It took us a long time in America before we realized that we were ruining our environment, the habitat we depend on, with waste from the things we make and use. But it took the Republican Party less than a decade to realize that giving birth to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created by one of their own, the Watergate-disgraced Richard Nixon, could seriously debilitate profits if allowed to do its job. With the help of the Heritage Foundation and its idolatry of the so-called “free market” they have been attacking the EPA regularly ever since with the same nibbling persistence that mice take to a box of crackers.
In the 1960s, Americans started to realize that manufacturing, energy use and production were to blame for poisoning our cities and even killing off elder Americans who couldn’t take the smog. In fact, it became increasingly clear that homo sapiens, or as we’re also known, homo faber, was in fact the principal polluting species on the planet.
Those realizations set up the conditions for six decades of strife in one of the greatest political rifts in American culture: that between public safety environmental populists and free-market absolutists, with environmental racism raising its ugly head in thousands of poor and shamefully polluted communities across the county near major manufacturing, mining and energy centers.
In New Mexico, that great political rift will make itself evident November 6 this year. Chances are when we vote for a new governor, we’ll have to make a choice between a candidate with an abysmal environmental record and a candidate with a virtually unblemished history of voting to protect the nation’s and our state’s health, land and water. We’ll have a chance to either extend the last eight miserable years of the Martinez administration by voting for anti-environmental Congressman Steve Pearce or voting to reverse the damage by electing Congressperson Michelle Lujan Grisham. And what damage has been done! It’s symbolized by the perfect metaphor for why environmental law and regulations are needed: the stark reality of 1957 and its inevitable aftermath.
Before October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite, the space around the earth was as pure and clean as a cloudless sky in rural New Mexico. Sputnik orbited the earth for over a year and then burned up in the atmosphere. But a mere 61 years later more than 18,000 man-made objects circle the earth, including close to 1,500 working satellites. Along with those larger objects, it’s estimated that around 180 million pieces of waste — from paint chips to frozen coolant, from specks of wire to slivers of glass and metal — are creating a dust storm of fine debris that acts like sandblasting on telescope lenses and solar panels, one that forms a dangerous ring around the planet, one that threatens damage to all objects entering its space.
It seems we just can’t help ourselves. Polluting is one of the “natural” things that humans do. Until the railroad arrived in Albuquerque in 1880, for instance, there were no puddles of creosote and other wood-treating agents seeping into the groundwater up and down the Middle Rio Grande Valley, including what would become a gigantic railroad Superfund site in the South Valley, not too far away from the old GE airplane factory and its Superfund plume of liquid plastics and industrial solvents. Underground gasoline storage tanks didn’t start to rot out and leak until perhaps a decade after the Model T Ford stopped being produced in 1926. Now those tanks are all over the state, threatening our underground water supply. And there was no nuclear waste, from uranium mining and milling and nuclear weapons research and production until the early 1940s. As home sapiens, or perhaps we might say homo impuritas or homo pollutio, our waste is everywhere.
In 1995 the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) said that Bernalillo County has had “over 150 documented ground-water contamination events” that have polluted “vast amounts of groundwater, its quality degraded to an extent that it affects its usefulness as drinking water.” More ominous is the report’s assertion that more than “20 of these cases” could be so bad as to be declared Superfund sites. Those would be added onto the three existing Superfund sites in our area, one of which, oddly enough, is not the greatest jet fuel spill in America at Kirtland Air Force Base. We’ll get to that in a moment. The ATSDR says that “as much as 30 square miles of land area” in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County may “overlie groundwater supplies polluted from septic tanks, underground storage tanks, landfills, industrial facilities, and releases of hazardous materials.” From what I’m aware of the ATSDR’s bleak assessment has never been a factor in planning for urban growth and an adequate water supply to support it in our fair city. (Orphaned Land, page 148).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has never been much help with groundwater pollution in our area. In fact, the EPA has been fiscally hamstrung and under siege for such a long time that its inadequacies and failures far exceed its noble goals. Every Republican administration since Ronald Reagan’s has cut the EPA’s budget, reduced its staff, attacked its scientists and backed industry and think tanks with conservative ideologies in their endless assault on the principles of environmentalism. Conservatives and the Reagan-Bush era and Trump White Houses have worked persistently to remove the EPA from American life altogether, denying our propensity to pollute and lie about it and allowing the Pollution Industrial Complex to do whatever it wills. Trump’s latest assault is nothing new. But that’s not to say it’s not horrendous. We can expect no help from the Heritage Foundation White House until Democrats win it back. And even then, we won’t see much help, as the Democratic Party is known to cave on the environment more often than not.
The Kirtland Air Force Base spill, the largest of probably hundreds of Air Force pollution “events” across the nation, has fallen prey to the endless war against the EPA. Stephanie Hiller in La Jicarita, an online journal of environmental politics in New Mexico, wrote five years ago that in 2012 the Obama administration’s EPA basically agreed with the Republican administration of Susanna Martinez saying that “the collective understanding of the fuel spill has improved substantially” to the extent that it doesn’t need to be listed as an EPA Superfund site. The Superfund budget is so depleted after years of conservative depredations that it probably wouldn’t have helped much anyway. It’s my understanding that in 2012 virtually no clean-up had been accomplished, and that the clean-up effort is still so lackadaisical today that the 24-million-gallon toxic jet fuel plume poses an even greater threat to the sweet spot of our aquifer, around Ridgecrest and Gibson, than before.
This year’s gubernatorial election could have massive ramifications for the future of the Middle Rio Grande Valley and all of New Mexico as a healthy place to live in an era of climate change dependence on groundwater as drought impinges ever more on our surface water from snow pack and rain. It bears repeating that Michelle Lujan Grisham early in her first term in 2013 said she thought cleaning up the Kirtland Air Force jet fuel spill should be the number one priority of the entire New Mexico congressional delegation. She was right then and is right today. Like the symbolic moment of Sputnik, and the incredible amount of space pollution that followed it, how we start to handle the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill starting next year will be a predictive metaphor for the future health of New Mexico’s environment and its people. We can’t keep dodging and spinning from this obvious and potentially ruinous threat. We can’t afford another eight years of anti-environmental crusading on the Right.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Balance image by Daniel Lobo)