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Residents of Wagon Mound Oppose Special Waste Permit for Private Landfill

Dozens of people streamed into the Santa Clara Parish Hall daily for the grueling five day New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED) Hearing on the privately owned Northeastern New Mexico Regional Landfill’s (NENMRL) Ten Year Re-licensing application. The landfill is located five miles north of Wagon Mound and is owned by Harold Daniels, and currently operated by his daughter Arlene, and an employee named Inez May. Herzog, Inc., which was the operator of the landfill upon its inception over ten years ago, is now their contractor. Herzog is a national corporation that specializes in railways, highways and landfills.

Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County attend the re-licensing hearing held August 20-24, 2007.

NENMRL’s application for their municipal solid waste operations also included a permit modification for a Special Waste Permit. This permit would allow the NENMRL to accept eight different special wastes. These wastes are far more dangerous than household municipal waste and require specific handling. Many of these wastes are known to cause cancer, viral diseases, and other health conditions. There are several landfills throughout New Mexico that are permitted to accept special waste, but only three are permitted to accept six types of special wastes. The proposed special wastes are: (1) sludge, (2) asbestos, (3) treated formerly characteristic hazardous waste, (4) petroleum contaminated soils, (5) incinerator ash, (6) packing house and killing plant offal, (7) industrial solid waste, and (8) spill of a commercial product or chemical substance. Sludge form Los Angeles and asbestos from Florida are listed in the current application as possible waste sources. Incinerator ash is not produced in New Mexico, so any waste would have to come from out of state.

NENMRL was granted a Special Waste Permit in 2000 during the administration of then-New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. Under this permit the landfill accepted over 6,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated ash from Los Alamos, NM, resulting from the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire. In 2003 the Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County (CCWMMC) won a decision from the New Mexico Court of Appeals rescinding the Special Waste Permit. When NENMRL re-applied for a Special Waste permit in 2004, Secretary Ron Curry denied the request.

For more than seven years the residents of Wagon Mound have vigorously opposed Special Waste for the NENMRL. CCWMMC members feel this is clearly an issue of environmental racism. Why should the village of Wagon Mound, in Mora County, one of the poorest counties in New Mexico, become the dump for the nation’s Special Wastes? People also came to the hearing from the communities of Springer, Las Vegas, Miami, Ocate, and Mora to speak against the Special Waste Permit, while also voicing their support and appreciation for the present operations of the landfill as a municipal solid waste facility serving northeastern New Mexico.

CCWMMC Attorney Darcy Johnson talks to hydrologist Dr. William Mansker.

The owner, operators, and contractors of the landfill repeatedly said that they did not intend to take Special Waste because the cost would be prohibitive. And repeatedly the community asked why, then, request a Special Waste permit modification to their Ten-Year Re-licensing Application. The answers of “I don’t know” angered the community, reminding them of the previous failed promises by the Daniels family: that no dangerous wastes would ever be brought in to the landfill. Yet once NENMRL was supported by Wagon Mound and the tri-country area to serve their municipal solid waste needs, the owners have tried three times to acquire a Special Waste Permit.

The community, members of the CCWMMC, and their legal team and experts uncovered several violations at the landfill and in landfills outside of New Mexico with which Herzog is the contractor. There were several violations at the NENMRL with their operations: lack of well monitoring, missing reports, taking of personal loads not permitted in their current application, lack of documentation approving construction of a rail-road spur to the landfill, and acceptance of special waste by rail when not permitted, as well as other violations.

Wagon Mound residents Charlie Duran, his wife Corine, and Frances Lovato.

Questions about their permit application included their ability to handle a proposed 5,000 tons of waste a day, which were not adequately addressed in the application. NENMRL currently accepts approximately 100 tons of municipal solid waste a day. For example, the city of Albuquerque (2000 census population 448,000) produces about 1,200 – 1,500 tons of municipal solid waste a day. Where will the proposed 5,000 tons a day come from? All of northern New Mexico does not produce 5,000 tons of waste a day, much less special waste. A rail spur would primarily serve to bring in waste from out of state. The community’s message was clear: We cannot allow northern New Mexico to become the special waste dump for Los Angles and Florida.

Groundwater contamination continues to be an area of concern for surrounding residents and villagers, and a point of disagreement by the hydrology experts. NENMRL and NMED experts contend that good water may only be found 900 feet below the landfill, in the Dakota Aquifer. Surrounding residents testified that their wells were at 100 to 200 feet, and that they use this water for domestic as well as livestock uses. CCWMMC and its hydrologist Dr. William Manzger agree that good and abundant water exists above 900 feet, and that there is a possibility for ground water contamination.

NENMRL’s contractor Herzog was challenged with regards to landfills in other states. In San Diego, California, a man died after being buried alive under trash. Herzog representative George Zanter’s response to this question was that they were only the contractors in that facility. Until recently, Herzog had been the operator of the NENMRL. At the hearing it was revealed that Arlene Daniels and Inez May are now the operators. When Daniels and May were cross-examined it was revealed that, when not reading from prepared documents, they had difficulty answering questions about operations, safety, and emergency response.

In spite of the over-whelming history of community opposition and the hundreds of signatures from Wagon Mound and the surrounding towns and villages opposing the Special Waste Permit, the NMED ended their testimony by recommending approval of the Municipal Solid Waste Permit, including the Special Waste Permit. “It seems that you (NMED) are here to work with the landfill owners against us, rather than being objective,” claimed Charlie Duran, a Wagon Mound resident and Catholic Deacon of the Santa Clara Parish. Even though the community had heard this recommendation from NMED twice before, and still won decisions against the Special Waste Permit, the words were demoralizing and disappointing. “We will not let past standard practice of government, which works against the health of people and the environment defeat us, stated Felipe Garcia, “We have had successes and we are hopeful.”

The decision on the NENMRL’s permit will be made by Secretary Ron Curry within 60-90 days. The Secretary has made a commitment to environmental justice and we hope that he follows that path. In the last six years the New Mexico environmental justice (EJ) community has participated in various processes to bring EJ to NMED. However NMED career staff have not learned how EJ should guide their process and continue with business as usual in their recommendations.

The CCWMMC ask that you call Secretary Curry and thank him for his past support of environmental justice in New Mexico and ask him to say NO to the Special Waste Permit Modification sought by the NENMRL: Secretary Ron Curry, email: ron.curry@state.nm.us, (505) 827-2855 or Toll Free: 1-800-219-6157.

– Sofia Martinez

To support the work of the
Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound
and Mora County (CCWMMC):

Please send a contribution to
CCWMMC, P.O. Box 318
Wagon Mound, NM 87752.

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