'The environment ... is where we live'

A New Mexico neighborhood offers a case study in the successes, and failures, of the environmental justice movement

 

This story introduces our Green Justice Web page and continuing coverage.

Mountain View, New Mexico

Lauro Silva shifts his minivan into gear on a sunny autumn day and begins a tour of Mountain View, a loose unincorporated neighborhood on Albuquerque's southern fringe, beside the lush Rio Grande bosque. The streets have optimistic names like Prosperity Avenue and Community Lane, but they're mostly gravel or dusty pavement or just dirt.

We tool past manufactured houses, trailers, old adobes and other modest homes, some well-kept and some with broken or boarded-up windows. There are vast naked-dirt vacant lots where buildings have been torn down and not replaced. And warehouses, junkyards, cement plants, door-manufacturing and dog-food companies, enormous tanks filled with gasoline, diesel fuel and liquid nitrogen.

Silva, a stocky 65-year-old lawyer with graying hair, bushy eyebrows and dark eyes, has lived in this neighborhood for 12 years and is working hard to improve it. About 4,300 residents are scattered across 8,400 acres here, he says. Their homes are mingled with more than 25 junkyards, five gravel and concrete companies, seven petroleum bulk terminals, a brick company, the odiferous sewage treatment plant that serves all of Albuquerque, and dozens of other industries, many surrounded by razor wire.

Railroad tracks and a four-lane truck route slice through the neighborhood and the noise is inescapable. I-25 sits along one edge, visible from homes, and low-flying jets scream as they approach and take off from the nearby international airport and Kirtland Air Force Base. "It's like the Wild West out here," Silva says -- a modern version.

He recalls the time when so much billowing smoke darkened the sky that he thought a plane had crashed. It turned out to be fuel oil burning at the power plant. He points out some of the places where companies have spilled chemicals. The neighborhood hosts two Superfund sites, where a railroad and a General Electric jet-engine plant polluted the land and groundwater with solvents and creosote. He talks about pollution monitoring by state and federal agencies and describes cleanups done in the past. Other cleanups still need to be done: A huge plume of nitrates, for instance, is drifting through the groundwater, the result of fertilizer runoff from farm fields.

Many residents with private wells drank that water for decades. Government agencies knew of the nitrate problem but failed to address it until the 1980s. Most of the homes now have city water, but people still worry about health impacts from all the local industry. Environmental laws are not always strictly enforced here. Dust from a concrete-crushing operation hangs in the air, along with high levels of diesel smoke, and the area has high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. "When they crush (the concrete), all the dust flies into people's homes and (even) their ice cubes taste like concrete," Silva says. Sometimes the dust is so bad that "people actually have to go to the hospital ER for breathing difficulties." There also appear to be elevated rates for more than 10 varieties of cancer, including brain, kidney and thyroid.

"Seventy-eight percent of the people in Mountain View are Chicano/Mexicano." More than half speak Spanish as their primary language. And nearly 40 percent of the families with children are so poor, they'd have to triple their income to climb above the federal poverty line.

"Albuquerque prefers not to have these kinds of industrial facilities within city limits," so city officials use zoning to "push everything to Mountain View," Silva says. The county government allows it. "This is an institutional process put in place by policies for many generations, and that's hard to break through."

In other words, Mountain View is like other poor neighborhoods of color, both rural and urban, that disproportionately house dirtier industries. Their residents bear an unfair share of the nation's environmental problems.

Silva calls it "environmental racism" that can only be solved by "environmental justice." Tough terms, but thousands of people around the country describe the inequality in the same way. They make up a low-budget, neighborhood-based movement that confronts intrusive industries and unresponsive governments. They simply want their neighborhoods and their health to be treated with the same respect as everyone else's.

They're environmentalists, but not philosophical descendants of John Muir and Aldo Leopold. They often have a rough relationship with the relatively wealthy, white-skinned national groups that concentrate on issues such as pristine wilderness and grizzly bears.

Mountain View is a good place to explore the difficulties and tensions. People here were involved in the beginning of the nationwide rebellion several decades ago and a series of notable leaders have been rooted here. They've also spearheaded the criticism of the big national groups, which still aren't doing much for the neighborhood. Environmentalism here is all about the local people trying to stand up for themselves.

Response to "The environment is where we live"
Jenice L. View
Jenice L. View
Feb 07, 2010 02:53 PM
How does a story about environmental justice, funded by a major mainstream foundation, reduce the life’s work of nationally known organizers and activists into a chronicle of their “personal problems?” Easy: by exercising the race and class privilege of the media through a violation of the first principle of environmental justice (“we speak for ourselves”). That the non-violent warriors of the environmental justice movement have failed to transform mainstream environmental groups into models of diversity, or to force government and industry to refrain from poisoning people of color communities is not a reflection of the “weaknesses” or “personal problems” of these warriors; it is a statement about the virulent institutional racism and class biases that continue to dominate all institutions in the U.S. Richard Moore and the other environmental justice organizers and activists deserve better than this story. Why not, instead, pay these warriors to tell their own stories? Because, as Marla Painter said, “…the racial tone of everything (makes political work) so delicate….” Yes, it is hard work bringing down systems of oppression, and there are too few white middle-class male allies in this work. Still.
Systems of oppression
Wayne Hare
Wayne Hare
Feb 09, 2010 07:45 PM
“…it is hard work bringing down systems of oppression, and there are too few white middle-class male allies in this work.”

Ahhhh…and therein lies the rub. For as long as we approach our competition as oppressors, with bringing them down our goal, we will convey and we will believe that for ‘us’ to win, ‘they’ must lose. It’s hard to gather support for win-lose. The truth, albeit sometimes very hard to see, is that when it comes to a clean environment, and environmental justice, in the long run there are only winners. There are no losers. No oppressors. We can move forward with pragmatism, but not with rhetoric. And, I’m pretty sure that we people of color can succeed even without the involvement of men of pallor. Most groups fight their own battles.
response to j view
pam tau lee
pam tau lee
Feb 17, 2010 02:49 PM
well said, thank you!
The environment is where we live
Marla Painter
Marla Painter
Feb 10, 2010 10:58 AM
To the Editor:

Thank you for writing about the Mountain View Neighborhood in Bernalillo County, NM in the February 1 issue of HCN.

It is rare that communities suffering from the injustice of disproportionate levels of environmental degradation are given attention in the media. We appreciate the thoughtful article. I cringed to read about our deficiencies as activists and community organizers. Nevertheless, you captured the challenges that face our community.

I need to clarify some of the statements attributed to me in the article.

As a White woman, I have been organizing within and along side communities of color for thirty-five years. We have lost and we have won. The times when we win have certain common characteristics.

First is the recognition that there is racism, sexism and classism in our movement as well as in the world. For example, white folks, typically men, tend to dominate discussions and decision-making processes. People of good will and energy who want to fix the world have a moral obligation to work on the perpetual crisis of power inequities.

But an issue campaign was never won by people who daily measure where they sit on the ladder of oppression. If our primary purpose is to banish people in shame who have not perfected themselves as human beings, then banishment is what we accomplish. If we work together to focus on problems that harm us all, we cannot escape the work of addressing the oppressions that limit our success.

Second, a diverse array of people must gather to focus on the issue at hand and leave our weapons outside the door. It is essential to agree to disagree and respect each other and our different life experiences. Otherwise, we chase our tails in a perpetual cycle of blame, self-protection, and again, blame.

The coalition to stop deployment of the MX missile twenty odd years ago worked because members of the Coalition had a rage in their gut to stop the insanity of deploying hundreds of nuclear weapons around the rural West. The diversity of that broad coalition made us strong and solid. We won. And we had to abide each other and our differences for close to ten years.

Beginning in 1975, there was another successful fight. The Yucca Mountain proposal to transport nuclear waste on the nation’s roads, rails and waterways died this month. We kept a sometimes-fragile coalition of people and groups unified around that one issue. Native peoples, ranchers, prospectors, bureaucrats, scientists, peace activists, casino operators, and environmentalists with a wide range of political identities all sat at the same table for thirty-five years.

If all of these people had decided to focus on the primacy of their individual political worldview rather than the one common issue around which we could all progress, the victories would not have occurred and we would all be the worse off.

My fatigue and frustration with the emphasis on our differences rather than our common vision came out in some of my statements to HCN. In the final analysis however, it was rage against the machine, not the people I work with.

We who care about the West and all living things who inhabit it might take note of how we subvert ourselves and how we can win our struggles more often than we lose.

Marla Painter
Albuquerque, NM
The environment...is where we live
Michael Leon Guerrero
Michael Leon Guerrero
Feb 14, 2010 11:46 PM

Are there no “personal problems” to document from leaders in the mainstream conservation organizations? As an organizer with the SouthWest Organizing Project for several years, I was also very disturbed to see the legacy of a movement leader like Richard Moore reduced to “a 63-year-old jail inmate, serving a six-month term for a drunken-driving accident that left a young Air Force recruit with brain injuries.”

Your article “The environment...is where we live” does not do justice to the significance of the environmental justice movement. It trivializes its accomplishments and leaders, and falls short of understanding the relevance of the debates with the environmental groups.

I arrived at SWOP in 1987 and had the great fortune of working with Richard Moore and Jeanne Gauna. Far from being a person whose personality was a mix of “idealism and a quick temper”, Richard was a great teacher, a thoughtful listener, and a consensus builder. He also had a fierce commitment to justice and poor and working class people. He is an eloquent speaker who fights for his ideals, but even more, he has helped thousands of others to find their voice. “We speak for ourselves” was a rallying cry of the EJ movement. Richard embodied that principle.

Many environmentalists mischaracterize the intent of the letters that were written to the Group of Ten and other environmental groups. They would say that people of color wanted to be included in the environmental movement and be part of their agenda. In fact, that was not the case. The EJ movement was issuing a call to environmentalists to be part of a broader global struggle for economic, social and environmental justice. The call was for them to understand and confront the multiple forms of oppression like racism, sexism, colonialism and economic injustice that prevent us all from realizing sustainable and healthy communities. By ignoring this, environmental groups were taking positions that were fundamentally at odds with communities of color and Indigenous communities. This included legislation that annexed sacred lands from tribes, outlawed historical grazing practices for rural Chicano communities, gentrified and displaced neighborhoods, and later supported anti-immigrant policies. Let's also not forget that the founder of Waste Management, Inc., one of the major polluting criminal companies, was on the Board of Directors of the National Wildlife Federation. We found in several instances that the relationship of some of the Group of Ten was a bit too cozy with industry and the “beltway”, to the detriment of our communities.

The “SWOP letter was not a “letter of accusation” - it was was a factual account of intense struggles taking place at the time. Nor was it just a “SWOP letter” - 100 people signed it, including tribal leaders, civil rights leaders, clergy, lawyers and scholars. It was also just one of a set of historic letters to environmental groups, beginning with a challenge from Black leaders in the South to the Group of Ten over their lack of racial diversity, and concluding with a powerful indictment of the EPA that created a firestorm of controversy and sparked national grassroots campaigns that forced the agency to be more responsive to communities.

The late '80s and the early '90s were a defining and exhilarating time for EJ. You could feel a movement growing. My position at SWOP allowed me to work with great community leaders in the Mountainview Advisory Council, which was established by SWOP to address the numerous environmental justice issues in the community. We fought for installation of municipal water systems, against new landfill proposals, and efforts by the Department of Energy to dump nuclear wastes in the sewer system.

I joined Richard Moore on visits to numerous Mountainviews throughout the Southwest – West Dallas, East Austin, South Tucson, Kettleman City and more - communities resisting decades of being the dumping grounds of their city. We met inspiring leaders who were spearheading these efforts like Rev. RT Conley in Dallas and Rose Augustine in Tucson. Networks grew in every region of the U.S. – counterparts to SNEEJ - and international networks were founded like the Indigenous Environmental Network. The First People of Color Environmental Summit was a landmark event and a moment of synergy for the movement. Richard was a central and respected figure in all of these efforts.

The letters resonated with employees and members of environmental organizations, many of which became critical and lasting friends and allies in the movement - people like Mitch Bernard at NRDC, who responded to the letter by providing groups like SWOP with critical legal support. Doug Meiklejohn and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center helped neighborhoods like Sunland Park win major victories and today works mostly with Indigenous and Chicano communities. There were also talented scientists and technical experts who provided pro bono or low-cost services, and foundations who gave long-term support to local struggles. The EJ movement brought together historically oppressed communities across racial lines in a united effort, and gave us a glimpse of what a grassroots movement could look like that was multi-racial, multi-cultural and international. Unfortunately, not all white activists are as willing to accept leadership by people of color, or be part of a movement that could fundamentally alter class and race relationships.

It's true that the EJ movement never had the benefit of a law that could mandate the reforms that are still critical today. Clinton's executive order required federal agencies develop plans to address environmental justice concerns - but had no teeth to punish polluters and require healthier development practices. There were great legal minds in the EJ movement that helped draft and fight for strong laws and policies, but were met with fierce resistance from industry and government. The EJ movement flourished at a time when the Reagan and Bush years had taken its toll on the court systems, and the Democratic Party had grown even more pro-corporate and anti-working class. Today we still see how this combination is preventing any fundamental change through any branch of U.S. government. EJ organizations rightly focused their efforts on setting precedent and building power at the local and state level.

There are many lessons to be learned from the EJ movement, and there is still much work to be done. It's commendable that High Country News has begun to explore this history, but in this effort HCN missed an opportunity to get a deeper appreciation of the movement. It also does a disservice to those who's personal and political histories have much to offer everyone.