The horizon was looking a bit apocalyptic for the state's environmentalists a few short months ago.
New Mexico's freshman governor, in her first moments of taking office, tried to halt a rule that would curb greenhouse gas emissions. Then, Gov. Susana Martinez fired all seven members of the Environmental Improvement Board, the entity charged with overseeing the standards of food safety, our water supply, air quality, radiation control and more.
The new board she appointed includes two ranchers (one of whom is also a county commissioner in Lea County), two attorneys, the VP of a tech company, the general manager of a salt water disposal company and a manager of the Corporate Environmental Health and Safety program at Intel.
That last guy is James Casciano, and we got to speak with the new board member about environmental improvement and public health.
State law mandates that no more than four members of the Environmental Improvement Board can come from the same political party. As such, of the Martinez-appointed newbies, three are Democrats and four are Republicans.
“We're not going to improve the overall health of our communities if people don't have jobs and can't work."
The board has to create a balance between industry and environmental needs, he says. "Do you know what the biggest predictor of health is?" Casciano, a Republican, asks. "Well, it's poverty. ... We're not going to improve the overall health of our communities if people don't have jobs and can't work."
Casciano says the trick is not to think in terms of winners or losers but to find synergy. "We have to look at places where people come together," he says. It requires an open mind: He will evaluate issues on the merits, he says, be data-based and as fair as possible.
He reached out to members of the previous board after they were fired by the governor. He spoke with three of them about how it operated, and whether there was anything they'd have done differently, looking back. "All three of them said, It's a lot of work, and nobody will say thank you."
Members are volunteers, and so far, it's taken about four days out of each month to do the job, he says. They’re paid a per diem and for mileage. They're given a good day or two’s worth of reading before each meeting and more before a hearing.
"During our interview, that's I what I saw the governor was looking for: experience and expertise."
The first meeting was in March, and there were a backlog of issues that needed to be heard. Incineration rules are on the board's plate, as well as liquid waste regulations. Also coming up this year: three hearings in June about the Clean Air Act and its implementation in New Mexico.
This version of the board wants to be as transparent and open as possible, Casciano says. Members have deliberated publicly, and they've added a section for public comment at the beginning of every meeting.
One of Casciano's primary focuses will be to make sure the regulations are easy to understand. "The public doesn't realize the volume of regulations that are out there."
He says there's no reason to fear the new board will focus less on pollution controls. Those are governed by federal law, and state requirements fall in line with that. "The even application of those laws and making sure they're written clearly, that's most important." Board members are committed environmentalists and conservationists, but since some work in tech industries, there will likely be more questions about science and hard data. "During our interview, that's I what I saw the governor was looking for: experience and expertise."
Since Casciano works for Intel, he'll have to recuse himself from any issues or permitting that come before the board relating to the chip-manufacturer. "There are rules for that," he says.
And what about those greenhouse gas regulations that the state Supreme Court ruled Martinez couldn't halt? What does Casciano think of them? Well, it's not before the board right now. He says, overall, the greenhouse gas issue has three layers. First, there are the data, the causes and effects. There are regulations, understanding them and enforcing them. "Then you have the politics and the emotion. It's a three-tiered thing that doesn't always receive a healthy debate."
Casciano underlines the diverse background on the board. "These are people who've been out in the working world. We're looking for practical solutions."