Politics Playing Out in the NM Environment

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez made news after her Environment Secretary presented papers to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz, with fines for LANL & WIPP.
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New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez made news after her Environment Secretary presented papers to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz, with fines for LANL – the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory - of $32.6 million for 24 violations and WIPP - the Waste Isolation Pilot Project - $17.7 million for 13 violations. Where the money comes from is the next fight, from the contractor’s insurance funds or taxpayers who will already be funding the clean-up on top of the annual operating costs. Contractors need these insurance funds to do business and because guess what, contractors make a lot of mistakes. So one possible solution is dropping the old contractors – LANS – and getting a new one who hopefully won’t make a series of different mistakes.

Los Alamos National Security, a consortium of four companies including Bechtel National and the University of California, has the $2.2 billion contract to manage LANL; they had been under scrutiny for performance issues and were rushing to meet a deadline so they could get the incentive pay they had become accustomed to, but all this created the serious problems that led to the radiation leak at WIPP.

The renewal of the $2.2 billion got tied to LANL disposing of their cold war legacy (from its own plutonium pit production and inheriting Rocky Flats material which was shut down for “environmental crimes”). The 2011 Las Conchas Fire was seen worldwide on TV as it came too close to LANL and exposed the old drums waiting for disposal to WIPP. Everyone involved got embarrassed and that’s when and how the June 30, 2014 deadline from Gov. Martinez became an issue. What started as political expediency to say ‘we are doing our job,’ ended up exposing how no one was doing their job properly.

LANS had increased their incentive payments by 75 percent over the years they won the contract, maybe getting fat and lazy; LANL remained isolated, out of touch and seemingly doing as they please since they remain the main player in the Nuclear Business; WIPP got lazy but relied on their partners and this burned them; NMED and state agencies didn’t do inspections as that may have caused delays to their own deadline. Now on top of an expensive clean-up of the WIPP facility, there remains the possibility of more high heat events and radiation incidents occurring a half mile down in the WIPP caverns.

LANL will still not say why they switched from inorganic clay based kitty litter to organic wheat-based kitty litter; they point to a typo when LANL updated a manual in 2012 as a reason but a WIPP waste team told LANL waste handlers right away in 2012 to use the inorganic but it never happened. There is a rumor that the inorganic litter gave off an unpleasant smell, which may have justified the switch in the minds of some at LANL, but that would be a scientific decision made by non-scientists.

Most people in New Mexico want LANL to do something with their expertise, aside from the ‘Nuclear Business’, as there is some research being done at the facility on AIDS, long-life batteries and alternative energy. Now they ask how these smart people can do such dumb things.

Susana Martinez may also be acting out to a national audience as she is always mentioned on the “short list” of Republican VP candidates for 2016, but behind the scenes she and NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn are quietly fighting New Mexico citizens by supporting polluting industries, going against EPA guidelines and passing their own version of “The Copper Rule,” which allows mining, oil, gas and dairy industries to continue to pollute groundwater on their property as long as it doesn’t leave the property. Environmental lawyers, activists, and renewable energy advocates charge the Martinez administration with allowing the polluters to write this legislation, rolling back consumer and citizen protections while allowing further contamination of land, water and air. Gov. Martinez is from southern New Mexico, a strong supporter of the oil, gas and mining industries, who in turn support her political campaigns.

At the same time across the country, there’s a movement among Republican State Attorney General’s and industry lobbyists to go against EPA rules to make it easier for polluting industries to continue their business practices. After the Republican victories in the mid-term elections, political groups like ALEC are now being recharged with Koch Brothers funding to do exactly this kind of dirty politics with dirty money for dirty industries. The Koch Brothers were in New Mexico in August of 2013 on a secretive trip to the Tamaya Resort at Santa Ana Pueblo that included Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, to fund raise and strategize their national agenda and to support Martinez, likely funding her trips to aid other Republican candidates like N.J. Gov. Chris Christie.

There is silence in the media about The Copper Rule because the lawsuits brought by citizen environmental groups are slowly going through legal channels until they can actually challenge the legality of the law. But it won’t stop there, as next up for environmental debate is the diversion of the Gila River in southern New Mexico as the Feds now have a deadline for money to fund water projects in the dry Southwest region. People will start to line up to spend the funds, just because they can for “business development reasons,” but citizens are seeking to develop alternative programs to protect the Gila River ecosystem and keep the water flowing clean and clear for all of New Mexico. The Fracking Ban still holds in Mora County but other energy issues are looming; PNM (the state power company) saying it will be cheaper for consumers to stay with coal and putting off solar and wind development until a later time; the low cost of gasoline impacting New Mexico oil & gas revenues, so the state is going after those DOE fines to cover their revenue shortfall; and now new areas in the state may open up for fracking projects, perhaps close to the San Carlos Arizona “land exchange” debacle just getting underway there.

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Next year will represent 70 years of the Nuclear and Defense Industries hold on New Mexico as we finally hear of studies commissioned to test surviving Native, Hispanic and Anglo families who were exposed to the Trinity Test radiation. Tina Cordova of Santa Clara Pueblo is the president of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. She has said that the true legacy of the Trinity Test has never been exposed, with 19,000 residents living in the surrounding communities (including Native tribes and Pueblos) at the time, and these people experienced the nuclear rainfall afterwards and continued to eat and drink the contaminated food and water. The U.S. military tested 200 nuclear weapons in 20 years after Trinity; the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 has doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars—but not to folks downwind of the Trinity Test.

If you haven’t read about the WIPP radiation leak, you can read the ICTMN stories, and it will tie up all these loose ends as low and high level radiation continues to pile up around the country; small communities (some Native) will compete to bring all that Nuke Waste in so they can get all that Nuclear Business money; companies will be looking at developing plants to recycle spent nuclear fuel; DOE ramping up new plutonium pit manufactures; and new biohazard agent research. An exciting time in the Nuclear Industry, just ask the residents of Carlsbad, New Mexico, as they wait for their WIPP facility to re-open or not.

RELATED: New Mexico Fines Feds $54 Million for Radiation Leaks at Los Alamos and WIPP

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Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.