LAS CRUCES – The state announced Thursday it has issued a notice of violation to Helena Chemical Co. in connection to its groundwater cleanup plan for a Mesquite fertilizer facility, one day after the company won a defamation lawsuit against a local community activist.
In addition, the New Mexico Environment Department also said it has rejected the company’s request to operate without an air quality permit.
An official with Helena Chemical, however, disputed both actions.
The department notified the company of the actions in two letters, dated March 31. It announced the moves in a press release Thursday
At issue with the cleanup document is that the company has not agreed to mitigate for fluoride, chloride and dissolved solids – which are above certain levels and qualify as contaminants.
“They failed to address deficiencies in their abatement plan,” said Environment Department spokeswoman Marissa Stone.
Helena submitted a cleanup plan that addresses only nitrate levels in groundwater, Stone said.
But the company’s Mesquite operations don’t produce anything that would generate the other water contaminants, said Louis Rodrigue, vice president of Helena’s southern business operations, in an e-mailed response.
“NMED agrees that none of these substances are components of fertilizer or any other products that Helena carries,” he wrote.
Because of that, Rodrigue said, Helena Chemical proposed to stop monitoring for the additional substances in December. But the Environment Department didn’t respond to that request until the March 31 notice of violation. Even so, he said, the company has continued monitoring for fluoride, chloride and dissolved solids. He said the company will appeal.
The Environment Department first required that Helena clean up groundwater at Mesquite in 2005. According to the department, if the company declines to fix the cleanup plan, the state will resort to the next level of enforcement: a compliance order and fine.
The state denied the request for an air quality permit exemption, because Helena doesn’t meet the conditions to grant one, according to an Environment Department letter.
Rodrigue said the company asked for the air quality permit exemption in September 2008, but the department didn’t respond until the March 31 letter. Helena has monitored dust levels across the street from the facility for more than four years and has found no problems.
“Helena’s air quality permit only regulates dust, and air modeling data indicates Helena does not exceed dust emission thresholds,” he said.
A number of Mesquite residents have expressed concern about the plant over the years, saying they’re woried its a risk to their health. The company, however, disputes those allegations.
Though news of the March 31 letters came a day after the conclusion of a civil defamation trial – pursued by the company against a Mesquite activist – Stone said the events were “totally unrelated.”
A jury on Wednesday sided with Helena Chemical, in its defamation suit against Mesquite resident Arturo Uribe, who lives near the fertilizer plant. The company said Uribe’s comments about the facility defamed its reputation.’
Meanwhile, those involved with the lawsuit weighed in on the trial outcome Thursday.
Uribe said he plans to appeal the case. The company, he said, was trying to intimidate him with the lawsuit, but the suit “won’t shut me up.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said of the decision. “It should send a chill to nonprofits and organizations that deal with environmental justice and those who defend free speech. But it’s not going to scare me from speaking out when I believe something is wrong.”
Rodrigue said the ruling was “very important to Helena and our neighbors.”
“It was only without interference from Mr. Uribe’s pattern of lies that we were able to discuss the true nature of our operations,” he said. “We had the opportunity to provide factual information to a jury in open court and they agreed that Mr. Uribe has been spreading falsehoods about our operations and injured our reputation. The truth is Helena is not adversely impacting air quality, drinking water quality or the health of the citizens of Mesquite.”
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