Tales of the Pajarito Plateau

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By John Bartlit

The natural history of the Pajarito Plateau, home to Los Alamos, is as rare as its human history.
Peggy Pond Church lived on the plateau for years in intervals, first with her father, Ashley Pond II, who founded the Los Alamos Ranch School and whose name is on Ashley Pond, then later with her husband, Fermor Church.
In 1943, the plateau was a backdrop to suddenly different residents. The panorama is captured in sharply similar words from separate times.
Peggy Pond, the fledgling poet and author, wrote  in 1914:
“There was the enormous and unbelievably vivid blueness of the sky; the wide horizon that stretched in every direction as we drove down to the Pueblo from our steep plateau; the arid landscape, all sun-baked gullied hill, the pinkish earth dotted with juniper and pinion like cloves stuck into a roasting ham; the swirling mud-colored river and its inhospitable gravelly banks; the occasional groves of cottonwood trees; the rectangular forms of broken mesas, capped with dark purple lava; the sudden moist-looking dark green of alfalfa fields.”  
   Lansing Lamont’s book, Day of Trinity, described the environs of the earnest scientists who displaced the Church’s and the Ranch School in 1943:
“Only the vista from the summit rewarded the scientists who had reached their destination: rising westward, the Jemez Mountains, richly forested with ponderosa pines that swept from sunny upland glades down to lush green basins with melodic names like Valle Grande and Valle Jaramillo; stretching southward from the Los Alamos Mesa to the Rio Grande far below, the huge fan of the Pajarito Plateau, its rim scalloped by splendid canyons sliced in the soft yellow tuff by centuries of rain and melting snow; and beyond, to the east, the glistening peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range.”
The region’s air quality is still a business asset.
My part fell to me one cold day in February, 1969, when my wife urged me to a hearing at the state legislature. The hearing on the Four Corners Power Plant resulted from talks by Los Alamosan Joe Devaney, fortified with snapshots from his airplane tracking the plant’s broad plume of haze to the Rio Grande Valley.     
In Santa Fe, company officials said they planned to install the “best” pollution controls and gave some numbers. The account had a curious air. “Trust, but verify” crept into mind.
That evening I phoned my friend Jake, a chemical engineer I knew from graduate school who worked in the New York City air bureau.
The clean plants I learned about from Jake, and from technical books and pollution control suppliers he named, far surpassed the managers’ skimpy claims. The information vacuum, not the pollution as such, is why I am an activist.
New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air & Water put to use the varied interests and talents drawn hereabouts by science and the intriguing backdrops.
A short list of events we encountered sketches out the chain of outcomes.    
Mike Williams, an expert in air dispersion modeling, and my wife Nancy, an expert in political and human angles, attended a 1969 national conference in Cincinnati on the subject of citizen action. The training was not about carrying signs in demonstrations.
Rather the topics were the new legal rights that citizens had in rule-making, how to comment on proposed rules, how to testify at hearings, who to contact to learn more and how to get on mailing lists. Back then, “mailing” began with stamping.    
Peggy Pond Church and Fermor Church heard me speak in Santa Fe about air quality. Fermor became our citizen group’s first treasurer and his signature is one of six on our founding bylaws.  
A young lawyer, Grove Burnett, knocked on our door one rainy night to answer our ad while camping at Bandelier. He brought his legal prowess to many technical hearings.
 After years of technical duels, Mike, Grove and specialists from Four Corners forged a 300-page settlement on pollution controls. Company brass sought to ignore the agreement they signed.  
We sued, not over pollution rules, but for breach of contract. The contract was enforced with rare muscle. Added to Grove, my brother from a large Chicago law firm brought pro bono expertise and other resources.  
Evidence was ferreted out from company offices in distant cities. The court ruling brought $300 million scrubbers to Four Corners.  
 The scrubbers together with other new cleanup equipment had three outcomes: First, cleaner air with much less haze; second, a rise in a household electric bill of about $1 a month; and third, hundreds of jobs created in plant construction and a hundred more permanent jobs at the plant.
We took an innovative step to quash the predictable publicity battle following our victory in court. The court order we secured had a mutually agreed-on press release that itemizes the issue and its economics – capital costs, the jobs made, $1 a month per household. It also named agreed-on company spokesmen on the issue. It kept the story straight.     
In water pollution work, Don Neeper has been our technical beaver.   
The great variety of vital roles and skills has too many linked parts to relate here.
I conclude with an experiment I ran in public information. Several years ago, I and other activists worked with engineers at the power plants to coauthor a novel series of opinion pieces. The columns jointly told our story on clean air problems.
 It was no harder than writing for myself. To its credit, the Los Alamos Monitor carried the series titled “In Strange Company.”   
 Thank you for auditing my short course in ecology, applied science, and history.  
John Bartlit
Los Alamos Columnist