MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Listening Sessions Highlight Environmental Justice: New Mexico Environment Department Looks for Solutions

This summer the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) is conducting "Listening Sessions" in four locations throughout the state in an effort to highlight environmental justice concerns in New Mexico. Listening sessions are geared for the public to provide input and comments on environmental concerns in their respective communities. The comments will be used to create and carry out initiatives in the form of planning and policies to work toward effective solutions.

As such, NMED Secretary Ron Curry and Deputy Secretary Derrith Watchman-Moore have appointed an Environmental Justice Planning Committee. Committee members are made up of industry representatives, government agency members such as county of governments, New Mexico Environment Department representatives, and members of the public. Members are responsible for the design of public listening sessions, discussion of important and relevant issues, and promotion of an authentic participatory process. The planning phase involves identifying key constituents and conducting outreach to grassroots individuals and corresponding community organizations. The idea is engage government agency and industry affiliates in a role as a listener to problems and potential solutions for the public's interest.

Judith Espinosa and Alliance for Transportation Research (ATR Institute) housed at the University of New Mexico provide staff and technical assistance to the Environmental Justice Planning Committee. Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) staff members Frances Ortega and Paul Robinson are members of a team directed by ATR Institute to assist with the project. The team has assisted in planning the sessions and recording presentations and remarks. They are currently providing support in compiling and summarizing the voluminous comments. The results, including recommendations, will be provided in a final report to the NMED secretary.

To date three sessions have been held. The first listening meeting took place in Deming, New Mexico at the Mimbres Valley Special Events Center on June 30, 2004. The Deming meeting focused on issues relevant to the southwestern portion of the state. Some of the topics identified for this region include farmworker issues, agricultural impacts to water and air quality, impacts of growth on water resources for agricultural and domestic use, mining, hazardous and solid wastes, colonias and border issues.

Richard Moore, Executive Director for Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ) opened the meeting and spoke of his involvement in environmental justice and experience working with coalitions on similar issues throughout New Mexico. Moore stated that "Facilities are located in low-income working class communities," and that "Environmental justice goes back to the 1940s and 1950s and the mining situations in Silver City, New Mexico where miners went on strike on behalf of their families for better wages and worker health and safety issues."

Carlos Marentes works with the Center for Agricultural Workers in El Paso, Texas and spoke of the annual median income for chile pickers that falls well below poverty level at $7,000 per year. Marentes explained that health issues stem from non-compliance by employers who do not provide water or toilets for workers, "One time, three years ago during the summer months the temperature was 100 degrees and workers complained and demanded drinking water. The employer took their container and placed the bucket with water in the middle of the fields. Later that evening 11 workers became ill and had to be hospitalized." The safety and treatment of agricultural workers continues to be an ongoing problem for those who provide the bulk of manual agricultural labor for the state of New Mexico.

Las Vegas, New Mexico was the location for the next listening session, which was held at New Mexico Highlands University on July 21, 2004. This meeting consisted of issues that highlighted acequia, land grant, water quality, mining (molybdenum and gravel), forest, solid waste toxics, and illegal dumping.

Linda Velarde, co-director of the Vallecitos Mountain Refuge, helped set the context for a panel that looked at the history of environmental justice. Her story was told from the vantagepoint of land-based people. Velarde reflects on her past experiences, "We represented Save the Arroyo Hondo. Taos Ski Valley was dumping effluent (into the river) that exceeded their limit. People were drinking water from the river. This wastewater was causing diphtheria. During the ski season, we put the river in a casket because our river was dying. The ski area reps were from out of state (Texas) and the FBI told us not to cross the line. We crossed the line." Velarde notes that at the root of environmental problems is the division that occurs within the movement. Thus, she emphasized the need to be united and to respect differences in order to be truly successful.

The third session took place in Acoma, emphasizing tribal environmental justice issues. The meeting was held at the Sky City Hotel on July 27, 2004, and included the presence of the Navajo Nation EPA, and the Governors of Acoma, Laguna, and Santa Clara Pueblos. The topics that were discussed included tribal capacity building, sacred sites, mining, toxic and hazardous substances, illegal dumping, utilities, water, and air.

Phil Harrison from Shiprock, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation has worked on uranium health impacts problems for more than 25 years. Harrison states, "Our communities have been impacted by uranium mining and milling including adverse health effects among low income minority people. Lung cancers, kidney disease and birth defects back. I have hopes that NMED will recognize that the injustices and damage we have faced will not go away and will have to work with people to help restore our people and our land."

Phil goes on to say, "We need information that demonstrates risks or safety of mined lands. Would like to work with NMED and OIA (New Mexico Office of Indian Affairs) to prepare a memorial on uranium worker issues."

Wynoma Foster is from Crownpoint, New Mexico and serves her community as project manager for Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM). Foster explains, "Before there is an environmental justice action, environmental injustice have to be acknowledged and addressed. Without addressing past issues, future issues can't be addressed. All people face struggles related to power plants and hard rock mining. Uranium mining has impacts to our air and our health and our water. Water is the main issue; people in the region will run out of water within 10 years. Water is life and without water no one would be sitting here today." Wynoma frames the issue, "We struggle with a lack of data though the legacy of past mining and cancers that doctors have to look at every day. That injustice has not been dealt with today."

Environmental justice issues for the land of enchantment are wide ranging and flow into transnational boundaries of industrial and municipal waste with bordering Mexico. The Pueblo and interstate tribal issues extend into Arizona and Four Corners area. Acequia and land grant communities are particularly unique to New Mexico and present decision-making bodies that add to the list of stakeholders who interface with legal and political systems on a local and statewide basis. The listening sessions offer an opportunity for residents to speak on environmental difficulties and also provide solutions from a community perspective.

The next and final listening session will take place at the Hilton Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The dates are September 16 and 17. Please refer to the web site for agenda and updated information www.unm.edu/~ejpc.

— Frances Ortega

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"Some people in the community were behind mining, [they] thought, mining is good for money. Some Navajo families were compensated for [past] mining on their lands. They were rich for a while. But it seems like to Navajos or native people, it's not good for us. As of today, I've seen these families suffer; many are gone from alcoholism, and [many] didn't spend the money in the right way. There's nothing there, now they're suffering again. This is almost where we're headed again. In the long run, I think it's not made for the native people to be so rich off the Earth. Uranium mining, it's like it's an omen."

--Mitchell Capitan,
Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining

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