- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The Senate on Tuesday endorsed Gov. Susana Martinez’s environmental manager over the objections of some lawmakers and public-interest groups who questioned his role in the crafting of regulations they will allow groundwater pollution by copper mines.

Lawmakers voted 30-11 to confirm the nomination of Ryan Flynn as cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department.

The governor appointed Flynn to the post last year after a retirement forced her to reshuffle her cabinet leadership. Flynn had previously served as the department’s general counsel for two years.

Flynn’s confirmation followed a two-hour hearing in which environmentalists criticized him and the department over the copper-mining regulations, which were adopted last fall by the state Water Quality Control Commission.

Democratic Attorney General Gary King and environmentalists have gone to court to overturn the regulations, saying they violate state law prohibiting water contamination above certain standards.

Flynn told members of the Senate Rules Committee the regulations are the most stringent in the country. He also acknowledged that tough decisions are part of leading the department and he’s not always going to make everyone happy.

“My job, first and foremost, is to protect the environment - and that’s non-negotiable,” he testified. “At the same time, we rely on extractive industries in this state, and we need to find the right balance to allow them to operate that will not degrade or harm our environment or endanger public health.”

Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, said Flynn has already proven himself by settling some important cases and saving the state millions of dollars. He pointed to a compromise Flynn helped broker with environmentalists, federal regulators and the Public Service Company of New Mexico to curb pollution at one of the state’s largest coal-fired power plants.

Other lawmakers said they welcomed his willingness to work with small communities that are having water quality issues as the state continues to struggle with a persistent drought.

But Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, questioned whether Flynn should be allowed to take over the regulatory agency given that the law firm he once worked for represents Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, which operates copper mines in southern New Mexico. He also reiterated allegations that the industry helped write the copper rules.

“I think there are serious questions about the porous nature of the line that now divides the regulatory infrastructure of the state of New Mexico and what is supposed to be driven by impartial, science-based and balanced rulemaking procedures and the influence of private industry,” Candelaria said.

The law firm has said Flynn never spent any time working on Freeport cases while at the firm.

While controversy is inherent with the office of secretary, several lawmakers said they believe Flynn will be able to bring people together.

Griego said Flynn has vowed to be fair and balanced and make decisions based on science.

“That’s all we ask for,” Griego said. “We don’t want decisions based on emotions, as has been done in the past.”

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