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.
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.
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.