MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Voices from the Earth Volume 1 Number 1
The Commitment Continues

Peter Montague (center) mapping our strategies for SRIC, circa 1971.
(Photo by Spencer Walaitis)

Mentors. Catalysts. Technical Support. Shoulders to Cry on. Activists with Staying Power. They're all words used to describe the Albuquerque-based organization that is Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC). Known to many as the place where citizen action and technical research intersect, SRIC has a history of accomplishments that span the decades and range from delaying the opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad, NM, the world's first nuclear waste repository, to the enactment of a host of environmental protection measures. Some basic accomplishments are, of course, sheer longevity, unflagging energy, and an incredible staff, many of whom have been with the Center for over ten years, now graying, but not slowing down

The beginnings of SRIC can be traced to a small house in the university area of Albuquerque, NM — a long way from Washington, DC, and the East Coast where public interest organizations were beginning to prove effective in influencing policy decisions.

Even in the early days, SRIC was bulging at the seams with information. The environmental impact statements, the journals, the alternative magazines nearly crowded out the small staff inspired by founders Peter and Katherine Montague to watchdog the city of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico as it entered an explosive era of energy exploitation. But the volumes of technical data that filled the center then, as now, pale in comparison to the commitment the 29-year old organization has made to environmental protection, citizen participation and social justice.

Started in 1971, the Center was a different kind of animal for Albuquerque, still a small city of 250,000. It brought to bear scientific, journalistic and legal expertise on environmental issues stemming from electric power generation in the Four Corners area, to the uranium boom just getting underway in the Western part of the state. Soon the Center was sounding the alarm about a little noticed, but ominous announcement that the federal government was investigating the salt formations near Carlsbad for the placement of nuclear waste.

David Meets Goliath

Since the late 1970s, SRIC has been a party to five major court cases (three with New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall) to ensure that the WIPP facility met federal and state health and safety standards. It has provided technical assistance and training to affected community groups along the route to the site, and worked hard to stimulate and support informed citizen involvement. Virtually every citizen group in the state working on this technical issue has ties with Don Hancock at SRIC, and benefits from research collected by the Center.

"There's no one I'd rather talk to about nuclear issues than Don," says Mary Lou Cook, a minister in the Eternal Life Church in Santa Fe. "He's our mentor. He's a hidden treasure. We call on him and SRIC for all kinds of help," says Cook, who has been heavily involved in Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a Santa Fe-based group that has been fighting WIPP since the late 1980s.

Cook says that SRIC — and Don Hancock — helped citizens become aware of what nuclear waste was, and how to get involved. "He's committed 110 percent," she says.

For many, that kind of commitment might flag after the opening of the WIPP facility this year. But SRIC is still working to ensure the safety and compliance of the facility with the state's operating permit, and to forestall placement of even more, higher level wastes.

NM an Energy Colony, SRIC Said in ‘70s

Much of the work of the Center during the ‘70s focused on energy development and the nuclear industry's growing impact on New Mexico. Before the NM Public Utility Commission, SRIC questioned the economic wisdom of the local utility's investment in the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona (since that time it has cost ratepayers millions of dollars). SRIC wondered out loud about the effect on the water supply if seven coal gasification plants were built on Navajo land 35 miles south of the Four Corners Power Plant. And it began to focus on the long-range effects of a boom in uranium mining and milling in a "checkerboard" area west of Albuquerque, composed of Indian land, the remnants of Spanish land grants, BLM and state and federal holdings.

Even before the massive spill of uranium tailings into a river near Church Rock, New Mexico in 1979, Lynda Taylor and others from SRIC were working with local residents to document radiological damage.

SRIC also assisted people to organize into groups like the Mount Taylor Alliance, which brought together Navajo ranchers, medicine men and others to make sense of what this massive intrusion meant spiritually, as well as materially. In 1978, that group drew national attention with a rock concert featuring Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Brown — all within sight of a huge uranium mine shaft.

Today, SRIC's work continues in the Crownpoint and Church Rock area with the local Native American citizens group Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM), during a new era in the boom and bust cycle (see article)

Hearings ‘R Us—-and so are Important Laws

No one at SRIC has actually counted the number of hearings and pieces of testimony with which the Center has been involved, but it's a safe bet that it's in the thousands. Staff members Lynda Taylor, Paul Robinson, Chris Shuey, and Don Hancock are no strangers to the New Mexico legislature or the U.S. Congress, and they have encouraged countless ordinary citizens to participate.

"For years, they've provided expertise when it's needed," says Rep. Max Coll, the chair of New Mexico's powerful House Appropriations and Finance Committee. "They do their homework very well and delve into the science and background of issues. The suggestions they've made through their testimony have been real valuable to me."

Some of that valuable testimony has been translated into important legislation that forces polluters to clean up contamination and open decision making to public scrutiny. Among the success stories:

  • The Uranium Mill Tailing Radiation Control Act of 1978, which led to the reclamation of uranium tailings piles
  • The New Mexico Mining Act of 1995, requiring reclamation plans for hardrock mines
  • The federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 for Navajo miners affected by lung cancer
  • The 1996 NM Subdivision Act to prevent development without adequate infrastructure or water supply
  • A Comprehensive Groundwater Protection policy for Albuquerque and Bernalillo County
  • Improved criteria for US-Mexico border environmental cleanup to ensure sustainable development and public participation in decision making.

Technical Tools for Ordinary Folks

If there is one central belief at SRIC, it's that ordinary citizens must actively and continuously participate in decisions that affect their lives and their land. Some call this grassroots empowerment. Others call it capacity building. Over the years it has spurred SRIC to help New Mexic folks form a number of self-sustaining groups including Albuquerque's San Jose Community Awareness Council, the Santa Fe-based Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, and the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining.

One such group was in a small community north of Taos.

"We thought there was something strange, and we suspected it was harmful," says Wilfred Rael, recalling the gray color that the river running by his house in Questa, New Mexico, would turn after a spill at the nearby molybdenum mine.

"But we really weren't sure. SRIC came in with technical assistance and help in organizing Concerned Citizens del Norte in the 1970s. We got an expert in heavy metals and began testifying ourselves."

Over 20 years later, local folks are celebrating a citizens' victory against a planned expansion of the mine and the EPA is now involved with clean up plans for the area. Rael, now on the Board of Southwest Research and Information Center, is helping SRIC link other struggling communities with information and resources through WIN, the Water Information Network. Through this organization, 30 elders from the Mescalero Apache tribe got an eyeful of the Molycorp operation in Questa, and decided they wanted no part of a proposed Molycorp yttrium mine near their own reservation in Southern New Mexico.

It's a story that the staff and allies of SRIC work to repeat — over and over — as it works with citizens organizations throughout the country and the world from the San Luis, Colorado, Valley to Magadan, Russia.

"For many years I have respected the thorough work that the Southwest Research and Information Center has performed — all on behalf of ordinary citizens who otherwise would not have a voice to speak for themselves in the face of those who want to do harm to the environment or impair our communities," says US Rep. Tom Udall. Udall worked with SRIC and his father, former Interior Secretary Stuart Udall, to secure compensation for Navajo uranium miners in the Four Corners Area.

Often the assistance SRIC provides goes beyond technical tools.

"There's a tremendous amount of stress and burden on people who are doing the work we do," says Delores Herrera, with Albuquerque's San Jose Community Awareness Council. "Because people think you are crazy."

"In our community we kept saying ‘our water smells. There's something strange.‘ But nobody believed us," she recalls. Years later, research revealed that the area's water had been massively contaminated, and the EPA has now designated the area a Superfund site.

Herrera especially appreciates SRIC staffers Chris Shuey and Frances Ortega, who, she says, have helped her in countless ways and accepted her as "one of the few Latina organizers in high heeled shoes and red lipstick."

"We take care of each other," she says. "They help nurture my soul when I'm at my lowest"

Herrera says she has even cried on Frances Ortega's shoulder.

"I have somewhere to put my head," she says. "That's another part of environmental health."

by Dede Feldman (see related story)

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"Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truththat the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamt would have come his way."
– W.H. Murray in The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.

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The nuclear waste dump is permitted to operate until 2024, but the federal government want to expand the amount and types of waste allowed with NO end date.
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