By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
Eastern New Mexico University Regents unanimously approved a resolution Friday addressing noxious odors from outside the campus.
The vote, which drew a packed house, clears the way for the university’s administration to speak up on behalf of the school at a New Mexico Environment Department public hearing on a sewer lagoon permit for Stepping Stone Dairy located just outside city limits to the south of the campus.
While the issue has come up recently on the agendas of Roosevelt County commissioners and Portales city council, the regents are the only board to take action on the issue. Some who spoke at Friday’s meeting doubted that having the administration speak up at the May 10 hearing would make a difference. But regents said they had a responsibility to the institution to act.
“There’s no way we have the authority to intervene in city and county business,” Regents President Jay Gurley said. “We know what our authority is. But we have a responsibility as regents to protect the well-being of our students and faculty.”
Regent Alva Carter noted the multitude of conflicts of interest among those debating the issue. Carter said they ranged from Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega Jr., who also works at the university, to university agriculture instructors who have utilized the proximity of the Stepping Stone Dairy as a convenience for agriculture students doing field work, to his own ownership of a dairy in the county.
“I feel embarrassed that we as a board of regents has to be involved in it,” Carter said. “We’re a board of education. We need to be looking to the future. We need to work together to solve the problems,” he said, suggesting the county and city also needed to become proactive on the issue.
No one from the city of Portales was in attendance, but commissioner David Sanders was on hand to speak for Roosevelt County. He said the county recognized the problem, but county residents value independence from regulation. Sanders noted a recent fire ban ordinance and the debate it drew in commissioners’ meetings as evidence.
“We’re going to have to look at ’em like anyone else,” Sanders said. “One issue at a time.”
Sanders said he didn’t have a problem with the resolution the regents were considering, but noted it didn’t appear to have any teeth.
Janelle Paiz, a county resident who lives in the area of Stepping Stone Dairy and has circulated a petition to prevent permitting of the lagoon, was in attendance and expressed concerns with the dairy. She said besides the potential for odors, she’s concerned about fly problems, a drowning hazard and ground water contamination.
She said runoff water has also been an issue, and she’s concerned about West Nile Virus from mosquitos.
Dairy owner/operator Kevin Breshears, who took over the dairy last year, said he’s not putting in the lagoon because he wants to; he’s been ordered by NMED to build it. He’s also noted it will be lined and is being constructed at the back of the property as far away from neighboring residences as possible. He said it will be fenced when completed.
Breshears said the new, larger lagoon should help eliminate odors, which will be beneficial to the university, the neighborhood and the community.
“I’m concerned you could oppose something you don’t understand and stop an improvement,” Breshears said.
“I think it’s been said before we have no teeth here,” Carter said prior to voting. “I don’t think it hurts for us to bark a bit.”
ENMU President Steven Gamble told regents he plans to tell NMED at the hearing the institution is a dairy-friendly university and recognizes the dairy business is the area’s economic engine.
“At the same time there needs to be a balance,” Gamble said. “It’s starting to tip a little bit in the disfavor of the community.”
He said he didn’t expect for the university to offer any expert testimony in the hearing but he would express the university’s desire to see zoning and regulations put in place to prevent future problems.
At the regents last meeting they also noted other sources of odor, including those from the city wastewater treatment plant, Abengoa’s ethanol plant and DairiConcepts milk processing plant.