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July 29, 2009 - NM Will Not Consider Helena Chemical Settlement

July 29, 2009 - NM Will Not Consider Helena Chemical Settlement

A noticeably frustrated Ron Curry, cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Environment Department, said Monday that a proposed settlement offer from Helena Chemical Co. for alleged violations at its Mesquite fertilizer plant was not going to be considered in confidential negotiations between the company and environment department.

Last week, Helena offered to donate as much as $150,000 to install central air conditioning at Garfield Elementary School, as a supplemental environmental project (SEP) to settle its alleged violations. But Curry said environment department lawyers had previously advised Helena's lawyers, twice in writing, that any SEP offer was "off the table" and would not be considered.

"We told them in May and again in June that the SEP was off the table," Curry said. "I was really sad, disappointed to see that offer in the paper. They never spoke to us, (we had) never given them any approval of (a SEP). This is a case of misleading the public. We told them very clearly this (offer) wasn't going to happen."

Several times, Curry referred to Helena's offer as "disingenuous."

But Louis Rodrigue, vice president of Helena's southern business unit, which includes company operations in New Mexico, said the offer is genuine.

"Helena is very fortunate to have found a great partner in Hatch Valley Public Schools to develop a Supplemental Environmental Project that will directly improve air quality and provide more comfortable conditions for the students and faculty at Garfield Elementary," Rodrigue said.

He reiterated that SEPs are often used to help improve air quality problems within communities. Rodrigue added that supplemental environmental projects are determined before the proposals are ever submitted to the governmental agency that has levied fines.

Rodrigue said Helena officials approached officials in the Gadsden Independent School District about donating money for a central air conditioning system at Mesquite Elementary School. However, officials in the Hatch Valley Public Schools, and state Rep. Andy Nu ez, D-Hatch, were more receptive about the proposal.

"We talked with community leaders and several public officials, including Representative Andy Nu ez, to identify community needs," Rodrigue said. "The first conversations we had were with the Gadsden Independent School District and Mesquite Elementary, an immediate neighbor of Helena's facility in Mesquite. Those discussions did not progress and we decided to expand our outreach."

Curry said the offer to Mesquite Elementary School was not rejected by the school district.

"Gadsden Independent School District officials said it was not their decision to make," said Curry, of Helena's offer to that school district. "They told (Helena) that they had to work that out with NMED."

Curry added that a similar offer was also made to New Mexico State University, but it also did not progress. He said he normally likes the SEP process as opposed to fines going to the state general fund, but said an SEP with Helena regarding violations a few years ago only served to increase tensions with the community. Curry also said that any SEP would have to be in the impacted community -- Hatch would not qualify.

Mesquite resident Arturo Uribe, a frequent critic of Helena, supported the environment department.

"I'm proud of the stance the secretary has taken," Uribe said. "This offer, or whatever you choose to call it, is a direct slap in the face and an insult to the Mesquite community. If Helena was sincere in helping the community, why didn't they come back here and talk directly to the community leaders?"

Uribe and Helena have filed counter lawsuits against each other. Both of those continue to be adjudicated.

Helena faces 11 alleged violations of the company's air quality permit, mostly consisting of administrative and record keeping issues.

Rodrigue said Helena is committed to resolving the accusations made by NMED. But he also maintains that scientific studies have shown that the Mesquite fertilizer plant has no negative impact on air quality.

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