On February 17, as I was stepping out the door for an exhibition opening of my arctic photographs and to participate in an environmental panel at Fordham University with former New York State assistant attorney general Robert Emmet Hernan, I received an email news update from Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a Santa Fe, New Mexico based NGO that began with these words, “We have reason to celebrate with the ‘abandonment’ of the proposed Nuclear Facility as part of the Chemistry & Metallurgy Research Replacement Project (CMRR) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) by President Obama and the Department of Energy.”
On February 13, the President released his proposed fiscal year 2013 budget. On page 26 of the document “Cuts, Consolidations, and Savings: Budget of the U.S. Government” we find, “The Administration proposes deferring the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility... for at least five years.” Then on February 17 the Albuquerque Journal reported, “Chu [U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu] told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the Department of Energy decided to abandon—at least for now—a planned LANL plutonium lab because of budget constraints.” Abandoned or postponed—either way, this is a major victory for the New Mexico anti–nuclear activists and community members who have been fighting this issue since 2003. So far the news has mostly escaped the radars of the national mainstream and progressive media—I found one Associated Press article, and few articles in the New Mexico newspapers. But this story has local, regional and national significance, so I’ll share a bit more with you.
In New Mexico, the two national labs—Los Alamos and Sandia wield a lot of power as they bring in a lot of money into the state—to develop among other things weapons of mass destruction. These projects are usually justified with a simple argument—in the interest of National Security—the U.S. sacred cow. It isn’t easy for an elected official—state or federal to oppose a major weapons project at one of these labs. The Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board was quick to express their displeasure with President’s decision and blamed it on the mismanagement at the lab, “New Mexico’s Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the committee, noted that ‘for years we have been told the CMRR nuclear facility was necessary...’ although he stopped short of condemning the DOE for essentially pulling the plug and shifting the money to the Uranium Processing Facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn. ...But if it wants to get ahead in the funding game—and regain value in the eyes of the administration—mistrust between the labs and with the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration], operational inefficiencies and a draconian management culture must be fixed.” Let’s take a closer look. We’re always so inundated with bad news and sad news that we rarely take the time and look back, when we do win, most importantly at the things that got us there, however fleeting that win might be. In activism there is no win however, only ongoing engagement, as environmental activist David Brower once famously articulated, “Conservationists have to win again and again and again; the enemy only has to win once.” That aside, for now, what can the New Mexico activists tell us about how they stopped what they call, a Plutonium Bomb Factory. Here is their story. Exposing Public Health Hazards We know from history that one of the most effective ways to fight destructive projects and products is to expose the public health hazards—because people vote! If we only tell “this animal and that bird would die” if a project moves forward, it’s a tough sale—because sadly, but it’s true, animals and birds don’t vote. So, getting community members (read: voters) engaged in the campaign is crucial, and threat to public health—anyone can understand that, and that is one thing the New Mexico activists have done well in exposing. Last summer, New Mexico experienced the largest fire in the state’s history—the Las Conchas Fire that started on June 26 burned more than 150,000 acres in northern New Mexico, in and around the Los Alamos National Lab. Arizona, broke their record too—the Wallow Fire burned more than 530,000 acres. Climate change? Yes, of course. If you have a bit of time to read, I’d recommend New Mexico writer William deBuys’ thoroughly researched and beautifully written book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford University Press, 2011). Last summer, I was living in Santa Fe. Thick smoke from the Las Conchas Fire filled our sky and there was legitimate fear that the smoke might have radioactive and hazardous substances from LANL’s operations—past and present. So, I had all my windows closed in the small adobe home—it was hot like hell, and I wrote the first piece, “New Mexico is Burning with Potential for Nuclear Contamination” that you can read here. For that piece, I spoke with Jay Coghlan, Executive Director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, and learned from him that public comments on the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) on the proposed CMRR–Nuclear Facility were due by the end of June 28—the same day I posted my piece. Then, I sat down with Joni Arends, Executive Director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Marian Naranjo, an elder and activist from the Santa Clara Pueblo. They were concerned about nuclear contamination and were determined to stop the proposed CMRR–NF. Marian told me, “you cannot see radioactive elements in the air, you cannot smell it, you cannot taste it, and just because it cannot be detected with technical toys, doesn’t mean its not there. After the Cerro Grande Fire [of 2000] the government told us that no radioactive element was released in the air. We never had leukemia in our children, now we do, in Santa Clara and the San Ildefonso Pueblos.” Later Joni, CCNS board member David Bacon, and I visited Marian at her home, and saw the raging fire and its massive smoke that was burning not that far from her community. Las Conchas Fire burned large areas in crucial watersheds and sacred sites in the Santa Clara and Cochiti pueblo lands. On July 1, I published my second piece, “Las Conchas Fire Woke Us Up—Let Us Now Stop the Plutonium Bomb Factory” that you can read here.
Then, Joni introduced me to Registered Geologist Bob (Robert) Gilkeson, a former LANL employee, who had resigned from the lab and became a whistleblower. I sat down with Bob, Joni and David for four hours, and then spent more than two weeks going through the enormous amount of documents that Bob had given me. On July 18, I published my last and the most extensive piece on the issue, “Another Kind of Fukushima? Asks Whistleblower Robert Gilkeson” that you can read here. It was the first article that told the story of Bob’s groundbreaking investigative research and analysis. Bob and Joni were later interviewed by several media outlets in the U.S. and abroad. I won’t repeat what’s in those articles, but when you read all three, you’ll know that the New Mexico community organizations and activists had articulated extremely well the public health hazards of building a plutonium pit production facility that sits on a complex network of seismic faults, that reside in an extremely fire prone habitat, in the drought stricken (read: climate ravaged) American southwest. The lawmakers had to listen. Activism Rooted in Science and Knowledge of Law The team of Joni and Bob—a dedicated activist teaming up with a careful scientist—the result ought to be good, right? But the things that Bob said in the article may have come across to many readers as hard to believe. Here are some examples: “I can tell you LANL doesn’t have the required knowledge for seismic hazard to continue operations with nuclear materials,” and, “The seismic hazard at LANL is possibly 75% higher than the power of the earthquake ground motions that released very large amounts of radionuclide contamination at Fukushima.” And David Bacon said, “Because they’re looking at a possible major earthquake, it’ll impact all of us. With 6 metric tones of plutonium inside the lab, and all of the surface and subsurface nuclear waste, it’ll impact the entire American southwest, everybody. They need to pack up right now and leave.” At the time, all these could have sounded like scare tactic. Now consider this. On November 17, 2011 during a public meeting in Santa Fe, Peter Winokur, Chairman of the U.S. Defense Nuclear Safety Board (DNFSB) said of the existing Plutonium Facility (PF–4) at Technical Area 55, which is right next door to the site for the proposed—now abandoned CMRR–NF, “The Board believes that no safety problem in the NNSA complex is more pressing than the Plutonium Facility’s vulnerability to a large earthquake. Today, NNSA and the contractor described their plans to fix weaknesses in the building’s structure and to upgrade key safety systems so they can survive a large earthquake. These plans are promising, and progress to date has been sound, but this work must continue to be executed with the utmost urgency to ensure adequate protection of the public and workers. From the Board’s perspective, additional modeling and analysis will be required to ensure that all seismic vulnerabilities for the Plutonium Facility that can lead to its collapse or loss of confinement are fully addressed.” You can read his full statement here. In a 13–page memo to me dated February 21, 2012 Bob and Joni write, “Director Peter Winokur and the Senior Staff of the DNFSB held a meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico on November 17, 2011 to hear concerns from the DOE, LANL and the public for the seismic hazard at LANL. Gilkeson made a written and verbal presentation that brought attention to the great earthquake danger at LANL that was misrepresented and ignored in the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] documents for the proposed CMRR–NF and the large data gaps in the required knowledge of the seismic hazard for the engineering design and cost of the proposed facility. Gilkeson described the failure of the DOE and the DNFSB to implement the four Industry Standards required by Presidential Executive Order 12699. Director Winokur and the Senior Staff of the DNFSB took notice of my presentation. We understand that after the meeting in Santa Fe, Director Winokur met with the Office of the President about the seismic hazard at LANL.” But they also point out, “During the November 17, 2011 meeting in Santa Fe, Director Winokur put on record that the DNFSB considered the earthquake danger at the large plutonium facility (PF–4) at LANL TA–55 to be the most pressing issue in the DOE Nuclear Weapons Complex. This statement was based on maximum ground motions of 0.5 g from a single earthquake. The statement did not take into account the potential for much greater ground motions from synchronous earthquakes and the much greater ground motions from the concealed active fault that crosses TA–55 close to and possibly below the 40–year old PF–4, which is located next door to the proposed CMRR–NF. The PF–4 is the only nuclear facility in the DOE Complex where new plutonium bomb triggers are manufactured.” You can read their memo (pdf) to me here, which has wealth of information in the first nine pages of text and then four pages of maps. I spoke with Bob and Joni over telephone on February 21, and I said, “Sounds like lawmakers paid attention to sound scientific analysis,” to which Bob responded, “Perhaps, but not exactly. It’s knowing the law.” He emphasized, “It’s knowing the law.” He had studied a particular NEPA document 12699—Seismic Safety of Federal and Federally Assisted or Regulated New Building Construction. The memo to me states, “After discussions with the technical staff in the DNFSB, Gilkeson discovered the assessment of the earthquake danger at the proposed CMRR–NF at LANL Technical Area 55 was not in compliance with the 1990 Presidential Executive Order 12699.” Also note that this project was moving forward without a thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). On that basis, the Los Alamos Study Group had filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for New Mexico against the DOE and NNSA that claimed, “The Obama Administration had not written an applicable environmental impact statement for the project (CMRR–NF), the cost, material requirements, and impacts of which have all grown considerably since the project was first conceived.” The Study Group wanted the government to write a new and thorough EIS, not a supplemental EIS. Economic Analysis and Alternatives Secretary Chu told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the DOE “decided to abandon” the project because of “budget constraints.” The price tag for American taxpayers for this project was $6 billion. The New Mexicans did many creative things to raise awareness about that budget. I had written, “The lingering question in my mind was who would make the biggest bucks if the federal government hands out the $6 billion for the proposed CMRR–NF project. I was shocked to find out it’d be none other than Bechtel, the lead operator of LANL.” At hearings and meetings activists and concerned citizens shared stories of Bechtel’s long list of cruelties in other facilities, and the organizations distributed double–sided handouts with plenty of information on Bechtel. The truth spoke for itself and led to the outrage that the community members felt. They also exposed that in a state where public services are being cut drastically, the government was ready to write a fat check for a plutonium pit production facility. But instead of focusing only on the negative, the New Mexicans also offered a specific economic alternative that community members of a financially disadvantaged state could relate to and would benefit from. They suggested the $6 billion should be spent on: “Jobs that would go to 12,000 individuals including from the distressed communities like Santa Clara, Cochiti and others; $50K a year for each individual for ten years—for forest restoration, watershed restoration and management, replenish our communities, and give people back their humanity.” Gregg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group Director expressed his outrage with these words: “The Democrats on our congressional delegation are trying to hide from the public by supporting a bogus SEIS process, which examines no alternatives and resolves nothing. They are selling out the state’s future with their permissive silence, the motivation for which is surely pecuniary, given how the great need for cash in our political campaigns. This project directly competes for appropriations with renewable energy and the jobs, environmental benefits, and security those could bring us, raising questions about what priority New Mexico Democrats really give such popular concerns. We will pursue every avenue to stop this project, for the sake of our young people, our environment, and our economy.” As you can see, the New Mexico activist community had framed their argument also with solid economic analysis and offered hopeful alternatives. Community Engagement I asked Joni if she could tell me how the community members engaged with this campaign. She responded, “In New Mexico, we congratulate everyone for all the good work done to oppose the Nuclear Facility, which was proposed in 2003 in a National Environmental Policy Act draft environmental impact statement. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, through various iterations over the decades, New Mexicans and others have actively opposed the manufacture of plutonium triggers at LANL and the plans to increase it. The opposition to the Nuclear Facility grew from grassroots actions organized for the various NEPA processes, including informed public comments made during the official meetings and hearings; creation of art, signs and skull masks; letters to the editors; petition signing; phone calls to decision makers; and many prayers.” This victory is a relief, a big one for sure, but the work of New Mexico anti–nuclear campaign goes on. Bob and Joni point out in their memo to me aptly titled, Great Earthquake Danger at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “The available information indicates that the seismic rehabilitation of the 40–year old plutonium facility PF–4 is not feasible. For example, DOE has admitted that seismic rehabilitation of the 60–year old CMR is not feasible. Nevertheless, DOE plans to use the unsafe CMR and the PF–4 nuclear weapon facilities for at least the next ten years and probably even longer now that DOE is not allowed to construct the proposed CMRR–NF because of the great uncertainty for the earthquake danger at LANL.” The focus of the New Mexico anti–nuclear campaign right now is—LANL has to be cleaned up, and that is a major project; and so they’re currently engaged in a new kind of economic analysis. I’ll tell you more, as I find out more about that in the coming weeks. As I was wrapping up this piece news came in that LANL Director Charlie McMillan citing budget cuts has just proposed to the NNSA a layoff of 400 to 800 employees at the lab.
On February 17, as I was getting ready to give my talk on the arctic at Fordham University in New York, the news came in that the Obama administration had just approved Shell’s spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea in arctic Alaska. My heart sank. That project is moving forward without a thorough Environmental Impact Statement, and the government knows full well that Shell does not have either the technology or preparedness to respond to a BP–like spill in the harsh environment of the frozen arctic seas. I just completed editing a 384–page anthology titled Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point that will be published by Seven Stories Press on June 19, but you can pre–order it now. In the book nearly 40 contributors—conservationists, indigenous activists, writers, and scientists, tell the story with stunning urgency and groundbreaking research why we must fight to protect the arctic now, for all of us. I hope you will join us in that campaign in urging the President to stop Shell’s drilling plan in America’s Arctic Ocean. You can also check out the ClimateStoryTellers.org Special Series on Shell’s Arctic drilling here.
Let us congratulate and give thanks to our friends in New Mexico, and continue on with our own work, which lie ahead of us, as always.
Link to original article from Climate Storytellers
Subhankar Banerjee is founder of ClimateStoryTellers.org. He is currently editing an anthology titled, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (New York: Seven Stories Press, April 2012). For his Arctic activism he has received numerous awards including Cultural Freedom Fellowship from Lannan Foundation, National Conservation awards from National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club, and was most recently named an Arctic Hero by Alaska Wilderness League. Subhankar has been appointed Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and a Fellow at Forbes College of Princeton University for fall term 2011.
New Mexico's highest court ruled on Thursday that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry.
"We conclude that the purpose of New Mexico marriage laws is to bring stability and order to the legal relationship of committed couples by defining their rights and responsibilities as to one another, their children if they choose to raise children together, and their property," the court's ruling read. "Prohibiting same-gender marriages is not substantially related to the government interests advanced by the parties opposing same-gender marriage or to the purposes we have identified."
Daniel Strauss | Talking Points Memo 19 Dec 2013 Hits:444 New Mexico
Anti-abortion rights activists have presented a petition to the Albuquerque, New Mexico city council asking it to put a 20-week abortion ban to a citywide vote this fall. The proposal mirrors Texas’ 20-week abortion ban, which Gov. Rick Perry signed into law earlier this month and would effectively ban abortion after 20 weeks in New Mexico, as Albuquerque is the only city in the state where abortions are performed at or after that time.
Last week, a group calling itself Project Defending Life submitted nearly 27,000 signatures to the city council, which needs...
Andrea Grimes | RH Reality Check 29 Jul 2013 Hits:725 New Mexico
The economic viability of solar power is advancing rapidly. It’s actually already more then competitive within certain markets, and the price of solar panels saw a precipitous decline over the last four years.
In fact, solar technology has been advancing so rapidly that analysts have had trouble keeping their models up to date. When the Electric Reliability Council of Texas revised the circa-2006 assumptions about the state of technological development in its economic models, it found massive increases in the economic viability of wind and solar power, making...
Jeff Spross | Think Progress - Climate 04 Feb 2013 Hits:613 New Mexico
As of Wednesday, New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) is considering a positive new amendment to its child-care assistance policy, which would exempt survivors of rape and incest from filing child-support claims against absent parents. Current policy dictates that all parents, if they want to receive state funds for child care, must file child-support claims against the other parent.
The amendment initially sparked outrage when it became known that the exemption would cover victims of “forcible rape” and incest. This would mean that anyone whose rape...
Rachel Kassenbrock | Ms Blog 22 Sep 2012 Hits:906 New Mexico
We're happy to report on our great trip to New Mexico. We held events with our state leadership and PDA-endorsed candidate Eric Griego. This is final crunch time. Please sign up with Mike Fox to make Get Out The Vote calls for Eric.
Update: PDA National Field Director, Conor Boylan and members of our Arizona and New Mexico leadership teams will be back in the district this weekend for a final Get Out the Vote push. We need your support to make this trip a major success! Please contribute whatever you...
Tim Carpenter and Conor Boylan | PDA 01 Jun 2012 Hits:741 New Mexico
On February 17, as I was stepping out the door for an exhibition opening of my arctic photographs and to participate in an environmental panel at Fordham University with former New York State assistant attorney general Robert Emmet Hernan, I received an email news update from Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a Santa Fe, New Mexico based NGO that began with these words, “We have reason to celebrate with the ‘abandonment’ of the proposed Nuclear Facility as part of the Chemistry & Metallurgy Research...
Subhankar Banerjee | Climate Storytellers 23 Feb 2012 Hits:860 New Mexico
Today, Eric Griego for Congress (NM-1) announced that Griego will be the first candidate for federal office in the U.S. to sign the “99 Pledge” started by the Occupy/99% Movement. The Occupy Santa Fe organizers will present the pledge to Griego to sign at the “Occupy the Roundhouse” rally tomorrow in Santa Fe, NM in front of the State Capitol Building at 10:30 AM.
Started by Occupy Santa Fe, and to be launched nationally on Wednesday, January 18th, the “99 Pledge” states:
“The Pledge for a Democratic...
Eric Griego for Congress 17 Jan 2012 Hits:802 New Mexico
As winter arrives, the local Occupy movement finds itself made up of two separate, and not always harmonious, groups of people: • Those who meet to develop strategies for Saturday actions and raise money, then go home to sleep in their own beds in Santa Fe. • Those who have come from elsewhere to keep the camp in Railyard Park running smoothly with skills honed at Rainbow Family gatherings. Of two dozen people at Wednesday's Occupy general assembly, only one was from...
Tom Sharpe | Santa Fe New Mexican 07 Nov 2011 Hits:433 New Mexico
The 99 percent movement that’s swept the country has reached Albuquerque, New Mexico. But organizers there have decided to alter the “Occupy” name.
They are doing this out of respect for area’s indigenous communities, which have been forcibly occupied by the United States for centuries.
Instead, organizers are calling their protests “(Un)occupy Albuquerque” to connect corporate greed with the ongoing fight for indigenous land rights.
A sit-in participant in Albuquerque calling himself evergreen2 wrote a story on the DailyKos.com explaining how the term “Occupy” is not problematic terminology...
Jorge Rivas, Colorlines.com | Report 23 Oct 2011 Hits:474 New Mexico
About two hundred protesters marched on Central Avenue near UNM this afternoon to demonstrate against corporate greed.
It wasn't Wall Street, and Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon didn't show up, but the event tied in and harmonized with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that have filled New York City the past two weeks.
Albuquerque police blocked traffic while marchers chanted "Whose street - our street,” as they abandoned sidewalks and walked Central Avenue alongside traffic.
"I expected it to be, like we were gonna occupy the bank, but...
Stuart Dyson | KOB News 01 Oct 2011 Hits:447 New Mexico
Here in New Mexico, about a thousand energized people gathered at the Roundhouse to urge state and federal lawmakers to Save the American Dream by supporting unions, working families and the middle class. Participants pushed for making the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes, realigning spending priorities from wars and rocketing "defense" spending to education and health care and stopping right-wing politicos from blaming workers for the national and international economic mess created by scams perpetrated by Wall Street, banking and corporate elites.
Bottom line: Unless we tax...
Democracy for New Mexico 28 Feb 2011 Hits:502 New Mexico
New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman announced his retirement today, a move that further complicates his party's efforts to hold their Senate majority in 2012.
"The end of this Congress is the right time for me to step aside and allow someone else to serve," Bingaman said at an Albuquerque news conference. "It is not easy to get elected to the Senate, and it is not easy to decide to leave the Senate."
Bingaman had been mulling whether to run for a sixth term for months and, if...
Chris Cillizza | Washington Post 19 Feb 2011 Hits:545 New Mexico
Please think how proposed $405 Million cuts to Community Block Grants will render poor rural communities helpless in building and maintaining crucial infrastructure projects like community water and sewer systems and streets. It is precious little funding that keeps our rural poor communities from being 3rd World Communities. E-Coli in an untreated water supply can sicken and even kill the most vulnerable, young and old in our society.
Every construction dollar devoted to infrastructure development translates and...
Margarita Mercure Hibbs | The Rural Progressive 14 Feb 2011 Hits:538 New Mexico
PDA is organized around several core issues. These issues include:
Each team hosts a monthly conference call. Calls feature legislators, staffers and other policy experts. On these calls we determine PDA legislation to support as well as actions and future events.
Email us at: email@example.com
Want to bring progressive change to New Mexico? Start a PDA chapter; send us an email and we'll get you started.
Legislators Who Have Cut Ties with ALECSen. George Muñoz (D-Cibola & McKinley) - Muñoz announced April 20, 2012 that he was ending his relationship with ALEC.