Seizing the initiative for Social Justice in the Sandoval County Fracking Ordinance 

By Elaine Cimino    August 30, 2017

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertion and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. – Martin Luther King 

As New Mexicans watch the environmental horrors unfolding at the Houston refineries, chemicals spills, fugitive toxic emissions, and explosions; causing more people to flee the area, there were no emergency plans in effect for such an obvious situation, such as Hurricane Harvey. The backup of generators failed from being submerged in tidal flows. This situation should have been dealt with years ago because of the low-lying siting positions of storage depots and refining operations. These systems should have been sited above the floodplain. Locating these facilities in this area was for the fiscal convenience of industry instead of public health and safety. The area communities impacted by the operations of these chemical plants are predominately minority communities and low-income.

The same pattern and practices by the oil industry pervade nationwide and New Mexico is no exception as the siting of heavy Fracking industry in the Rio Grande Valley is expected to cause irreparable harm to water and air public health and safety. In September of 2016, it was discovered that Sandoval County has no emergency plans for oil and gas emergencies for the very obvious situation as spills, fires, and explosions as seen in, July of 2016, in Nageezi, NM. Common Ground Rising in an IPRA (Inspection of Public Record Act) requested from the County the emergency plans. The County responded by saying, ‘due to national security,’ they will not release them. We are still waiting for those documents. Two more IPRA requests that have been made to the City of Rio Rancho and Sandoval County that have been ignored. The County denied the September 5th IPRA for the emergency safety plan and redacted (without comment) on the grounds of national security; the IPRA June 6th, 2017 went unanswered and the other has been woefully inadequately responded to in that a couple of documents requested were given while ignoring the rest of the request.  The OAG has determined that the County violated the IPRA law.

Sandoval County is moving ahead without baseline studies pushing an Ordinance despite safety and Health concerns voiced, by low income and historical traditional communities, that are being ignored.

There has been no discussion of water contamination impacts in this ordinance process and it does not contain the word “Aquifer.” What are the possible scenarios of drawing down the Aquifer, which is the primary source of drinking water, from the impacts of fracking? What baseline studies were made to protect the First Nations Peoples, traditional-historical Hispanic communities, municipalities, private, mutual and domestic drinking water wells? What are the impacts on the agricultural communities that have been in existence for hundreds of years when wells and acequias’ go dry? But more importantly why has the County of Sandoval refused to acknowledge the importance of water to our communities in the Ordinance process? The County Commissioners with this current draft ordinance amounts to no more than a  “Notice of Intent to Drill” that will allow this industry to come and over-pump and contaminate the sub-basin aquifers of the Rio Grande Basin.

Common Ground Rising filed a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General on apparent Open Meeting Act (OMA) violations that include no public posting of the minutes, no public hearing records being kept in the proper chain of custody, plus several other issues. Our citizen residents’ group has been kept from public presentations on public health impacts associated with land use environmental impacts and the ability to submit for the public record or to testify.  This violates our free speech and due process rights by favoring predominately urban, upscale and semi-rural Anglo community input over those who are social economically impacted and or come from minority rural, semi-rural and lower-income urban communities. Social economic inequity covers all low-income peoples regardless of race, sex or religion affiliations in all areas of the county.

In Sandoval County residents on private lands are facing big oil wanting to open up 267,000 acres to fracking. (Since the above graphic was first printed we were able to confirm from county private property that would be included in the overall figures.) Communities like La Madera, Pena Blanca, Budaghers, Las Placitas, Sile, Algodones, Corrales, Bernalillo, Rio Rancho Estates. Puercocito will be greatly impacted. We have “well-meaning” politicians supporting weaker and weaker policies and bending over backward to negotiate and accommodate the fossil fuel industry. Our nations political leaders are failing to take the brave and farsighted actions needed to prevent this human induced tragedy. The Tribal nations that allow fracking like the Navajo and now Zia Pueblo, complicate the issue with impacts that migrate onto county, state, public, federal and Indian allotments lands that have not sold out to the industry, will have to wrestle with these impacts from poisoning peoples wherever contaminates fall albeit, water contamination and air emissions. Republican shill for the fossil fuel industry and deny the problems, while leadership in the Democratic Party supports half measures because of economic reliance. There is much of this responsibility that requires all stakeholders to come to terms with mitigating impacts of contaminants and an equitable economic future for New Mexico. We,  residents, must stand up to demand action and not by cutting deals and compromises with polluters, which is what Sandoval County Commissioners are doing by supporting the current ordinance process and not considering the Santa Fe Ordinance.

Currently, in the Chaco Mesa cultural landscape over 850, mostly low-income, Navajo and Hispanic residents, are subjected to migrating pollutions from public and tribal lands. The poisoning and health impacts are being studied and the findings so far have concluded higher than average exposures to Toluene and Hydrogen Sulfide. These findings were sent on July 6th 2017, Sandoval County Commission in a submitted request to have a presentation to the P&Z and County Commissioners for consideration in this process.

Another concern is the intention to segregate the Northwest Sector and Southeast Sector of the County into two different Energy Zones. The disparate impacts that the ordinance creates, not the fact that the County has the authority to create districting but because of the siting of a polluting industry in a demographic majority/minority state and county regions.

Those impacts in the Northwest Energy Sector include;

  1. Different permitting process conditional vs. special use,
  2. Allowing open pit fracking lagoons without fencing, which reports of livestock that has died from drinking the poison chemicals used in fracking.
  3. No public hearing on permits from the County administration under conditional use permits
  4. The County Planning Department can approve without notice to county residents in the NW Sector.
  5. No EIS stipulated nor Environmental Assessment
  6. No emergency response plan or safety response
  7. No Safety risk assessment
  8. No baselines studies on water or air.

Where as the Southeast Energy Sector has

  1. Special use permitting
  2. No Open pits,
  3. Public hearings
  4. No baselines studies on water or air.
  5. No Safety risk assessment

This is the practice of institutional racism; here are some definitions that will help frame this issue in order to bring an understanding of our concerns:

Environmental equity: Poison people equally
Environmental justice: Stop poisoning people, period. 

Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. Environmental justice is the movement’s response to environmental racism. “Environmental equity” is not environmental justice. “Environmental equity” is the government’s response to the demands of the environmental justice movement. Government agencies, like the EPA, have been co-opting the movement by redefining environmental justice as “fair treatment and meaningful involvement,” something they consistently fail to accomplish, but which also falls far short of the environmental justice vision. The environmental justice movement isn’t seeking to simply redistribute environmental harms, but to abolish them. 

A note on institutional racism…

The most significant problem facing people of color is the institutional and cultural racism, which results in discrimination in access to services, goods, and opportunities. Institutional racism involves policies, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities. Systemic racism is the basis of individual and institutional racism; it is the value system that is embedded in a society that supports and allows discrimination. Institutional and systemic racism establishes separate and independent barriers. Institutional racism does not have to result from human agency or intention. Thus, racial discrimination can occur in institutions even when the institution does not intend to make distinctions on the basis of race. In the context of racism, power is a necessary precondition for discrimination. Racism depends on the ability to give or withhold social benefits, facilities, services, opportunities etc., from someone who is entitled to them and is denied on the basis of race, color or national origin. The source of power can be formal or informal, legal or illegal, and is not limited to traditional concepts of power. The intent is irrelevant; the focus is on the result of the behavior. 

We have brought forward concerns in the oil and gas ordinance at public hearings; we are showing why the County of Sandoval is practicing environmental and institutional racism, because they are withholding benefits by failing to protect public health and safety, and the inserting the necessary precautions of protecting water resources and air standards within the perimeters of the land use jurisdiction of the county ordinance process. Furthermore, they would be practicing institutional racism by applying the policies of segregated districting by imposing disparate impacts of contaminants and not fully adding the protections they are allowed under the law to both districts equally in order to lessen the burden on the welfare and health of the community.

It was brought to the County Commissioners attention and the P&Z Commission of the need for Tribal consultation under the National Historic Preservation Act, Chapter 106. The County was fully aware that it was violating this act because it did not outreach to the tribal communities during this process. Under the Open Meeting Act, the County could have a public hearing with a quorum to hear Tribal concerns of the 12 tribes located in Sandoval County and impacted by this ordinance. A couple County Commissioners showing up for a powwow, which is a good step towards public relations, but the public policies and regulations need to be discussed a public hearing meeting on the record.

Furthermore, the County that is primarily Republican, Independent, and Tea Party have a pattern and practice of supporting legislation that is based in Jim Crow era such as ‘Right to Work’, which they frame this as an anti-union legislation without connecting it back to its roots.

The biases displayed when women and minorities come forward in public comments and the abusive and disrespectful treatment by the Commissioners that they practice where they continue to disparage, demean, and berate these groups for their opinions, suggestions and obstructs attempts to bring these issues forward, need to completely stop and they need to be held accountable for their actions.

The red flag was raised in the last County commission meeting, on August 24th,  suggests that the County is pushing for an oil and gas ordinance that bears a “disproportionate” burden of toxic contamination, that both generates and releases of hazardous chemicals in low-income neighborhoods and communities with regional health and safety impacts, that is highly likely to contaminate water and air and affect public health and safety.

Fracking operation setbacks are given allowances by the State no matter what is in an ordinance. Online allowances can be issued at any time per request by drilling operators.

The County Commission is only giving the P&Z Commission ONE work session meeting to come up with language for a comprehensive protections than rushing to approve a 6 pgs. ordinance with Special Use Permits (SUPs) (SE Energy Sector Only) and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) with all the impacts as stated above and no protections for our drinking water and public safety.

Specifically, Santa Fe County paid over $1 Million Dollars for the strongest ordinance in the State of New Mexico.  This ordinance is on the top list of Yale Forestry and Land Use Collaborative and it has strong protections of the aquifer and drilling practices that are not preempted. However, this County Commission has allowed the citizens’ requests suggestions to be preempted claiming the County abdicates authority to the state and refrains from any protections because they adopted the ALEC proposed legislation that the oil and gas industry failed to pass for the past 5 years at the NM State legislature.

On August 24th, 2017, the chair of the Commission Don Chapman voted to further streamline the permitting processing with the state for a 10-day-turn-around on permit approvals and support this terrible ordinance which Commissioner Heil also voted yes.  Our Citizens’ residents groups from Placitas, Corrales, Rio Rancho, surrounding Pueblos and the Dine’ tri-Chapter Alliance in the Northwest Sector had blocked Chapman from an approval on the consent calendar that would have given automatic approval without a conversation on a recently edited ordinance that the public had not yet seen. Chapman still moved to pass it. Also, Commissioner Chapman requested that the P&Z send the ordinance back to the Commission for approval at the end of the September.  This request usurps the P&Z Commission duties and ability to make recommendations that based in fact within the law and that offers the citizens and residents of the County the protections they have been requesting for months.

With ethnic and class discrimination built into the very institutional structures of our institutional systems, we recognize that people of color suffer the whole gamut of capitalist conflicts through social and economic contradiction. This is expressed through limited access to decent housing, health care, food security, employment, and education (see also Feagin and Feagin, 1978) that we see being dismantled by this political group. We eclipse the determination of this overt intent as the principal measure of environmental discrimination and racism. Moreover, they have centered on the lived experience of individual participants, acknowledging the possibility of diminished response capacity among low-income and minority communities to even resist toxic exposure or to participate in pollution production decisions, whether or not the siting burden itself is disproportionate. “We cannot afford to give health and safety responses to the Northwest part of the County,” is an excuse.

Few would deny that our anti-racism and anti-discrimination effort, which we refer to as the quest for environmental justice has served to put this issue on the map. However, rural white/Anglo communities are also targeted by fracking development and infrastructure support argues that the environmental justice movement itself is much broader than most realize because of the classism, being perpetrated by the institutional policies and racism that is being established in this ordinance process unless it is stopped. There is a failure at times to clarify the anti-racist struggle from a broader environmental justice movement. Once again, the distinction is important, as there are several powerful political agendas underway that serve select interests of those vested interests that deny racism in siting, in holding these entities accountable and doing the hard work of making our communities more equitable by underscoring their political motivations.

The road ahead will not be easy with the globalization of capital hindering solidarity and union formation, and a new conservative political climate giving corporate polluters the upper hand. Nevertheless, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, one demanding structural change, will not go away. Ever more poor and working-class people are waking up to the realization that the current participation process no longer serves their needs. In this climate, there is no substitute for basic organizing as the best way to challenge corporate hegemony and holding accountable the local office holders.

Join us as move to repeal the efforts of the Sandoval County Ordinance and bring forth these issues to stand strong in our protection of water, air and public health and safety and the social economic  structures that will start to give one of the poorest states in the Union the economic strength for the impacts we are facing as a result of our dependence on fossil fuel.


National Patterns in Environmental Injustice and Inequality: Outdoor NO2 Air Pollution in the United StatesLara P. Clark, Dylan B. Millet,  Julian D. Marshall  Published: April 15, 2014

Race, Waste, and Class: New Perspectives on Environmental Justice (Editor’s Introduction for a Special Edition of Antipode: Antipode 28(2): April 1996) Michael K. Heiman Environmental Studies James Center Dickinson College Carlisle, PA 17013

Frackopoly: the battle for the future of energy and the Environmental  Wenonah Hauter 2016 pages 270-275