The rise of environmental justice can be traced through people like Richard Moore. Of Puerto Rican descent, he grew up in a low-income housing project in Pennsylvania. His parents picked fruit for Del Monte, and he did some picking in his spare time during high school. Moore came to Albuquerque in the 1960s, looking for a place to do meaningful work. He joined the Black Berets, a Chicano "social justice" group that worked with other low-income neighborhoods, establishing a free medical clinic, childcare centers and school breakfast programs and shutting down an unregulated sewer plant. Moore moved to Mountain View in 1979. Just a few months after his arrival, the connection between pollution and poor health was dramatically proven: A local baby turned blue and nearly died from drinking groundwater with 20 times the legal limit of nitrate. "That's when the shit hit the fan," says Moore, whose personality mixes idealism and a quick temper.
At the time, there really weren't any activist groups focused on environmental justice. So Moore and a fiery woman, Jeanne Gauna -- who said, "The environment, for us, is where we live" -- formed a new group called the SouthWest Organizing Project, or SWOP for short.
The small band of SWOP activists went door-to-door in Mountain View in the 1980s, alerting residents about the poisonous water in their wells and helping them organize the effort to hook up to city water. They worked to prevent the construction of garbage transfer stations and a private prison in Mountain View and organized in another neighborhood to shut down a poisonous medical waste incinerator. "We've never been about advocating on behalf of other people," Moore says. "We've been about people advocating on their own issues."
By 1990, Moore and other local organizers were networking with colleagues across the country -- particularly on Indian reservations and in Southern communities where poor black people live next to monstrous chemical plants -- under the new banner of environmental justice. The national environmental groups were booming; the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society had increased their memberships tenfold since the 1960s, for instance, with attendant increases in budgets and staff. Landmark environmental victories had been achieved in Congress. But the fledgling environmental justice groups were barely surviving.
So that year, Moore and Gauna composed a letter of accusation that became famous within the movement. They recruited environmental justice activists from California to New York to sign the letter, and then dropped it like a bomb on the leaders of 10 of the largest environmental groups. They charged that the Big 10 were merely nature-lovers who worked against the interests of people of color -- activities such as livestock grazing and firewood gathering. They cited "the lack of people of color in decision-making positions in your organizations" and said "racism is the root cause of your inaction around addressing environmental problems in our communities." The letter rocked the Big 10 and caused them to make some changes.
Shortly after that blast, Moore left SWOP and formed the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, a coalition of small groups in the Southwest U.S. and Northern Mexico. SWOP and SNEEJ, both headquartered in Albuquerque, kept up the heat. They were instrumental in pressuring Democratic President Bill Clinton to issue a 1994 executive order that elevated environmental justice, at least in theory; it ordered federal agencies to study how their decisions impact environmental health in disadvantaged communities.
Moore, who also served as top environmental justice adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency, lived in Mountain View and ran SNEEJ until last year; his stepdaughter, Bianca Encinias, is currently a top SNEEJ leader.
Eight years of Republican President George W. Bush did little to advance the cause at the federal level, activists say, but environmental justice gained some ground through the proliferation of hyper-local groups such as the LA Bus Riders Union, which has pressured Los Angeles to convert its buses to cleaner fuels to reduce air pollution in poor Hispanic and black neighborhoods.
New Mexico has characteristics that generated many environmental justice campaigns. It has the highest Hispanic population of any state (nearly 50 percent in 2008) and is second in Native Americans (nearly 10 percent). The state is also among the lowest in average household income, and many of its poorest neighborhoods are impacted by industry.
Robby Rodriguez, whose mother was a migrant picker of cotton, lettuce and onions, earned a bachelor's degree in sociology at Cornell and went to work for SWOP 13 years ago; he's run the organization since 2005. During his tenure, the annual budget grew from $300,000 to $1 million, and staff increased from five to 13 full-timers, plus four part-timers. SWOP has received grants from some major foundations recently and now has about 600 members statewide; SNEEJ is about a fourth that size.
Often working with even smaller groups, SWOP and SNEEJ have achieved landmark victories -- and suffered losses -- in New Mexico. They couldn't stop the city from punching a commuter highway through Petroglyph National Monument, but they've led successful voter registration drives, mentored young people to be future leaders, and gotten a few of their members elected to local and even state offices. "That work is beginning to change the face of New Mexico politics," Rodriguez says.
With the New Mexico Environment Department, they conducted environmental justice "listening sessions" around the state in 2004, and then advised the department on addressing the concerns. They staged an annual "Environmental Justice Awareness Day" at the state Capitol, where their members mingled with legislators and bureaucrats. They also lobbied successfully for a 2007 House resolution that instructed the department to "study how to effectively address the cumulative and social impacts of its decisions and … the quality of life of residents." The Environment Department now has a couple of staffers working on environmental justice.
Feeling the heat, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who grew up in Mexico City with a Mexican mother, issued a 2006 general executive order telling state agencies to consider "environmental quality and public health" when allowing industries into low-income communities and communities of color. But that proclamation and the state's other political actions have so far involved more sentiment than substance.
The most tangible result at the state level has been a court ruling that applies only to garbage dumps. In 2002, the Environment Department granted a permit to let Rhino Environmental Services Inc. open a dump in a southern New Mexico shantytown, or colonia, that already had three dumps. A coalition of activists and residents of colonias sued the company. In July 2005, in what became known as the Rhino decision, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that the Environment Department must consider the "impact on a community's quality of life" when issuing permits for landfills, including whether the landfill would be a "public nuisance or hazard to public health, welfare, or the environment."
In response, the state revised its landfill siting regulations in 2007 to require evaluation of "cumulative impacts" in "vulnerable" communities (disadvantaged communities that already have polluting industries). Landfill operators "must complete training programs on environmental justice every three years."
Though most of the Legislature's top leaders are Chicano, the Legislature as a whole remains sympathetic to industries' concerns about tougher regulations. Repeated attempts to pass a broad environmental justice law -- imposing new requirements on many industries, not just dumps -- have failed.