The ammonia spill at Desert Air Cooling Co. in Mesquite last Thursday evening is a test case of just how adequate the state's environmental law enforcement system is. From what I have seen in the Las Cruces Sun News coverage by Ashley Meeks of the event, Desert Air did not comply with their legal obligation to call a hot-line within 24 hours of the event, nor, according to a witness, did employees of the company allow firefighters into the plant to investigate, nor did they call 911. If these indications are true there was an extremely serious breach of trust between company employees and the public, and we will monitor to see what the state--the responsible agent in this case--will do to punish infractions and what steps it might take to prevent such incidences from reappearing here or somewhere else in the state.
As covered in the Sun News, a valve malfunctioned on an ammonia tank at Desert Air (a company that chills lettuce for shipping), causing pressurized, liquid ammonia to escape into the air, at about 7 p.m. on Thursday evening. A number of residents reported serious symptoms from breathing the contaminated air, and there is the possibility that the spill could affect groundwater supplies. Meeks reports that Desert Air has refused to state what happened, referring questions to the manager of a different company, Charles Johnson Co., who has been unavailable. It is unclear why firefighters who were refused entry to the plant did not call FEMA and seek federal assistance during the incident.
Citizens of Mesquite have for many years found, to their dissatisfaction, that the wheels of justice in the area of environmental law turn very slowly, if at all, and only when the entire community is mobilized, something that requires enormous amounts of time and energy.
It should not be this way. No function of government is as important as providing for the safety of its citizens, and when this is threatened, state intervention should be swift, decisive, and automatic. This is not a liberal or conservative issue; it is much more fundamental than that, and goes back to the very reason for the existence of government in the first place. Thus, the action of the state in response to this incident should be of concern to all New Mexicans.
I emphasize this only because many citizens of the south valley are not pleased at the apparent lack of concern by state environmental authorities as these have handled complaints about landfills, chemical plants, and other potentially damaging environmental threats. If the state's environmental laws don't carry enough bite in them to act as a serious deterrent, this would be a good time for environmental officials to make some strong recommendations to the legislature, including the imposition of criminal charges for failure to abide by legal requirements.
The state of New Mexico owes it to the citizens of Mesquite, and, by extension, the rest of the state, to explain clearly just which laws, if any, were broken, and, if so, what the penalties will be. Just as Desert Air should be held accountable to the state for its actions, or lack of actions, on Thursday night, the state of New Mexico should be held accountable by the citizens of the state for its responsibilities in assuring the safety of each community.