Thirteen Years & Counting: Southeast New Mexico, Civil Rights and the EPA

Chaves County NM by Talia Buford/Center for Public Integrity

Chaves County, New Mexico, is the proposed site of the Triassic Park hazardous-waste facility. Talia Buford/Center for Public Integrity

Environmental Justice Denied

The Center for Public Integrity has written a series of articles on the problems with EPA’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). When civil rights complaints are filed with OCR about environmental discrimination, they are supposed to investigate every complaint within a few months. However, OCR dismisses almost all complaints, has never had a finding of discrimination and often goes years without actually investigating—sometimes longer than 20 years. In the case of a complaint against the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) for their permitting of the Triassic Park hazardous waste dump in southeastern New Mexico, it’s been more than 14 years and OCR has still not started investigating.

Meanwhile, NMED is in the middle of processing the permit renewal for the dump and is proceeding in pretty much the same discriminatory way they did the first time.

Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping (CARD), one of the groups that signed the original complaint, and four other groups from around the country are suing OCR for an unreasonable delay in investigating all their complaints. The articles describe the situation for each of the complaints and the general problem with the Office of Civil Rights.

Thirteen Years and Counting

Chaves County — ground zero for UFO devotees and home to 2009 Kentucky Derby champion Mine that Bird — there are about 11 people for every square mile. Southeastern New Mexico is known as “Little Texas” to some — thanks to similar terrain and economies — and the “nuclear corridor” to others, a nod to a uranium enrichment plant and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which stores radioactive waste.

Most county residents identified as Hispanic according to recent Census Bureau estimates. More than a third speak a language other than English at home and 21 percent of people live below the poverty level.

“From an environmental point of view, you have to understand the racism of putting [these facilities] in an area where people can’t defend themselves,” said Noel Marquez, an activist and artist in Artesia. …

…The state is far from utopia for low-income and minority communities, said Doug Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. He pointed to the 2013 repeal of a rule that required the lining of oil and gas waste pits as an example.

Environmental injustice “definitely exists in New Mexico,” Meiklejohn said. “It’s an issue because the state laws and state regulations don’t protect politically powerless people.”

Read the entire article on Southeastern New Mexico and EPA here.

Other articles in the Environmental Justice Denied Series.

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