Environmental history lesson

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By John Bartlit

The 2012 New Mexico Statehood History Conference took place recently at the Santa Fe Convention Center. And I gave my presentation on, “Preserving New Mexico’s Environmental History.”
As with all history, environmental history has value to the extent it retains the context of its time. Context is where the logic lurks in history’s events.
A bare word gets its scope and scale from context: compare “tire patch,” “shoulder patch” and “cabbage patch.” Missing the context has one result, misperceptions.
My talk and this column highlight the great shift in “environment” that came to pass when New Mexico was but 50 years old.
In 1962, Rachel Carson’s pivotal book, Silent Spring, was published. It dealt with studies of birdlife in new terms – chemicals, not habitat.
Before then, “environment” was pictured as wilderness and wildlife. The Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited all began between 1892 and 1959.
After Silent Spring, public opinion joined in against air and water pollution on many levels. Change was afoot.      
New Mexico’s first state air pollution hearing was in 1969. Two big issues were what to do about smoke from coal-fired power plants and wood-waste burners at sawmills.
The hearing began in late September and lasted for seven days. The hearing record is 1350 pages of technical, economic and personal statements from 82 people, including cross-examination of them.
That first hearing was held by the state Board of Health and Social Services. It would be two years yet before the state legislature created an agency and a board with “environmental” straight out in their title.
In the meantime, federal laws began building the framework for state regulations. A short listing outlines the story:
1970 – the EPA is created by President Nixon Ž 1970 – Clean Air Act Ž 1972 – Clean Water Act Ž 1974 – Safe Drinking Water Act Ž 1976 – Toxic Substances Control Act Ž 1976 – Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
A 1971 state law brought into being the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Agency. Key backers of it were Gov. Bruce King, a rancher, and Larry Gordon, a public health professional from Albuquerque.
In political terms, the legislative action was non-controversial. Gordon became the agency’s first director and has written the history that led up to and followed from the new agency. Search the Internet at, “Larry Gordon, Environmental Health and Protection Adventures.”
 The next turn of events was led by New Mexico’s senior senator, Clinton P. Anderson.
 The U.S. Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, on which he sat, held five hearings in five southwestern states in five days in May, 1971. The subject was “Problems of Electrical Power Production in the Southwest.”
The senators heard about five issues: energy demands, air quality, strip mining, Indian interests and water resources. The hearing record exceeds 1,900 pages.
The large coal-fired plants made national news. The Chicago Sun-Times in those years featured political cartoons by famed native New Mexican Bill Mauldin. His 1971 cartoon in the Chicago paper shows two grim Indians peering off at clouds of black smutch pouring from five tall smokestacks atop a plant labeled “Southwestern Power Companies.” The squatting Indian says to the one standing, “Man, that’s the dirtiest smoke signal I ever read.”
Another large issue was the long-running copper mines and smelters in southwest New Mexico. Articles and books about this environmental history have been written by Dr. Christopher J. Huggard, now at NorthWest Arkansas Community College.  
New Mexico’s isolation from cities and coasts brought about government facilities for science and applied science, which began with the wartime Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. These sites grew before the changes came in waste-handling laws and practices.
The initial laws of the 1970s put these facilities under different regulations than industry as a whole. The same was true, and remains true today, for the nation’s oil and gas industry.
A series of national lawsuits in the ‘70s and ‘80s gradually brought government facilities under the same rules as others. The Federal Facility Compliance Act of 1992 ended the distinct category.
Plans are progressing now for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Its environmental history, within the nation’s changes, is part of the story.