Another Perspective — Environmental victory for whom?

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By Sofia Martinez

“A sparsely populated county in northern New Mexico…will become the first to challenge the constitution with a citizen’s rights ordinance banning oil and gas drilling...” states the press release put out by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund all the way from Pennsylvania. As a woman of color in this country, I understand the value of challenging the Constitution for protections of human and civil rights and/or applying its principles more fairly; however, to assume that the county spoke for itself, might be a matter of opinion.

The Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County support a moratorium on oil and gas drilling so that we as residents and landowners with generational cultural and linguistic ties to Mora County can educate ourselves on these ordinances to see which one might be best for us.

However, we were denied this right. Legally in the state of New Mexico we would have had 33 months for a moratorium. However, in a special meeting before this month’s regular meeting, Commissioners Olivas and Alfonso Griego, the new Commissioner, who without question, affirms everything newly elected Chair Olivas proposes; moved to adopt the Citizens Rights Ordinance.

From the record, we know that 31 people spoke on the ordinance, at least 2/3 were not from Mora County; they were in the majority of cases “parachute organizers” from Santa Fe and San Miguel County; poor Mora County, so far from Heaven, so close to Santa Fe and Pennsylvania.

The CCWMMC has spent more than 14 years educating and organizing around waste and water issues in our county and the tri-county area. We have been successful in two New Mexico Court of Appeals cases prohibiting the Northeastern New Mexico Regional Landfill’s efforts to obtain a special waste permit. Most recently the owner of the landfill lost another court case to the State Land Office after refusing to remove about 300,000 tires in the so-called “River of Tires” dump created on State Trust Land by the owners of the dump. The landfill is now preparing to file a variance from regulations for disposing of the tires at the landfill and will once again file an application for a Special Waste Permit.

We are saddened by what should be a victory, except that we were used. And, I am not talking about the “lost oil and gas revenue” narrative that industry supporters, including the governor, want to promote. She has rolled back environmental, educational and other regulations that protect the poor and communities of color, and all communities. As far as revenues, renewable energy, especially wind, is showing great economic returns in the state. We need to look to these sources of energy rather than worry about the revenues oil and gas are bringing at the cost of natural resources and health.

Santa Fe County spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for its “regulatory” ordinance; oil and gas then moved out of Santa Fe County. In addition to the Santa Fe Ordinance, San Miguel and Rio Arriba have also developed or are in the process of developing ordinances against oil and gas drilling. Then of course there is the Citizen’s Rights Ordinance, brought to New Mexico by the Democracy School out of Pennsylvania.
Thanks to the previous county commission leadership, we had received numerous presentations on all the ordinances in New Mexico as well as the citizen’s rights ordinance. We had yet to learn more of a New York ordinance that takes a different approach and which recently won a lower court decision. In the next stage of the discussions, we could have developed an ordinance for our county. But, we were robbed of that right by the Democracy School based in Pennsylvania, outside liberal environmental interests and political opportunism. I have struggled for many years against corporate and governmental environmental racism and injustice and, this too, is that.

The politics of the Mora County Commission underwent a major power shift in 2013. Commissioner John Olivas become chair of the commission, unseating former Commission Chair Paula Garcia, with the assured vote of new Commissioner Alfonso Griego, who took office at the end of the year. The Commission is a three-member governing board.

Before the first regular meeting of the commission, a special meeting was held where Commissioner Olivas became Chair with the vote of new incoming Commissioner Griego. They also fired County Manger Tomas Sanchez, the 11th County Manager in approximately that many years. In the first regular meeting of January, on the advice of the lawyer, Mr. Sanchez was re-instated. At the next meeting, February, the lawyer was fired! In March the new voting block on the commission legally fired Sanchez, a capable and professional local young man. We were also presented with a new pro-bono lawyer. In the April meeting, Commissioner Olivas, attempted to take over the budgets of the Volunteer Fire Department (this may be the only vote in which Commissioner Griego did not support him – many volunteer fire fighters, from his district were there that evening).

Commissioner Olivas has created numerous sub-committees chaired by his mother and friends. And he hired the 12th county manager. This gentleman recently had his educator’s license pulled by the state and is presently accused of financial mismanagement in the Mora Independent Schools. He has been hired by the new commission leadership at a rate of $350 a day. An outrageous amount when you consider other employee salaries and county demographics.

In May’s regular meeting, the outside parachuters were absent;  folks from different regions of Mora County expressed their opinion on the ban, mostly not in support of oil and gas but not happy that “outside” interests drove the ban. Tensions flared at the harassing photo-taking tactics of Drilling Mora County and when Chair Olivas would not allow Commissioner Garcia to question issues with the legal retainer for the CELDF; it appears the group may not have lawyers presently licensed to practice law in New Mexico. Wow! And these are going to be our environmental saviors and protectors?

The CCWMMC will continue to take stands to protect our water against oil and gas drilling, landfills, fossil-fuel extraction and development, and the nuclear cycle that begins and ends here in New Mexico. Our communities are being attacked on all levels, social, economic, political, and environmental. However, we can, and will continue, to speak for ourselves!

Sofia Martinez is a native of Mora and San Miguel counties. Her family has been living, farming and ranching in the region since the 1700s. She is a long-time public educator and environmental justice organizer and advocate. She is currently involved in creating a network of small independent farmers and markets.