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

Not in my Backyard...Not in Anyone's

Since the early 1980's, the residents of the Village of Moquino, heirs to the historic Cebolleta Land Grant (CLG) have gazed towards the southeast portion of their backyard with concern. The "llano" (plains) where we once grazed our cattle that were brought down from the "sierra" (mountain) during the winter season is now a radioactive pile of uranium mill tailings. Village residents that worked for the SOHIO milling operation spoke of incidences where the dam around the tailings had broken and spilled thousands of gallons of contaminated water onto the land.

We knew the land was no longer viable for domestic livestock purposes and we were worried about what we could not see. To what extent if any did the contaminated water affect our groundwater source. We watched the reclamation process and developed relationships with the various players: New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), SOHIO (now Kennecott), and the governing body of the CLG, the board of trustees. "Not to worry," they said.

We do not consider ourselves astute business people, scientists with expertise in this area, or lawyers specializing in real estate transactions, however, we did have some questions that the experts could not answer:

  • Why would SOHIO "trade" the CLG 2000 acres of land for 200 acres? Was it so they could say that they contaminated their land and not the land of the CLG, even though all the land is the historic CLG;
  • Why would the NMED allow alternative abatement standards for uranium from 5mg/L to 13mg/L when the Ground Water Bureau (GWB) is proposing to change uranium levels down to .007mg/L? The GWB is allowing uranium standards that are1,857 times higher than the standard they have been proposing for safety and health.
  • What will happen to the approximately $700,000 that SOHIO is required by law to have in trust in the event further reclamation is needed when the site is transferred over to the DOE? It will go into the United States Treasury's general fund where it will take an act of Congress to appropriate it when the funds are needed.

We turned to our old friends, Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) and Paul Robinson. With the hearing before the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission (NMWQCC) approaching rapidly, Paul and New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) attorney Roderick Ventura came to our aide.

With the scientific expertise of Mr. Robinson and the legal expertise of Mr. Ventura, we were able to turn a hearing that was expected to last half a day into a hearing that lasted two and a half days. Tiny Moquino, the CLG President, and our experts stood toe to toe with the NMED attorneys and the corporate attorneys from SOHIO/Kennecott and forced a discussion that was a long time coming. We did not get everything we wanted and conceded that the NMWQCC did not have the legal authority to give us everything we wanted. However, we did get assurances from the commission that the NMED would monitor our wells for years to come and did win the respect of fellow New Mexicans. We refuse to accept the federal government's and big mining corporations' assumption that the "Land of Enchantment" is sacrificial land. We will continue to fight for environmental justice and protect native New Mexicans.

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Albuquerque, NM 87196
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