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NMED Assists Permit Applicants in Exploiting Public

In the spring of 2002 the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) granted a permit for the state's first privately owned hazardous waste treatment and disposal super dump, Triassic Park. The 1500-page permit enables Gandy Marley, Inc. (GMI) to build and operate a facility that would accept up to 20.6 million tons of hazardous waste per year from the United States and Mexico. Included in the plans are two 5.3 million gallon evaporation ponds, with estimates that waste will be accepted at a rate of more than five trucks of per hour during the operating hours. Estimates by Gandy Marley, Inc. indicate that 50,000 gallons of water will be used per day, primarily to inhibit airborne particulates. Located approximately 43 miles east of Roswell in Chaves County, the site for Triassic Park spans 480 acres. It is tucked between the Mescalero Sands recreation area and an escarpment commonly known as the Caprock, a ridge of caliche that protects the remote edge of the Ogallala Aquifer at the eastern edge of site.

NMED lauded the site for its deep layers of Triassic era clay and lack of potable water. GMI and local legislators marketed the dump to the public as an "economic development project." Southeastern New Mexico was told to embrace this superdump in the name of an improved economy. However, proponents of the dump failed to mention that on-site industrial treatment and recycling technology has struck a blow to the hazardous waste industry in recent years. Clearly there could be little economic recovery from a floundering industry. A more lucrative industry is that of mixed waste - a combination of hazardous and low-level radioactive wastes. Although GMI officials stated under oath in the public hearing that they did not plan to take mixed waste, and NMED representatives denied the possibility, NMED's administrative record for Triassic Park contains a document dated February 4, 1999 stating: "the facility owners may request the addition of low level radioactive waste disposal a couple of years after the permit issuance." A year after the permit was issued one of the country's largest low-level radioactive treatment and storage companies, EnviroCare of Utah, sent for a copy of the Triassic Park permit. And in Carlsbad on June 30, 2003 a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) employee stated that if Carlsbad were to be chosen for the modern plutonium pit manufacturing facility, radioactive waste could be sent to the Andrews, Texas mixed waste site or to the re-permitted Triassic Park.

According to a Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste report, "How to Deal with a Proposed Facility," Triassic Park is a sterling example of waste dump siting. The choice of a dump site "has nothing to do with scientific or technical merits, but rather the perception by the operator and government policy makers that the political climate is right." The report determined that the least resistant communities to the import of waste contained concentrations of low income, poorly educated, minority, rural, Catholic and/or elderly residents. It comes as no surprise that the communities surrounding Triassic Park are indeed predominantly rural, poor, elderly and/or undereducated citizens. This demographic profile lends itself to political inactivity and a strong reliance upon the elected officials and the status quo. It also points to a significant issue that lay dormant and unaddressed in NMED's permitting process: human health.

Communities least resistant to the influx of waste industries are often most vulnerable in the public health arena. The Triassic Park site is located in Chaves County, a rural area populated with small communities already overburdened with commercial and industrial pollutants. The air quality in Chaves County is the worst in New Mexico, a state that ranks the highest in the nation in airborne particulates. In a recent complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Deborah Reade, Research Director of Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping (CARD) wrote:

"...residents in this area are already subjected to numerous pollutants from sources other than the Triassic Park facility. Nearby facilities and development include a mixed waste treatment, storage and disposal facility at Andrews, Texas, a special wastes landfill at Eunice, New Mexico; landfills, transfer stations and processing facilities (sometimes hazardous and special wastes) throughout the area; a petroleum refinery at Artesia, New Mexico; a mixed waste treatment, storage and disposal facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [WIPP]); as well as extensive oil and gas development throughout southeastern New Mexico/west Texas."

Added to this are pollutants from the dairy industry, crop dusting, cement manufacturing, industrial airfield operations and a Superfund site in downtown Roswell. In short, the area suffers from a startling number of polluting sources, even before taking into account the impending Triassic Park influx of up to 20.6 million tons of waste per year.

In the combined Chaves County communities of Roswell, Dexter, Hagerman and Lake Arthur, the minority population averages 64 percent with a high concentration of retirees and non-English speaking residents. Chaves County is riddled with poverty and has limited access to healthcare. In the years 1970 through 1996 the County had the highest cancer mortality rate in the state. Chaves County's infant mortality rate was the third highest among New Mexico counties in 1999 and it had the second highest rate of congenital anomalies from 1995 through 1999. According to Reade,"studies have shown a statistically significant correlation between living near a landfill and upper respiratory disorders, skin rashes, fatigue and headaches, cancer and birth defects." In short, the dump would add insult upon injury. To what extent, only time will tell.

Although demographics continue to be compiled and numerical correlations between disease and polluting sources emerge, industry remains neither liable nor accountable. According to the New Mexico State Assembly, the purpose of the Hazardous Waste Act of 1978 is to "confer optimum health...on its inhabitants," public health impact statements are conspicuously absent from the permitting process, leaving the burden of proof on the public and the afflicted community. As long as the vehicle for proof is disabled, nothing can change. What will remain will be unfortunate, compliant communities like those of Chaves County that easily succumb to political pressure and become unwitting participants for the"old bait and switch." At best we can hope for minimal impact and fiscal lemonade from this superdump lemon. But until then Chaves County better not hold its breath. On the other hand, maybe it should.

Deborah A. Petrone is a resident of Hagerman, NM. She is an independent researcher, and has served as an educator for New Mexico Wastewatch during the 2003 New Mexico legislative session. Deborah sits on the board of Fambrough Mutual Domestic Water Consumer's Association and is an instructor at ENMU Roswell.

Editor's note: Caliche is a layer of soil in which the soil particles have been cemented together by lime (calcium carbonate, CaCO3). Caliche is usually found as a light-colored layer in the soil or as white or cream-colored concretions (lumps) mixed with the soil. Layers will vary in thickness from a few inches to several feet, and there may be more than one caliche layer in the soil.

For further information:

Center for Health, Environment and Justice
formerly Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, Inc.
P.O. Box 6806,
Falls Church, Virginia 22040
(703) 237-2249
email: chej@chej.org

Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping
Deborah Reade, Research Director
202 Harvard S.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87106
(505) 266-2663

New Mexico Environment Department
P.O. Box 26110
1190 St. Francis Drive, N4050
Santa Fe, New Mexico USA 87502-0110
(800) 219-6157 or
(505) 827-2855

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"When uranium mining and processing became big business during the Cold War, the federal government subsidized the industry. Most of the United States' uranium came out of Navajo ground. The Navajo people had a nominal say in the process at the time, but have endured all of the consequences since then. The land was torn open for our nuclear arsenal and the Navajo people are still dying from the cancers and illnesses that it caused.

I do not want a fourth generation of my people to suffer from the physical, psychological and cultural devastation caused by predatory energy practices. The lack of tribal consent contained in the Indian Energy title means that the federal government could override the Navajo law that prohibits uranium-mining activities on our land."
–Joe Shirley, Jr. President, Navajo Nation
"Senate Energy Bill Exploits Indian Resources"
Albuquerque Journal, July 18, 2003

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