Española’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously to allow a mine with a history of environmental reporting violations to continue operating, after 234 residents signed a petition warning of unhealthy pollution from the site.
The mine is owned by Bartolome Sanchez Land Grand Corp. and extracts sand and gravel from land bestowed to Sanchez by King Philip V of Spain in 1707, according to corporation records. Records show the Land Grant spans more than five miles and includes two arroyos residents said were damaged or disturbed by the mining operation, plus a third arroyo neighbors said was largely destroyed by its extraction and processing work.
The sand and gravel extraction business has gone through several operators for the mine at 1510 N. Paseo de Oñate, including at least one operator that “self-reported” quarterly environmental reports required by the Environmental Protection Agency and relied on an “honor system” to legally certify its compliance with environmental laws, Española Planning and Land Use Director Lou Baker told planning commissioners at their March 9 meeting.
“Those air quality reports that I saw today are unacceptable,” Baker said after reviewing documents submitted by the Land Grant.
The Land Grant Corporation’s president, Chris Roybal, told planning commissioners he was not aware of any violations issued by government agencies, and that the mining operation had always been in full compliance with state and federal laws.
In fact, federal environmental regulators cited the Land Grant’s mining operations for three “significant violations” related to pollutant discharge reporting over the past three years, according to Environmental Protection Agency records. The violations stemmed from the corporation’s failure to submit Discharge Monitoring Reports, according to an EPA spokesperson. No formal Clean Water Act enforcement actions were taken by the agency against the Land Grant, the spokesperson said.
State air quality regulators have also cited the mining operation for past failures.
In June 2018, the state Environment Department’s Air Quality Bureau issued a notice of violation for a failure to properly test air quality at the site and failure to maintain appropriate records, state documents show.
The bureau originally issued a permit for the mining operation to DTT Sand and Gravel, which operated the Land Grant’s sand and gravel mine from 2007 until June 2022 when GM Pipe and Materials took over, records show.
DTT Sand & Gravel took corrective action for the 2018 violation and provided updated reports and records, leading the bureau to issue a withdrawal letter in January 2019, said state Environment Department spokesperson Matthew Maez.
DTT’s owner could not be reached for comment as of press time.
On Feb. 8, after GM Pipe and Materials’ takeover of the mining operation, a state Air Quality Bureau inspector conducted an on-site investigation in response to a resident’s complaint about excessive dust blowing from the site.
“The dust is so bad at certain times it’s not possible for cars to drive on U.S. ,” the resident reported, according to the inspection report.
The resident also shared footage of a dust storm they said was generated by reclamation work on the mined property.
The inspector “found no potential violations and determined that the windblown dust was the result of construction activity, not operation of the facility,” the report states, apparently referring to the reclamation work.
Kathryn Martinez, identified in the report as officer manager for GM Pipe and Materials, told the inspector “the dust being blown across the highway is due to construction/earth moving activity near the highway as the company is planning to build a strip mall adjacent to Highway 285 [U.S. 84],” the document states.
The inspector said they “verified adequate dust suppression controls were in place” but did not identify those measures.
“No excess emissions have been reported to AQB,” Maez said.
Roybal, the Land Grant corporation’s president, told planning commissioners the mining operation would make whatever changes the city required, including improved dust mitigation.
“We just want to be a good neighbor,” Roybal said.
There are numerous concerns in the community about the work being performed by heavy trucks and equipment at the site, city officials said.
GM Pipe and Materials recently performed what the city said was illegal reclamation on a portion of the property facing U.S. 84, contributing to dust storms that left both the interiors and exteriors of homes along the highway covered in dust, Baker and neighboring residents said. The reclamation effort was the same one that triggered an air quality inspection by the state.
Commissioners at the planning meeting scolded the corporation for the non-permitted reclamation work, which included moving large amounts of dirt with trucks and heavy machinery near the property’s entrance on U.S. 84, officials said. The work was explicitly forbidden under the corporation’s prior permit, which barred excavation within 1,300 feet of U.S. 84 to help protect nearby residents, according to the city.
Land Grant officials said the reclamation work is needed due to a large hole left by a state contractor, which the corporation worked with years earlier at the site.
After residents complained of heavy dust pollution, the reclamation work ceased.
“I believe [GM Pipe and Materials] was requested by the Land Grant to violate the special use permit,” Baker said of the reclamation effort.
Mining has been performed on Land Grant property since the 1980s, but ramped up in the 2000s before receiving a special use permit from Española in 2005, officials said. The permit allows for sand and gravel mining and processing on a 130-acre tract bordering U.S. 84 to the east and an area surrounding 31 Mile Road to the west, according to city records.
A special permit is required for the mining operation because city zoning laws prohibit extraction of natural resources from the site, records show.
Residents in the area say the mine is harming the community’s health.
James L. Gallegos, 74, who lives near the mining site, collected signatures from 234 city residents, including 209 neighbors of the Land Grant.
“On behalf of we the people who live, work or frequent businesses in the area affected by blowing dust in the air, we wish to officially file a complaint with the city of Española and the New Mexico State Environment Department of air quality and health hazard caused by the excavation done by GM Pipe and Materials,” Gallegos told planning commissioners.
Gallegos said many of the citizens he spoke with for his petition were women at home caring for children and grandchildren.
“The first thing they’d say is, ‘my little baby is always coughing,’” said Gallegos. “Asthma. That’s what’s going to happen.” Gallegos, whose grandson has asthma and cannot go outside some days because of dust pollution, said a similar situation led to the closure of a sand and gravel mine in Velarde.
That mine, operated by Española businessman Richard Cook, was located on state trust land and adjacent private land owned by Cook, officials said. Residents complained of diesel fumes, noise, unsafe traffic, dust and other nuisances caused by trucks hauling sand and gravel from the site and by the mining work itself.
The Velarde site also came under scrutiny from state agencies: Cook faced fines from the state Environment Department and was forced to remediate a high and unsafe wall of earth left by mining operations, records show.
“It happened to the people in Velarde,” said Gallegos. “They closed [the mine] up there because the kids in Velarde and Alcalde were coming down with asthma.”
In Española, children and elderly residents living near the Land Grant’s work sites have reported respiratory problems their families attribute to mining of the property, residents said. Dust from sand and gravel mines can irritate lungs and mucus membranes, with particle pollution causing a broad range of health problems, according to the American Lung Association. The organization said dust-born pollution has been linked to illness and premature death.
Some neighbors of the Land Grant said its operations are not just impacting air quality; they are also contaminating two nearby acequia systems with dust and other contaminants, concerned citizens said.
The excavation, flattening and moving of earth on the arroyos—as well as the operation’s work with concrete, asphalt and gas-reliant heavy trucks—has led to runoff that flows down into acequia water supplies, residents said. The mine’s operations are also disrupting and changing the flow of water from the arroyos to the community water systems, the residents said.
Gallegos said he does not want to see the mining operation closed down. He just wants its operators to follow state and federal environmental laws.
Nearby properties, including Gallegos’ own, “are being contaminated by whatever comes off the arroyos,” he told commissioners, including dust from the mining operation.
To deal with the dust, the Land Grant uses an estimated 11,000 gallons of potable water a day, which city officials and residents called a waste of “precious resources.” The corporation said it would switch to treated wastewater instead.
Gabriel Martinez, owner of GM Pipe and Materials, said he’s worked hard to address residents concerns, visiting their homes, taking them to see the mine and improving operations.
He said there is significant state and federal oversight of the business and “we’re in full compliance, following all guidelines and laws to make sure everything is being done properly.”
“We’ve been 100 percent responsive,” Martinez said.
Several residents spoke in favor of the mine’s work at the planning meeting, urging commissioners to approve another five-year special use permit for the Land Grant.
Baker said commissioners faced a complicated decision: On one hand were concerns about pollution and environmental damage and, on the other, a desire for what the Land Grant touted as positive economic benefits, including jobs for local, skilled workers.
“Do you want that kind of dust storm next door to your house?” Baker asked, weighing the pros and cons.
Baker did not provide the amount of Gross Receipts Tax revenue the city receives from the mining operation. But before approving the Land Grant’s request, commissioners mentioned planned future development at the site and said the corporation had donated 59 acres to the city in 1987 for its industrial park.
Baker also dropped a bombshell during the meeting, revealing the Land Grant had submitted a “fraudulent” assessment document with its permit application, accompanied by a new cover letter signed by Roybal.
The document, created by Glorieta Geoscience in Santa Fe and dated August 2020, examined a different part of the Land Grant property and was not produced for the current mining operation, officials said.
“The applicant must withdrawal any document that mentions Glorieta Geoscience...yes, it is fraudulent,” a company official wrote to the city, according to Baker.
Falsification of city permit applications and other documents submitted to government agencies can result in criminal charges.
The state’s Air Quality Bureau “is very much open to reviewing the underlying reports and/or data that support such allegations, to ensure that the information upon which AQB relied upon for issuing its permit remains accurate,” Maez said of the Land Grant’s submission.
“If the allegations of fraud concern excess emissions, falsification or exceedance of operating parameters, AQB could pursue an enforcement case, revoke the permit, or both, depending on what an investigation uncovers, or refer the matter to NMED’s Environmental Crimes Task Force,” Maez said.
Maez said the state task force was established to investigate allegations of criminal behavior, including fraud. Tips or complaints may be submitted through the Environment Department’s website at https://www.env.nm.gov/general/report-an-environmental-issue-or-incident/.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.