When Michelle Lujan Grisham was a freshman congressperson in December of 2013, she told reporters in Albuquerque that cleaning up the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill — reckoned at some 24 million gallons — should become the number one priority of New Mexico’s congressional delegation. She was dead right. It didn’t happen, of course. But now, perhaps New Mexico will get serious about leveraging the Air Force into dramatically speeding up its reclamation efforts and reveal to the public the processes involved, whether the befouled water will ever be drinkable again, how long it will take and how much it will cost. Maybe Governor Lujan Grisham and members of her cabinet can even nudge the Air Force into using plain English that anyone can understand.
This will take congressional action. Will Lujan Grisham prove to have the political skills to rouse our U.S. senators and representatives, and Albuquerque’s mayor, to make an all-out effort to reverse this potential jet fuel catastrophe that’s loomed over the city since it became public knowledge in 1999? The Kirtland spill is probably the largest in the nation. And it’s right next to the sweet spot of our aquifer. As far as the public can tell, almost nothing has been done to get the contaminants out of our water supply in 20 years. Maybe Lujan Grisham is the one to get the ball rolling.
Hopeful signs are coming from the governor. Her recent executive order joining New Mexico with 18 other states in the United States Climate Alliance to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions is a strong statement of her intentions. And her appointment of former EPA engineer and, apparently, clean energy advocate, James Kenney, as Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) is another positive move.
New Mexico’s environment has suffered terribly over the last eight years of the Martinez administration, in which decontamination efforts across the state were effectively put on hold and regulations watered down and sometimes erased altogether. Our water, air and land had an aggressive champion at NMED in Secretary Ron Curry during the Richardson years (2003 to 2011), but he spent a long time making up for the hostility to environmental regulation by appointees in the administration of Gary Johnson (1995 to 2003). Curry managed to get both Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, as well as the DOE, to sign a consent order to take “corrective action” and clean up their wastes. The NMED had concluded that both facilities posed an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health and environment of our state. Clean up was commenced but is nowhere near completion even now, or so it seems owing to the curtain of national security that hides the operations of both national labs.
Governor Lujan Grisham and Secretary Kenney will have to build on the spirit of those agreements and evolve new ones that start to get to the bottom of the careless handling of hazardous waste at both labs during and since WWII.
Probably no environment secretary will be aggressive enough for New Mexicans who’ve committed themselves over the decades to return our state from a petrochemical and radioactive dump to a paradise regained. Kenney will have to prove himself on a range of issues from publicly recognizing the state’s groundwater crisis, particularly around Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Clovis to confronting the sickening air pollution in the Four Corners. And he will need to acknowledge the statewide reality of the ruinous practices of nuclear R and D from Acid Canyon off the Pajarito Plateau and the Mixed Waste Landfill near Albuquerque to the cancer epidemic upwind of Los Alamos in the Espanola Valley and the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad. Kenney and Lujan Grisham must resist pressure to expand storage at WIPP and efforts to change its mission from housing low-level waste to transforming it into a repository for high-level weapons grade plutonium waste and the potential transportation disasters that go with it.
For myself, I’m looking for an attitude from both the Governor and the Environment Secretary that embraces the insights and tone of a powerful book produced in 2007 (and still in print) by the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe called “Half-Lives and Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War,” edited by anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston from the University of California Santa Cruz.
The book’s final chapter, entitled “Nuclear Legacies: Arrogance, Secrecies, Lies, Silence, Suffering, Action,” begins by quoting former Secretary of Interior Stuart Udall who said, “After 15 years of investigating, I have concluded that the US government’s atomic weapons industry knowingly and recklessly exposed millions of people in the United States….Nothing in our past compares to the official deceit and lying that took place in order to protect the nuclear industry. In the name of nuclear security, politicians and bureaucrats ran roughshod over democracy and morality. Ultimately, the Cold Warriors were willing to sacrifice their own people in their zeal to beat the Russians.”
Chapter authors, anthropologists Laura Nader and Hugh Gusterson, quoted psychologist Robert Jay Lifton in calling this attitude “nuclearism.” And I think it’s also infected the oil and gas industry, as well as all polluting corporations, most glaringly chemical companies.
According to Nader and Gusterson, the four basic characteristics of nuclearism’s view of the world is that first it “consistently externalized the health and environmental costs associated with nuclear weapon development…” Externalizing means, fundamentally, to not include public health consequences in budget calculations, externalizing costs so that taxpayers are forced to suffer them. Next, nuclearism developed “new and formidable practices of secrecy that corrode public dialogue” and “profoundly deformed public debate and citizens’ abilities to hold government accountable.” The third defining feature of nuclearism is “its reliance on mass practices of ‘othering.’ It’s very hard to prepare the mass destruction of another society if one recognizes its inhabitants as fellow humans, each with his or her own worth.” By extension, nuclearism, and its commercial equivalent, what I’ve come to call The Pollution Industrial Complex, treats its own citizens as “others,” as people so worthless to its mission that they can be sacrificed to the profit margins and war-winning strategies of polluters.
“Othering” your own citizenry, and your own customer base, poisoning them with radionuclides or weed killers, or ruining their sustainable climate with greenhouse gases, is a horror almost beyond imagination. And yet, it is standard practice in our world. Which leads to the forth defining characteristic of nuclearism — “mass numbing. Living under the shadow of perpetual mass extinction, living a life of pretended normality in a society that is preparing to exterminate millions of people, practicing routinized indifference to people whose bodies are wrecked by the toxic production and testing of the weapons, and trying not to look too closely at the clumsy and shallow propaganda used to justify the whole endeavor —all this takes a psychic toll. In nuclearist societies, citizenship is often enacted in a context marked by rationalized paranoia in public discourse, nationalist excess, and a dull indifference to the humanity of others.”
For Governor Lujan Grisham and Secretary Kenney to project themselves as leaders who genuinely champion public health in a clean environment, they must combat this “othering” of New Mexicans by the nuclear industry, fossil fuel corporations, or any other entity, and they must do so with all their might, intelligence and cunning. Companies and government agencies who treat us as “others,” or as inhabitants of a sacrifice zone, do not deserved to be partners in any kind of public/private collaboration. They deserve to be treated according to their actions, stopped in their tracks, fined heavily and monitored as one might keep track of a dangerous swarm of lethal, genetically modified wasps.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image derived from photo by uıɐɾ ʞ ʇɐɯɐs)