Folks living in Socorro, in remote, central New Mexico, are regularly jolted by the sounds of car bombs and calculated cave-ins. It’s all cooked up by the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center, a division of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, known here simply as “Tech.” “Energetic materials” refers to anything that blows up, and since people exploding bombs are making life miserable for the American military in the Middle East and other places in the world, Tech’s bomb-testing business is booming. Testing activities have gone on for years, but people living in Socorro have been largely silent as new schemes popped up. After all, it’s the town’s biggest employer: At least 40 percent of the economy is tied to Tech, making Socorro almost a company town. And of course, if you moved here, you most likely knew what you were getting into.
But what’s the limit?
Schoolteacher Loretta Lowman was painting her house last year when a big bomb blast nearly knocked her off her ladder. The window-rattling explosion rolled in from the backside of “M” Mountain, a 7,300-foot volcanic remnant and landmark in this town of about 9,000. For Lowman, the blast lingered, bookmarked in her mind, and quickly recalled when she heard about a new testing venture. Soon, out there on the edge of its 40-square-mile “field laboratory” a few miles behind the mountain, the U.S. Air Force’s 58th Special Operations Wing, based in Albuquerque, would start practicing dropping stuff.
Big, lumbering and loud C-130s would be flying low, dropping supply packs, ton-and-a-half pallets and maybe even paratroopers at night -- not just once, but hundreds of times during the year. This is called a drop zone, where aspiring pilots train to support the nation’s “war on terror,” according to an environmental assessment on the plan.
The Air Force said it wanted to move to Socorro because increasing civilian air traffic limited use of drop zones near Albuquerque. An alternate zone at an air base near Roswell also costs too much, it added -- about $122,000 per year. The environmental assessment didn’t say what the Air Force might be paying Tech to use its land.
The proposed shift to Socorro has not been widely advertised. In fact, neither of the community’s newspapers initially reported on the proposal. The news was ferreted out by local antiwar columnist Richard Epstein only a week before a month-long public comment period ended.
That galvanized Lowman and others to learn more about the proposal. They read that each operation would involve 15 passes over the zone, at ground-skimming altitudes of between 150-300 feet. C-130s hit the noise meter somewhere between a lawnmower and a table saw, at perhaps 15 to 20 decibels beneath the pain threshold.
Then, in December, a final environmental assessment was issued, and its conclusion could be summed up as “no reason to worry.” Sure, there will be some minor increases in noise, and yes, a lot of planes will be flying low outside Socorro, but there will be “no significant impacts to the human environment.”
But unlike earlier projects proposed by Tech, some locals continued to raise questions, and when they showed up at a recent city council meeting, it appeared that some Socorro officials were listening. “What would it take to stop this?” Mayor Ravi Bhasker asked, expressing surprise at some of the revelations.
Among the concerns is that the drop zone is just the beginning. The Energetic Materials Testing Center will soon seek a “special-use airspace” designation for its entire 40-square-mile area. According to the environmental assessment, this will enable it “to conduct … air-to-ground gunnery” and blow up things that might project debris thousands of feet into the air.
As opponents divulged this information -- freely available to the public -- some city council members seemed startled that anyone would question what the military and Tech wanted to do behind the mountain. The citizens’ group is diverse, including an artist, a rancher, a right-wing columnist named Joy Miler who is at odds with war-opponent Epstein, and even a Tech scientist.
It’s not clear at this point if the local outcry will have any effect. But for starters, Socorro’s city council has decided to flex some muscle and force Tech to explain this new level of air-drop activity that’s planned painfully close to its community.
Paul Krza is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Socorro, New Mexico.