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

Wagon Mound: An Environmental Justice Story

It's seven in the morning and folks from Wagon Mound drop by the Chevron Mart to gas up pick up some coffee, and get the latest news. For some this is the "Coffee Club" where the retired, unemployed or those with a flexible schedule hang out waiting to hear the latest news, for job opportunities or just to watch, greet, and at times give the morning commute crew a hard time. Those that stop for gas commute to Angel Fire, Springer, Las Vegas, Valmora, Mora, Ocate, Roy, Santa Fe and points in-between.

Many folks in this area commute up to 90 miles, and sometimes more if they work in construction. The per capita income in Mora County, where Wagon Mound is located, is $12,869. The unemployment rate stands at a little above 14% and as recently as 1991 was at 25%. Over fifty percent of the residents of Mora County claimed Spanish as their primary language. The population of Wagon Mound proper is 366 according to the 2000 Census. Mora County has historically been and continues to be one of the poorest counties in the United States, not just New Mexico.

Those that don't commute work as ranch hands, outfitters, fire-fighters, in schools, utility, and government offices, and provide every type of service imaginable. Many supplement their family incomes with crafts: beautiful art, custom-made furniture, and even billiard tables. Some still ranch, but the majority has to supplement their incomes with family members taking on jobs. Those with land and much wildlife run outfitting adventures while others may do small-scale ranching or rent out their ranches for seasonal grazing as part of the corporate cattle-raising cycle as herds are moved out to market. The new cattle drive is marked by semi-trailer trucks moving cattle sometimes from state to state as they are fattened for sale.

It is in this context that the Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County (CCWMMC) came together in September of 1999 to fight a Special Waste Permit application by the Northeastern New Mexico Regional Landfill (NENMRL), a privately owned landfill on a ranch on the outskirts of Wagon Mound. The landfill was built almost nine years ago when the State mandated the upgrading of all state landfills. Mr. Daniels, a local landowner, proposed the private landfill as a tri-county municipal landfill that would create 35 jobs in the area. He promised the people of Wagon Mound and the Mora, San Miguel, and Colfax counties that he would not bring in dangerous waste.

Now, nine years later the landfill has not even created five jobs, much less than the promised 35. As it turns out, the landfill is not a tri-county landfill, but a regional landfill, which means it can accept waste from throughout the United States, and possibly Mexico and Canada. On its website, Herzog Incorporated, the national firm that runs the landfill, has advertised for Special Waste from Mexico. Additionally, since 1999 Mr. Daniels and Herzog, Inc., have attempted to bring in Special Waste from throughout the country despite community opposition. Among the eight special wastes that are proposed, many are dangerous and known carcinogens.

A Special Waste Permit was approved by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) in 2000 under the administration of then Governor Gary Johnson. The CCWMMC fought this permit, and won a major victory in the New Mexico Court of Appeals in November of 2003. We won an adequate decision that rescinded the Permit based on issues having to do with improper notice to the community, and the failure to provide Spanish translations of public notices.

During the time that the landfill was permitted, it received over 2,000 cubic tons of asbestos contaminated ash from the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It seems ironic that the dangerous ash from the richest county in the state would go to the poorest county in the state. However this is history not irony. The county of Mora is over 80% Hispano/Chicano, and the majority of families live at or below the poverty level. Environmental Justice Activists would call this environmental racism.

Most recently the CCWMMC won another victory in keeping out this country's waste from coming to Wagon Mound and Mora County, when New Mexico's current Environment Secretary Ron Curry refused to sign a re-application by the NENMRL to obtain the Special Waste Permit (see Voices from the Earth, Spring 2004). If received, both Herzog, Inc., and Mr. Daniels stood to make millions, while the people of Wagon Mound and Mora County continued to work for poverty wages as we inherit the waste from throughout the United States, endure the degradation of our environment, and face exposure to disease.

Mr. Daniels also tried to challenge the village of Wagon Mound's Perpetual Water Use Right. Both of these issues came up at the same time. Mr. Daniels has taken the village to District Court, the New Mexico Court of Appeals, and to the State Supreme Court, all of which have upheld the village's Perpetual Water Use Right. These are not neighborly practices, and are clearly motivated by money.

The majority of people in this area stay because they have generational ties to the land. They are land-based people who honor mother earth and have learned to live sustainably with their neighbors and with the land's resources. They love the beauty and majesty of the land, and refuse materialism and consumption to live here. Many live on small pieces of land that that have been handed down for generations, but from which they cannot live. But we are a proud, hard-working people who earn our living by honest work. Because the village is small and rural, it would appear to outsiders that we are powerless and unimportant. This is not the case. We have a right to be heard, we deserve equal treatment, and we demand the right to enjoy the benefits of a healthy environment.

Our lack of financial resources makes us vulnerable to the waste companies, and to those local folks who seek to make a profit off our land. This in turn makes us vulnerable to politicians, to consultants, to people who would want to help themselves as they "help us." There are many that pass out money and short-term trucking or construction jobs to confuse or bribe our people. These are challenges. And there are those that have helped our struggle for their own self-aggrandizement and positioning. We have seen how bribes and personal financial donations have divided our people. But we have also seen how folks have remained firm as land-based people in their protection of our counties resources.

For now we will continue to work with little money and organize for our resources, be they legal, technical, from the community, and from the heart, in order to protect our environment and our welfare. We will not be dumped on and we refuse to be silenced, manipulated or used because we lack financial resources.

— Sofia Martinez

For Additional Information Contact:
Sofia Martinez: (505) 877-5381
Felipe Garcia: (505) 666-2211
Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County:
PO Box 318
Wagon Mound, NM 87752

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"Una cosa es vestir y alimentar a nuestras hijas, sin embargo lo esencial es enseñarles que otras personas — fuera de ellas mismas — son tambien importantes. Lo mejor que pueden hacer con sus vidas es dedicarlas al servicio de los demás."

"Giving kids clothes and food is one thing, but it's much more important to teach them that other people besides themselves are important, and that the best thing they can do with their lives is to use them in the service of other people."

--Dolores Huerta

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