Residents Vow to Fight Powerful Polluters: Minorities Often Victims of Toxic Dumping

Article excerpt

SUNLAND PARK, N.M. -- Isabel Santos stood on railroad tracks in gritty wind with a landfill to her right and her town to her left. The 385-acre dump holds not only trash from Texas and Mexico, it also is the site of Sunland's water tank. Pipes carry water from underneath the dump to the town, which sits on the west bank of the Rio Grande.

In Santos' opinion, only a fool would fail to see a relationship between the waste, the water supply and the worms that have turned up in the town's tap water. Santos, president of Concerned Citizens of Sunland Park, wonders what else laces the water. And what airborne particles residents inhale from a dump so masterfully sculpted into the desert landscape as to be invisible.

Sunland's 10,000 residents are too sick too often, Santos told religious leaders participating May 13 and 14 in a Border Justice Tour," that included visits to sites in Texas and Mexico where toxic wastes are being generated or stored and where citizens have begun to fight the environmental threats.

There have been allergies, rashes, respiratory problems and new cancer cases in her community, Santos explained, pointing at an elementary school 1,000 feet away.

Santos has no intention, however, of living with this nightmare forever. Hers is one of a growing number of low-income communities throughout the country that are fighting powerful corporate and government polluters under the banner of 'environmental justice."

Officials of Nu-Mex, who own the dump, tell the residents not to worry. The company's literature, touting a state-of-the-art landfill, was passed out by a company representative as tour participants prepared to board buses. State health department officials were unimpressed. After testing water samples containing worms., supplied by concerned citizens, the health officials said they found no health hazard.

Life with a nightmare

Because we're Hispanic we have to live with this nightmare," Santos said through an interpreter. "We're children of God. We deserve a better life."

On May 20, the Environmental Protection Agency's new advisory committee on environmental justice held its first meeting -- an indication of how, in a few short years, the grassroots; movement has managed to get lawmakers to listen.

On Feb. 11, President Clinton signed. a Presidential Order on Environmental Justice. "It gives community organizations a handle -- we've used it at all levels of government' to demand action from officials in besieged communities, said Richard Moore, coordinator of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. Four EPA representatives were on the border tour.

The Southwest Network sponsored the tour along with the National Council of Churches. The 4-year-old network, which has 72 member organizations in six states, is planning a series of cross-border accountability meetings with government officials. It is also preparing to train church and community activists so that they can conduct their own tests for toxic contamination, Moore said.

In 1991, Concerned Citizens successfully pressured the state to shut down a Nu-Mex medical waste incinerator that was operating inside the landfill without proper pollution control equipment. Concerned Citizens dug up some dirt of its own, publicizing the fact that a Sunland mayor, the city attorney and a state senator all had past and present ties to Nu-Mex, either as lobbyists or lawyers for the company.

"Now," Santos told the ecumenical delegation, "we want to shut the dump down."

Santos' vision for a safe Sunland has the blessing of Las Cruces Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, who climbed on a rock outside San Martin de Porres Church not far from the landfill. Pointing at passing dump trucks, he condemned the "waste of human progress" and then read from a U.S. bishops' 1991 document, "Renewing the Earth."

The tour was followed by a day of testimony from more than 15 community activists from the United States and Mexico. …