A virtual reproductive-justice rally to underscore the importance of repealing the 1969 abortion ban in the state took place Monday. Because of the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Respect New Mexico Women, a coalition of organizations dedicated to reproductive justice, held the rally virtually to ensure safety during the pandemic. An assortment of advocates, experts, supporters and lawmakers spoke from their individual locations to talk about why repealing the 1969 ban that would outlaw abortion in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court guts or overturns Roe v. Wade is crucial to healthcare. Related: New Mexico’s 1969 abortion law was one in a long line of laws restricting access
There were calls to action and two Albuquerque Democratic legislators, state Sen. Linda Lopez and state state Rep. Georgene Louis, of the Acoma Pueblo, spoke about why they are sponsoring the Senate and House bills. Lopez said “every pregnancy is unique and complex.”’
“Making a decision not to continue a pregnancy is very difficult and very personal,” she said.
Thursday night, a group of Indigenous community leaders gave presentations about the legacy of uranium mining in the state that still threatens the health and environment of their communities, decades after the last mines ceased operations.
From the 1940s through the early 1990s, New Mexico produced roughly 70 percent of the uranium in the United States, which was used in nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Members of Indigenous communities across the state did most of the dangerous mining of the radioactive material, and those communities are still struggling to hold the federal government accountable for cleaning up the toxic contamination that was left behind.
“We felt that there were a large portion of our communities across the state that still remain largely unaware of the major environmental justice impacts that uranium continues to have on so many individuals—especially our Indigenous communities—across the state,” said Virginia Necochea, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), which organized the online event.
“It’s very important that we recognize that there are hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned mines, unsealed pits, mine entrances, tailing ponds, waste piles, highly radioactive materials and toxic chemicals from uranium mining and milling, many that have yet to be cleaned up and continue to pose significant health threats,” Necochea said. “This continued uranium contamination that we witness, and that our communities continue to face, is a clear example of environmental racism and an environmental injustice that continues.”
A state of sacrifice zones
Much of the uranium mining that occurred in New Mexico was on tribal lands and was performed by tribal members. The Grants Mining District and the nearby Navajo Nation is home to one of the country’s most productive uranium belts, and the region was one of the most intensely-mined areas in the U.S., according to Manuel Pino, a member of Acoma Pueblo and an organizer of the Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment (LACSE). Today, there are more than 1,000 remaining uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that have not been reclaimed or remediated.
Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo said the federal government did not consult with pueblo leaders before deciding to end most of the healthcare services offered at a regional medical facility that serves roughly 9,000 Indigenous residents.
Indian Health Service (IHS), which sits under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recently suspended most of the services offered at the Acoma-Cañoncito-Laguna (ACL) unit, including inpatient critical care and emergency room services, converting the facility into a “limited hour urgent care,” according to a press release from Acoma Pueblo. The facility will still offer COVID-19 testing, but will no longer accept patients or offer emergency room services.
The facility serves Indigenous communities of Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo and the To’Hajiilee chapter of the Navajo Nation. The hospital serves roughly 9,000 Indigenous residents, and has a 25 inpatient bed capacity.
The suspension of services comes as COVID-19 cases surge across the state and hospital bed capacity has quickly been filled. Vallo issued a state of emergency declaration on Nov. 6 in response to the closure.
RELATED: State to reimpose shutdown starting Monday: ‘We are in a life or death situation’
“The closure of the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna hospital by the Indian Health Services is one of the most devastating events to occur at our Pueblo, and could not have come at a worse time,” Vallo said during a press conference Monday.
Tribal governments are working with archaeologists to identify thousands of culturally-sensitive sites and resources in the Greater Chaco region, in hopes of preventing oil and gas development in the area from encroaching further onto the sacred landscape.
The studies are part of a multi-pronged strategy to protect the area amid increased oil and gas leasing on federal lands in New Mexico. Under the Trump administration, oil and gas leasing on federal lands, including land in the Greater Chaco region, has increased fourfold in the state.
Last year, Congress passed a bill granting a one-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing within 10 miles of the Chaco Culture Historical National Park. That moratorium expires later this week on September 30.
Meanwhile, the deadline for public comments on a proposal that could see as many as 3,000 new oil and gas leases sold in the Greater Chaco landscape passed September 25. The deadline took place amid repeated calls made by tribal governments and members of the New Mexico congressional delegation for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to halt the proceedings until after the COVID-19 pandemic had ended and the virus is contained.
Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo expressed disappointment that BLM and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is also involved in the proposal, did not further delay the public comment period.
“We are very discouraged by the fact that these deadlines have remained in place, even while we have made numerous attempts, and have voiced even through our congressional delegations, the need to pause some of these activities as a result of the public health crisis,” Vallo said during a webinar about oil and gas development in the Greater Chaco region.
RELATED: DOI ‘expediting’ Chaco drilling proposal during pandemic
But Vallo added that he’s hopeful BLM and BIA will offer up more opportunities for tribal consultation on the proposal moving forward. Vallo said that, despite the pandemic and its impacts on tribal communities in the state, there was a great response from the pueblos and other indigenous nations who submitted comments expressing their concerns.
Gov. Susana Martinez signed a gaming compact between the state of New Mexico and five tribal governments on Monday. The compact, which will last until 2037, outlines the agreement between the state and tribal governments regarding gaming facilities. In a written statement, Martinez said the compact will benefit all parties involved. “I’m pleased that we were able to come together to secure this compact,” Martinez said. “It preserves the stability and predictability of gaming in New Mexico while addressing key priorities of the State and each individual tribal government.”
The compact adjusted the amount of revenue shared by tribes to the state.
The gaming compact that outlines the agreement between five Native American tribes and the state of New Mexico was approved by the House by to 60 to 5 vote. The new compact would allow tribes to operate gaming facilities 24 hours a day, extend lines of credit to those gambling and compensate food and drink. The agreement also defines the amount of net winnings tribes would pay the state in exchange for gaming exclusivity. Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, presented the compact in the form of the a joint resolution and told the body how important the compact is to both the state and tribes. “The needs of the five tribes and the state have been protected,” Clahchischilliage said.
The Senate approved a tribal gaming compact by vote of 35 to 7 on Wednesday evening. After an hour-long debate, Senators voted to send the proposed gaming compact to the House floor. The compact, which was negotiated between representatives of Gov. Susana Martinez’s office and five New Mexico tribes, would expire in 2037. See our primer on gaming compacts written before the session. Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, who is chairman of the Committee on Compacts, presented the compact in the form of a Joint Resolution.
The Committee on Compacts met on Saturday and sent a proposed gaming compact between the state and tribes to the Senate on a 15 to 1 vote. Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, was the only member to cast a dissenting vote. He said he thought there are already too many casinos in the state. The five tribes that negotiated with Gov. Susana Martinez’s office urged the committee to approve the proposed compact. Each tribe representative had different talking points, but they all stressed that the compact should to be approved soon to keep casino doors open and keep money flowing into the state’s coffers.
A legislative committee tasked with approving a gaming agreement between Native American tribes and New Mexico met for the first time on Tuesday. The Committee on Compacts heard from a representative of the governor’s office, and later asked questions, about the proposed gaming compact. The committee did not hear from the public or tribal officials but will at a future hearing. Jessica Hernandez, deputy chief-of-staff and general counsel for Gov. Susana Martinez, briefed the committee made up of Senators and Representatives about the proposed agreement between the state and five tribes. Some of the differences she highlighted were revenue sharing percentages and player credit lines.
Representatives and tribal leaders from around New Mexico addressed lawmakers on the Senate floor on Wednesday. Tribal members addressed their concerns about a working relationship with the state including ways to increase revenue. The groups were invited by the Senate in an effort to fix what Democrats said was a slight by Governor Susana Martinez last week. Senate Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, called a committee of the whole Senate and invited members of the House to attend. Sanchez told New Mexico Political Report that he asked the groups to come back after it was apparent that they were not happy.