until the damage is corrected and El Paso Water can assure the New Mexico Environment Department such a discharge will not happen again.”
In a statement responding to the fines, El Paso Water said the discharge did not adversely impact the environment or public health and that the utility coordinated with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NMED and “made every effort to expedite the replacement of the 1.2 miles of pipeline and clean up the impacted area.”
TCEQ and EPA have not issued fines to the utility.
New Mexico acts on discharge that impacted three states, two countries
The Frontera Force wastewater lines, operated by El Paso Water, suffered breaks on Aug. 13, 2021, causing wastewater to enter homes and businesses in the Sunland Park, New Mexico area. El Paso Water diverted the sewage into the Rio Grande to avoid further human contact. NMED pinpoints the discharge point as just upstream of Corchesne Bridge at the Doniphan Outfall.
El Paso Water holds a Texas Pollution Discharge Elimination Permit from TCEQ authorizing the quality of the water that the utility can discharge to the Rio Grande. The utility reported the discharge to the TCEQ. But NMED said the New Mexico counterpart was not alerted, in violation of the Water Quality Act and Water Quality Control Commission regulations. El Paso Water has not responded to this allegation.
According to the NMED, the raw wastewater travelled along the New Mexico-Texas border for approximately 1.9 miles. The discharge continued until January 10, 2022.
In issuing the fine, NMED said untreated sewage contains pathogens that can cause diseases including cholera, giardia, and hepatitis A.
“The discharge of untreated wastewater into a surface waterbody and groundwater can pose a significant hazard to public health and our economy if it impacts public water supplies, private homeowner drinking water wells, crop irrigation, livestock watering or outdoor recreational activities,” NMED stated.
“There was no adverse impact to the public health or the environment,” El Paso Water said in a statement. “We are currently reviewing the Administrative Compliance Orders issued by the New Mexico Environment Department and will take any necessary and appropriate actions.”
In addition to the $1.2 million fine, NMED is requiring El Paso Water to submit plans to fix the problems that led to the illegal discharge and “corrective actions to assess potential future impacts to the health and environment.”
No fines so far from Texas and federal regulators
TCEQ is responsible for most Clean Water Act enforcement authorities in Texas, with the EPA playing an oversight role.
At a September 2021 Public Service Board meeting, El Paso Water representatives said TCEQ inspectors had already been on-site to address the illegal discharge. TCEQ said they were monitoring the discharge and would determine whether to fine El Paso Water once the discharge ended and cleanup was completed.
In December 2021, EPA Region 6, which covers Texas, requested information from El Paso Water about the discharge.
Once the new wastewater main was connected in January 2022, the discharge ended. El Paso Water coordinated clean up efforts that concluded in May.
Neither the EPA nor TCEQ have issued financial penalties to El Paso Water. This story will be updated with any additional statements from TCEQ and EPA Region 6.
Staff writer Martha Pskowski may be reached at [email protected] and @psskow on Twitter.