Lobbying for LANL Funding: Indiscriminate and Dangerous

By KAY MATTHEWS

In the seminal book of essays Uncommon Ground, Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, published in 1995, editor William Cronon wrote about the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver, Colorado, a Department of Defense manufacturing facility, one of the most toxic sites waste dumps in the United States, that became a wildlife refuge: “How do we choose between the animals that seem to be thriving at the arsenal and people who fear that it threatens the value of their homes and health of their families? . . . The familiar categories of environmentalist thinking don’t seem to work here, since we have no clear indication of what would be ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ to do in such a case.” (To read about the genesis of this discussion regarding the Arsenal see “Introduction: In Search of Nature” and “Album: Unnatural Nature in Uncommon Ground.)

The Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear production site at Rocky Flats, near Denver, was closed in 1992 and like the Arsenal was partially turned into a wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A group called the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments worked with the DOE to fast track and reduce the amount of money allocated to clean-up and help facilitate the transfer of two-thirds of the former site to Fish and Wildlife.

The kind of thinking Cronon is talking about—what is the “natural” and the “human”—certainly had purchase back in the 1990s with the environmentalists who worked with forest dependent communities and led to the notion of “inhabited wilderness:” the concept that people, in this case norteños who have lived in these forest communities for hundreds of years, and their former common lands, now “wilderness,” could coexist and be mutually beneficial.

That so many of the people in these forest communities work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, also calls into question what constitutes the “natural” and the “unnatural”: people engaged in work that irradiates their land, water, and bodies.

But it is the economic situation that overshadows all conversation about LANL: that all this federal spending for Research & Development of nuclear weapons at the Lab has done little to alleviate the disparity in income, educational opportunity, access to health care, and overall well being between the professional class in Los Alamos and the management, technicians, and service industry folks who live in the valley. In many ways it replicates the way the Forest Service and absolutist environmentalists treated (and continue to treat) the people of northern New Mexico: as colonial subjects.

I doubt that LANL’s Area G, where 20,000 barrels of plutonium contaminated waste is stored, or any of the other 2,000 contaminated sites at the Lab, will be made into a wildlife refuge anytime soon. There’s too much money involved to even think about the day when LANL might be shuttered and the DOE forced to actually spend the billions of dollars it would take to adequately clean it up. The nuclear industrial complex still controls the flow of money to LANL— two-thirds of the Lab’s annual $2.2 billion institutional budget is for core research, testing and production programs for nuclear weapons—and LANL’s mission is to take over Rocky Flat’s previous task of making plutonium pits, or triggers for nuclear bombs.

LANL Area G. Los Alamos Study Group photo
LANL Area G. Los Alamos Study Group photo

But interestingly enough, the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, organized to “ensure that state and federal policies protect and promote local interests,” has ties to some of the same people and businesses as that of the Rocky Flats Coalition, and this connection may well influence on-going cleanup at LANL and the transfer of contaminated lands from DOE responsibility, some of which has already occurred (see map, click to enlarge). The LANL Coalition is comprised of the cities of Española, Santa Fe, and Taos, the counties of Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe, and Taos, and the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh. David Abelson of Crescent Strategies, brought in to facilitate the LANL Coalition, was the executive director of the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments, and several Washington-based D.C. businesses that advised the Rocky Flats Coalition are working with the LANL Coalition.

LANL land exchange_map_2013 2

Last January Taos activist Jeanne Green wrote a letter to the Taos News pointing out these connections, specifically mentioning Abelson and Seth Kirshenberg, Executive Director of the Energy Communities Alliance and Kutak Rock, LLC, who presented at the initial meeting of the LANL Coalition, and who, Green stated in her letter, “assisted in the effort to convert Rocky Flats to a Wildlife Refuge, an outcome which required much lower standards for clean-up than, for example, human residency.”

Kirshenberg subsequently contacted the Taos News claiming he did not work on the Rocky Flats cleanup and the paper printed a correction. Green sent the editor this statement: “He [Kirsendberg] and his group have been instrumental in political persuasion with the U.S. Congress, federal agencies and many of the important players during the transition process of cleanup to closure to long-term stewardship of Rocky Flats. He states to you that he did not work on the cleanup of Rocky Flats. Perhaps he is being literal. There is plenty of documentation of his work through publications by him and the ECA and presentations to Attorneys groups, letters to legislators and Congressional Committees, etc. as well as his attendance in meetings during which he presents lessons learned from Rocky Flats. He co-authored several reports on Rocky Flats along with David Abelson who is the Executive Director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities. Kirshenberg presented at the initial meeting of the Regional Coalition including in his presentation the bylaws of the Rocky Flats Coalition. He co-authored a report with David Abelson regarding the politics of cleanup at nuclear weapons facilities including Rocky Flats. He was consulted during the cleanup period for language in legislation regarding Rocky Flats post-closure stewardship. Kirshenberg is a renowned Washington D.C. attorney working for an organization whose expertise is in public relations regarding transitioning federal nuclear weapons facilities into ‘usable’ real estate.”

On the agenda for the March 16 meeting of the LANL Coalition was the item: “Letter urging importance of Admin. request of $255 million for cleanup at LANL.” This figure represents approximately 10 percent of LANL’s 2013 budget. As we previously reported, members of the LANL Coalition traveled to Washington D.C. on July 16 to lobby for retaining the $2.25 billion LANL budget. At the July 17 meeting of the Regional Coalition in Española, Reverend Holly Beaumont of Santa Fe asked what the group’s position was on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Replacement Research nuclear facility (CMRR) and if it would be lobbying to reinstate the funding that had recently been put on hold (see La Jicarita about the subsequent renewal of funding) and David Abelson responded that the coalition did not have a position on CMRR. However, in her editorial Green pointed out that “our Town representative on the Coalition, Councilor Andrew Gonzales, was recently on radio promoting the CMRR-NF, even making a laughable claim that it will pay for affordable housing in Taos.”

The Coalition also issued a press release regarding implementation of the federal sequestration: [The Coalition] recognizes the critical importance of New Mexico’s National Laboratories and DOE facilities to the state’s economic welfare and the dramatic negative effects that sequestration will have on New Mexico’s economy . . .  [and] recognizes that Northern New Mexico is highly dependent on federal spending in the area of nuclear technology and sequestration may cause tens of thousands of New Mexicans to lose their jobs through direct and indirect job losses at Los Alamos National Laboratory.”

The following week LANL issued a statement that the sequestration will have little impact on funding and employment at the Lab because it anticipated budget cutbacks last year and initiated staff reductions.

It appears the raison d’ etre of the Coalition is to lobby for LANL funding across the board, without any assessment of what that funding may be for or the impact it may have on the economic health—which the Coalition, the New Mexico congressional delegation, the state legislature, and the DOE equate with the social and environmental health—of the people of northern New Mexico.

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9 comments

  1. The forestland “absolutist environmentalists” were, and are, defending is not the exclusive property of Ms. Mathews’ Norteños, but all Americans, whether they work the night shift somewhere in New Jersey, a surf shop in Florida, or a tire shop in Tierra Amarilla.
    Through her slight of hand she would have us believe that the colonizers have somehow become the colonized. The truth belies this conclusion.

    • What “truth” is it that you refer to? That land grant communities are “colonizers”? That’d be a difficult claim to sustain Mr. Neils. Most of the Spanish and Mexican land grants in northern New Mexico were settled by subjects of Spanish or Mexican colonialism. In other words the actual people who moved north from Santa Fe weren’t powerful and wealthy colonial authorities but poor and landless peasants forced north to serve as human shields. Hardly people we should be blaming for violent colonial patterns of Indian removal. Many of those land grants in fact–Abiquiu, Petaca, Vallecito de Lovato, Tierra Amarilla, and others–were settled by Genizaros or the descendents of Genizaros–detribarlized Indians. So, these dismissals of land grant claims as rooted in colonial domination are ahistorical and, in your case, examples of a profound ignorance of the current significance of colonial histories in the region. But I wonder if this is a willful ignorance on your part. Indeed your key argument here is that the region is rightly for “all Americans.” But this is only true of course because of the ruthless land grab that followed the U.S.–Mexican War that made it so. Yours is a troubling, American Exceptionalist logic–the same logic that fueled the U.S.–Mexican War in fact. You’re against colonialism unless it’s serves your interests.
      David Correia

  2. I am grateful to Mr. Correia for his synopsis of the colonization of Northern NM.

    Mr. Correia’s invocation of the land grant dispute, presumably in regard to the national forest land in Northern NM, revives an old argument that would reverse settled case law. As someone who has sued the federal government more than once, I can assure him, being right doesn’t always confer success in the courtroom.

    National forests are fair game for public debate as to their management. Public land use policies evolve as our values and the land itself does. To sugest that dedicated individuals who try to change management practices on federally owned forests are treating anyone as “colonial subjects” is unfounded.

    Suggesting that because I accept the current status of US borders, and former Spanish land grants as my subscribing to American Exceptionalist logic is a bridge too far. I simply accept things as they are and go from there. If one wishes to predicate an argument on the status of the US in the 1840’s, we must be clear, they’re in the past not the present.

    • The lands you refer to as “National Forests” exist only as a consequence of U.S. settler colonialism and the failure of speculators to profit from the wholesale dispossession of Indian nations and land grant communities. Your dismissal of this violent history as unimportant–nothing more than “an old argument”–and having little purchase today reveals a profound misunderstanding of the politics of nature in northern New Mexico.
      David Correia

      • David,

        I regret I cannot agree with you. Those forestlands are, for example, national forests, whether you accept that or not. Denying settled facts is not constructive. I can’t see any productive end to further discussion with you.

        The lessons of the past are squandered if we do not allow them to inform a more enlightened future.

        Everyone’s history is unique, most checkered with injustice of some sort, not just Norteños. Some place their history in perspective and move on.

        I know Japanese people who survived being bombed by nuclear weapons when they were school children. Horribly disfigured, they are not vengeful, nor preoccupied with the wrong perpetrated upon them. They want only that nuclear weapons never be used again.

        I respect your views even though I do not agree with you.

        Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Peter

  3. Peter,
    I’m not denying the history and contemporary consequences of this history of colonialism. And I’m not trying to convince you of anything–others maybe, but not you. I’m merely trying to point out that your arguments rely on a self-serving logic in which you invoke the history of colonialism to criticize historical claims to northern New Mexico by land grant communities (you called them ‘colonizers’) but then ignore the ways in which this same history of colonialism makes it possible for you to stake an equal claim to the forest as “an American.” Yours is not an enlightened approach. An enlightened approach would not be, as you propose, to blithely accept the unequal consequences of a history of land dispossession as “settled fact.” Rather it would be better, perhaps, to admit that this history benefits some people (resource extractive corporations, white, urban environmentalists, etc.) at the expense of others (Hispanic land grant heirs, acequia parciantes, etc.) and that the “National Forests” were organized precisely in order to advance and reinforce those patterns of inequality. To accept this as “settled fact” as you ask us to do is nothing more than a request to white-wash a ruthless and racialized history of land and resources expropriation–and call it progress.
    David Correia

    • Dear Mr. Correla,
      Thank you so much for so ably addressing these issues. Your comment is the first time I ever saw reference to:… (and continue to treat) the people of northern New Mexico: as colonial subjects.

      Growing up here, I am still amazed at the unexamined assumption of those moving to New Mexico indeed treating “locals” as colonials treat all “natives” in their own lands. This is pandemic in the US, as well. My sense is that it should be addressed and all should become aware of this–until it is rectified.

      The same persons would not dream of correcting an African American from referring to “inequalities in past times,” in the “get over it” manner. Of course, our industrial country convinced many immigrants to abandon and despise their own histories, their own cultures and their own wisdom–a great loss. Those of us here in NM who were not forced into that mold have actual memory of history, culture and the wisdom of both.

      I realize this dilutes your argument, but indeed Los Alamos is not “innocent’ in any way, as it endangers so many lives downstream….illustrating the lives don’t count much in our current corporatrocracy, as illustrated by the proliferation of other radiation emitting devices–cellphones with a 400% higher rate of gliomas of those using them only 30 minutes a day for ten years and resulting now in the highest cancer death rate of children up to age 27. And their towers, with research showing 81% of the cancer deaths (A.Dode/Belo Horizonte) in a ten year period occurring to those residing within 1000 meters of a cell tower in an otherwise upscale community…7191 dead in ten years. That does not seem to be “normal.”

  4. Interesting discussion about the land grants and the forests.
    The fact, alas, still remains that in the present we have LANL, and the government as its operator and instigator, creating havoc in our backyard. Much like WIPP, the issue is often misdirected by well meaning individuals and THAT becomes the issue rather than the real problem.
    My 2 cents suggests that underlying this whole discussion is an immutable fact: we do not want to believe that our government does things that are evil. Since the day we were born, we have been consistently propagandized to believe that the US is always THE GOOD GUYS … misdirected, but well intentioned. That is poppy-cock from the get go. Ever since the first European killed the first native on the western side of the Atlantic we have been a violent and aggressive society … the OTHER is always in the wrong because we are the good. One way, or the other, LANL stands as one of the most terrifying originators of destruction in our efforts to dominate and subdue … whether is was the bomb they developed, or it is the waste they generate. In either case, it is an expression of the evil our government represents.
    I have spent the last number of years participating as a team sponsor for the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge. In some ways it is a good program … it provides a truly academic program for kids at the mid and high school level. Sadly, though, it is sponsored by LANL for the express purpose of softening their image … for propagandizing kids. Thus, LANL serves as a classic example of how a small bit of good is foisted upon us to ameliorate the vast evil. I am reminded of the Bush administration sending a woman (Karen Hughes) to the middle east in order to sell the concept of the good US in the region. It didn’t work … bombs speak louder than words … and thus her Public Relations effort had little or no affect. Instead of asking ourselves ‘what is the problem’ and staying focused on it, we are easily distracted.
    The above comments are an example of the distractions we fall into … and thus, instead of dealing with the issue we spend time attempting to justify some side argument … while the problem remains.

    Sad, but true. In fact, I am almost willing to bet that THIS rant may elicit a counter argument. With the net affect that LANL, the real issue, goes merrily on …

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