September 10, 2020

Congressional panel examines environmental justice issues in New Mexico

Kendra Chamberlain

A mural in Albuquerque advocating for Mount Taylor to be protected from mining. Mount Taylor, which was mined for uranium for decades, is a pilgrimage destination for at least 30 indigenous communities, including the Navajo Nation, the Hopi and Zuni peoples, and the Acoma and Laguna Pueblos. The mine was officially closed earlier this year.

U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland and Raúl Grijalva hosted a panel discussion this week about environmental justice issues in New Mexico. Local speakers discussed a wide range of environmental issues during the panel, which was held in support of the Environmental Justice for All Act currently sitting in the House Natural Resources Committee. 

“Race, poverty and the environment are increasingly recognized as interlocking issues,” said panelist Richard Moore, coordinator of the Albuquerque-based Los Jardines Institute.

Moore described environmental racism as “the intentional targeting of communities of color and other communities for anything that they [wealthier communities] don’t want in their neighborhoods.”

“Low-income communities, especially people of color, are impacted by toxic pollution,” Moore said. “Children, the elderly and women—especially women of color—are paying the highest price from pollution as a result of increased work and health problems, and economic devastation.”

Haaland said COVID-19 pandemic has “put a spotlight on the legacy of environmental racism and injustice that has left frontline communities far more susceptible to that disease than others.” 

RELATED: For Greater Chaco communities, air pollution compounds COVID-19 threat

“For years, powerful elites have treated some communities as sacrifice zones. This pandemic has forced us to question what is essential and what we value as a country,” Haaland said. “As we work to recover and look to the future, we must ask ourselves, are we going to continue with the status quo, or are we going to build a future where every community can thrive.”

Sofia Martinez, who founded the Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County, said rural communities struggle to have their concerns about environmental issues heard. 

“I think oftentimes, because we’re few and in rural areas, we’re considered dispensable. Our lives, and our people and our families are as important to us as anybody else in New York City and San Francisco and any place else,” Martinez said. 

Martinez said connectivity, both broadband and cell phone access, is limited in rural communities, which puts them at a disadvantage as most environmental issue decision-making processes have now moved online. 

“Connectivity [issues] are only exacerbating environmental justice concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. 

RELATED: BIA: Navajo members can ‘work around’ connectivity issues to participate in online forum on oil and gas development

She pointed to work her group has done to protect her community’s water and other resources 

“In terms of water, in New Mexico we’ve been in an over 15-year drought, especially in Northern New Mexico, we’re in serious water situations,” Martinez said. She noted that Indigenous water rights and acequias are the most powerful in the state. 

“Those are being violated. Today we still have a lot of continuing water theft,” she said, referring to development in the state’s big cities. “Those are taking water that legally belongs to other people. Those are things we need help with,” she said. 

RELATED: A ‘humanitarian crisis’: To’Hajiilee’s aquifer is running out of water

Her group is also fighting a proposal that would see hazardous waste transported from around the country and stored in a landfill in Wagon Mound.  

“So we’ll be receiving asbestos from Florida sludge from Orange County, California, all this stuff that we should not have to hold in Northern New Mexico,” Martinez said. “We’re very concerned because the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is proposing now to allow low-level hazardous waste to be put into landfill. The Northeastern New Mexico Regional Landfill is one of the landfills in New Mexico that can accept large volumes of special waste, so we are very concerned that low-level hazardous waste will be coming to this landfill.”

Leona Morgan, co-founder of the Nuclear Issues Study Group and Diné organizer, spoke about the legacy and impacts of uranium mining and nuclear research and development on New Mexico. 

“There are many nuclear threats to our people in New Mexico, not just from the extraction, but also the only enrichment facility, and two national nuclear labs, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” Morgan said.

“Uranium mining—world wide actually—happens on indigenous territories, about 70 percent of the time,” she said. “The overall effects of the exploitation of uranium and resulting genocidal health impacts to all living relatives, the people, the animals and to our Mother Earth—we call this nuclear colonialism.”

RELATED: Nuclear Colonialism: Indigenous opposition grows against proposal for nation’s largest nuclear storage facility in NM

Morgan pointed to a proposal by nuclear storage company Holtec International to build a storage facility for high-level nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico, not far from WIPP. 

“There is approximately 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste at reactor sites and power plants mostly in the east coast,” Morgan said. “As New Mexicans, we are faced with the threat of holding all the nuclear waste from every power plant in our home state. Communities near reactors want to get rid of that waste, for the safety of their communities. However, that doesn’t make it more safe to move it to our community.”

She emphasized the opposition to the proposal at the state level. Every tribal nation in the state has opposed the project, including the Navajo Nation and the All Pueblo Council of Governors. Gov Michelle Lujan Grisham has also voiced her opposition to the project. 

“This is one of the most egregious forms of environmental racism that we need to address,” Morgan said. 

Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, said her community has also been forced to grapple with the legacy of uranium mining. 

“We have the largest open-pit uranium mine in the world on our pueblo,” Haaland said, adding that there are three open-pit uranium mines and nine underground mines. “Our community—like many others—bore the dirty burden of pollution produced by development.”

“I know exactly how, in so many ways, this industry has devastated communities,” she said. 

The Environmental Justice for All Act, which was introduced to the House in February, affirms that “All people have the right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, live free of dangerous levels of toxic pollution, and share the benefits of a prosperous and vibrant pollution-free economy” and would amend the Civil Rights Act to enable citizens that experience discrimination to seek legal recourse for programs or policies that impact some communities disproportionately. 

The bill would also create a federal Energy Transition Economic Development Assistance Fund, which would be funded through new fees imposed on fossil fuel companies; and require federal agencies to include cumulative health impacts to local communities in permitting processes.

Martinez praised the environmental justice bill. 

“This is a great and much needed follow up to the executive orders that were done by President Bill Clinton and Gov. Bill Richardson, as well as other governors,” Martinez said. “Having a bill actually puts some legal teeth to environmental justice remedies that are in response to environmental injustice and racism in our communities.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Holtec’s proposal would store low-level nuclear waste. In fact, the proposal is for storing high-level nuclear waste. We regret the error.