SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A Senate panel on Tuesday endorsed Gov. Susana Martinez's environmental manager over the objections of public-interest groups that questioned his role in the crafting of rules aimed at governing groundwater and copper mining.
After two hours of testimony, the Senate Rules Committee voted 7-3 to forward to the full Senate Ryan Flynn's nomination to serve as secretary of the state Environment Department.
The 42-member Senate could vote on Flynn's nomination later Tuesday. If the nomination is rejected, he will be forced out of his cabinet-level job.
Democratic Attorney General Gary King and environmentalists have gone to court to overturn the copper mining regulations, saying they violate state law prohibiting water contamination above certain standards.
Flynn told committee members the regulations adopted last year by the state Water Quality Control Commission are the most stringent in the country. He also acknowledged that tough decisions are part of leading the Environment 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. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said the department's handling of the copper rules amounted to a "blunder," but he voted in favor of Flynn during the committee meeting, saying Flynn has promise.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, another Albuquerque Democrat, 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.
Environmentalists have accused the department of giving in to Freeport despite months of stakeholder meetings regarding the copper rules.
Brian Shields, executive director of the water advocacy group Amigos Bravos, told the committee the effort to craft the rules was "horrific" and Flynn is not the right person for the job.
"We, as advocates for the air and the water, have really depended on having a secretary who is thinking about people's health, not about developing more business in the state," Shield said.
Flynn's supporters — from officials with the New Mexico Rural Water Association to the New Mexico Recycling Coalition and San Ildefonso Pueblo — also spoke out, saying Flynn has been able to work with them to address drinking-water issues, contamination concerns at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other environmental issues.
Flynn, who served as the department's general counsel before being appointed by the governor, also helped develop a compromise to deal with pollution at one of New Mexico's largest coal-fired power plants that will result in the partial closure of the plant and new pollution-control equipment.