- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - While federal environmental regulators have waived enforcement on a range of legally mandated public health and environmental protections, New Mexico is marching ahead.

Food inspections are ongoing as is the tracking of methane emissions and other critical work related to drinking water protections and worker safety as the number of new coronavirus cases in the state increased Monday by several dozen.

New Mexico has nearly 690 cases and the death toll remains at 12. The new cases come a day after President Donald Trump signed off on a federal disaster declaration for New Mexico, freeing up funding to supplement state, tribal and local recovery efforts.

The declaration allows the state to start asking for federal dollars up front - up to 50% - for approved projects to help with the response efforts.

“The important thing is that New Mexico now has an approved major disaster declaration and our requests will be prioritized at a higher level,” said spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis-Porter.

Officials say about 25% of the New Mexico Environment Department’s staff is focusing on COVID-19 critical services. The rest are working on permitting actions and compliance activities to the extent possible during the public health emergency, from developing new water quality improvement projects to analyzing air quality data and answering questions about the state’s hemp program.

“States are the front line of enforcement efforts - whether faced with a pandemic or another natural disaster. We adjust and proceed using our authorities,” agency spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said when asked about the federal government’s recent move to relax some enforcement.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in late March announced it would forgo a sweeping range of enforcement, saying the pandemic could make it difficult for companies to comply with public health and environment laws. The EPA said it wouldn’t fine businesses for failing to monitor or report hazardous pollutants if they can show the outbreak played a role.

While described by federal officials as a temporary measure for “extraordinary conditions,” environmental groups and former EPA officials said it was a license to pollute.

In New Mexico, state regulators will continue investigating any circumstances that pose an imminent or substantial danger to public health or the environment. Routine inspections of permitted and licensed facilities will otherwise remain a low priority.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has issued a series of public health orders aimed at getting people to stay home to curb the spread. On Monday, she extended closures of non-essential businesses until April 30 and further limited the number of people who could be inside supermarkets, hardware stores and other businesses to 20% of the maximum capacity.

The amended public health order also says lodging facilities, including RV parks, cannot operate at more than 25% maximum capacity, down from 50%.

Public schools have been shuttered and numerous businesses deemed non-essential have closed as municipal officials from Albuquerque to Las Cruces warn residents to keep their distance from one another.

The governor also directed the New Mexico Corrections Department to come up with a list of inmates whose sentences she could commute to ensure social distancing and other protections in state prisons. Those eligible would be within 30 days of their release date and have a parole plan in place. Sex offenders, and anyone convicted of domestic violence, assaulting a peace officer or felony driving under the influence wouldn’t be freed.

State officials said any complaints regarding noncompliance with the governor’s orders will be managed on a case-by-case basis.

At the end of March, the environment department conducted more than 100 inspections of restaurants and food establishments that are operating under new rules. Most were complying.

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