New Mexico judge clears way for landmark oil and gas pollution lawsuit

Jun 12, 2024

A historic lawsuit in New Mexico will move forward after a judge denied the state’s request it be dismissed. The lawsuit centers on the state’s responsibility to protect its residents from the effects of pollution. 

Plaintiff Mario Atencio, who grew up in rural New Mexico, is suing the state over its failure to protect residents from the impacts that fossil fuel extraction has on poor, frontline communities. Oil and gas operations emit chemicals, like benzene, which can cause cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Research has also found a connection between natural gas well activity and increased rates of birth defects. The Oil and Gas Threat Map shows tens of thousands of New Mexicans live within half a mile of oil and gas production sites, with disproportionate impacts on Native American and Hispanic residents.

The case could have sweeping implications for oil and gas drilling in the state, depending on its outcome. Regardless of who wins, the state legislature has absolute immunity from any liability under the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, according to the judge.

Julia Bernal, another plaintiff in the case, said she is hopeful that the courts will rule in their favor. But simply being able to bring the lawsuit is a win in and of itself. “If an outcome of this case outside of the courtroom is to speak to the story about historical legacies of extractivism and harm on traditional communities in New Mexico, then that will also serve its purpose,” she told KUNM.

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When communities see coal companies cutting corners and violating the law, they deserve to know that wrongdoers will be held accountable in a timely manner.”

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turtle on rocks

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Have you heard about the latest challenge? It’s incredibly difficult, but we dare you to try it! The rules are simple: look at this Blanding’s turtle for one minute without smiling.

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Oil Wells outside of Artesia, New Mexico, just North of Carlsbad. Source: Simon Foot, Flickr