Critics: As Dairies Pollute Ground Water Regulations Go Unenforced

Oct 24, 2014

Dairy cows during feeding time at a dairy on I-10 south of Las Cruces
Credit Simon Thompson

Unlike most other states, in New Mexico ground water belongs to all state residents. And some critics say weak enforcement of environmental regulations by the Martinez administration is allowing industries to contaminate the state’s ground water.

They call it ‘Dairy Row’, 10 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations lining I -10 just south of Las Cruces . Each dairy pumping out an estimated $5.8 million dollars worth of milk every single year.

According to New Mexico State University New Mexico dairies generate one hundred eighty million dollars in economic impact annually in Dona Ana County alone.

But that is not all they are producing- In New Mexico dairy farms discharge 6.4 million gallons of waste and feces every day, that’s equivalent to the waste generated by about 800,000 people. 

Rio Grande Sierra Club Conservation Coordinator Dan Lorimier says when dairy farms don’t handle this animal discharge properly by lining waste pits and discharge lagoons or too much of the waste is used to fertilize neighboring crops it ends up seeping into the soil and contaminating the ground water.

“The quality of out ground water is  highly important to us we are an arid state, we are in a drought and we need to protect this  very limited resource.” he says

Ground water is where 90% New Mexicans, like Victor Montoya get their water.  Montoya lives down hill from the Dairy Row in Anthony, New Mexico.

 “I lived there my entire life and I didn’t know that well was contaminated and I was drinking water out of that well, my entire neighborhood was.  Nobody told us it was contaminated. We kept drinking out of it.” he says

New Mexico Environment Department water studies and monitoring revealed high levels of nitrates in Anthony, New Mexico’s well water.   The Environmental Protection Agency says nitrates can cause blue baby syndrome, called so because it can turn newborns blue as oxygen is limited; babies vomit, have seizures and even die.

New Mexico Environment Department water studies and monitoring revealed high levels of nitrates in Dan Lorimier has worked with Anthony families affected who have settled with dairies following court cases and are not able to speak about it on camera.

A Nebraska study found high levels of nitrates in well water increased risk of cancers like, the non-Hodgkin lymphoma Montoya’s son Colton  battled 3 years ago.

“My wife-cut his hair and all of sudden it was like a mosquito bite and the mosquito bite just kept growing and growing until a point it was a bump here a bump here  and a bump here.  One of the most powerless moments in your life as  father is holding your son and knowing the fact that you can’t do nothing.” he says 

Other studies have found the nitrate link to cancer to be inconclusive. As a community organizer in Anthony, Montoya says he’s witnessing what nitrates are doing to kids in the community.
“You see trends we have in this community at least once a year a rally, a fundraiser to help kids with cancer.” he says

In 2011 New Mexico enacted regulations to protect ground water from dairy waste contamination.
Lorimier says the waste infrastructure standards and water monitoring policies are on par with many other states.  But implementing the rules poses increased expense to the dairy industry. Lorimier says since Susana Martinez became Governor the environment department has not been enforcing the rules.

“Unlike during the last administration where the environment department was really focused on protecting our ground water this version of our environment department seems as interested in economic development as much as our economic development department." he says

New Mexico Environment Department data indicates more than 60% of the state’s dairies are polluting ground water.

The department’s public information officer declined an interview with KRWG and The Dairy Farmers of New Mexico didn’t respond to interview requests. But both are expected to appear at meetings at the end of the year with proposed revisions to dairy regulations.

Lorimier says if those changes are approved it will only further compromise New Mexico’s scarce water resources.

“The science that supported the rules that are on the book hasn’t been superseded  by new science” he says

Montoya says while the state is not enforcing the law he says the community is working to protect its water. Through grants and a minor tax increase, Anthony, New Mexico has been able secure a 12 million dollar reverse osmosis system that purifies the city’s municipal water system.

“Ms. Martinez needs to think about the future of New Mexico with the limited amount of water we have and limited space and land we have and if she is willing to sell our soul to the highest bidder then she is going to have to  live with  the responsibilities of the communities” he says

Montoya says the dairy industry may be a major source of economic activity, but it’s operating at the expense of communities like his, communities that will have to live with the long term damage.