Environmental justice is the principle that all people, regardless of socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, deserve to live in a clean, healthy environment. Unfortunately, poor communities and communities of color often bear the brunt of contamination and pollution. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center is the only not-for-profit law firm in New Mexico to focus on environmental justice issues.
Representing communities in environmental justice cases frequently involves several problems not found with other types of clients. Victims of environmental injustices often lack financial or political resources; are unfamiliar with the process—or even with the language in which it is conducted; receive litle support from elected officials; and are approached with bias by the regulatory agencies involved. Despite these obstacles, representing a community group gives the group and its members a voice they otherwise would not have and empowers both the group and the larger community. This voice helps community members achieve concrete protection for their families and neighborhoods.
In New Mexico, two of the most common types of facilities affecting low-income and minority communities are solid waste disposal facilities and mining operations. The Law Center represents clients in several of these cases (see below), which illustrate several points that arise repeatedly in our work.
First, most environmental battles are fought by local people because they are concerned about the impacts of environmental degradation on their families and their communities. Second, communities working to protect their environments frequently must combat the government agencies charged with protecting these environments.
Finally, in New Mexico, minority and low-income communities are most likely to suffer from environmental degradation. They are seen as places where a clean environment easily can be traded for economic benefits such as jobs at a landfill or rent for land to be used for uranium mining. The communities also lack political power and often are opposed by their own elected representatives. In New Mexico, working to protect communities from environmental degradation usually means working for environmental justice.
Excerpted from "Representing New Mexico Communities: The Struggle for Environmental Justice," in the American Bar Association's magazine Human Rights, Fall 2003, pp.23-25.
Some of our major cases, current and past, with an environmental justice focus:
• ConAgra Ethanol Plant Siting — initiated in 2006, closed 2007
Clients: Concerned Citizens of Curry County, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples, Clovis Branch and the League of United Latin American Citizens, Clovis Branch. Opposing Party: ConAgra.
ConAgra attempted to site a major ethanol facility adjacent to low-income communities of color in Clovis, NM. After the company provided misleading information in its public notice as to where the facility would be located (3 miles from town, when in reality it would be 3 miles form the center of town), the Law Center won a re-hearing on the company's air quality permit. Shortly after the second hearing, ConAgra abandoned the project.
• Crownpoint Uranium Project — initiated in 1997
Clients: Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM), Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) Opposing Party: Hydro Resources, Inc.
Our clients are fighting proposed uranium mining in Navajo communities. The mining threatens the sole source of drinking water for over 10,000 Navajo citizens.
• Taos Regional Airport Expansion — initiated in 1996
Clients: Taos Pueblo Opposing Party: Town of Taos and the Federal Aviation Administration
Our client is fighting the expansion of the Taos Airport, which threatens the culture and environment of Taos Pueblo, an indigenous nation. The Pueblo is the only site in North America to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its living culture and architectural treasures.
• Southwest Landfill Expansion— initiated in 1997, closed in 2007
Clients: South Valley Coalition of Neighborhood Association and Southwest Organizing Project. Opposing Party: Southwest Landfill
Our clients fought the expansion of the Southwest Landfill, which threatens groundwater. Increased truck traffic would also increase the risks to public safety. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in preventing the expansion of the landfill.
• Chaparral Landfill Permitting— initiated in 2005
Clients: Colonias Development Council Opposing Party: Rhino Environmental Services
Our clients are fighting the siting of another landfill in their colonia of Chaparral (the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a colonia as a community located within 150 miles of the U.S.- Mexico border that lacks one or more of the following: a potable water supply; adequate sewage and drainage systems; decent, safe, and sanitary housing; and/or paved roads.) In a major victory in 2005, the NM Supreme Court ruled that the New Mexico Environment Department must take into account the non-technical testimony of community members when making permitting decisions about solid waste facilities.
• Helena Chemical Plant Air Quality Issues— 2005
Clients: Mesquite Community Action Committee. Opposing Party: Helena Chemical Corporation
Our client successfully fought Helena Chemical, a multinational corporation, which had operated a polluting fertilizer plant in the colonia of Mesquite for over ten years without a permit. Now the company has a stringent permit, and is required to meet regularly with community members to address concerns.
• New Mexico Environment Department Environmental Justice Advisory Committee— 2005
Partners: New Mexico Environmental Law Center Director Douglas Meiklejohn and Board Member Pablo Padilla, Jr.
Served as two of the three community members on this State committee. The committee successfully advocated for a New Mexico Environmental Justice Executive Order, signed by Governor Bill Richardson in October, 2005.