NMED leverages resources on community outreach

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Environment department makes the decision to disband the CRMG

By John Severance

ESPAÑOLA — The decision to disband the Community Radiation Monitoring Group (CRMG) did not sit well with those who have been there from the start.
The announcement came was delivered via an email that was received five days prior to what would be the final CRMG meeting on Wednesday in Española.
“Your decision to make this dramatic change causes us great pain and it causes me great pain,” said Joni Arends, the executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. “It makes me want to cry. I understand your logic but trust has been built with the CRMG and I strongly disagree with how all of this came about.”
“I am appalled that you make a decision all by yourself,” said Sheri Kotowski of the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group. “It is very deceitful. And it is reflective of the (Gov. Susanna) Martinez administration.”
The object of Arends’ and Kotowski’s ire was Tom Skibitski of the New Mexico Environmental Department’s DOE Oversight Bureau.
Skibitski made the decision to end the CRMG and make a transition to expand its community outreach with the help of the New Mexico Community Foundation.
At the beginning of his remarks, Skibitski said, “I hope this is a meeting and not a beating.”
It was a little of both.
Skibitski said, “It is my responsibility and my decision. The CRMG meetings have a long history. After LANL satisfied its consent decree in 2005, we took over the meetings.
“For us, this venue falls into public outreach. My response as bureau chief is to make best use of available resources. I felt after a discussion with (LANL Oversight Office’s) Steve Yanicak, we had an opportunity to do a better job of public outreach.”
Skebitski then read the email from Yanicak, which announced the end of the CRMG.
“The decision to end the CRMG comes as the Oversight Bureau looks to expand the scope of interest, subject matter and broaden the base for community participation for its public outreach.
“As the CRMG ends, the Bureau also recognizes a promising opportunity to leverage its available resources for community participation.”
 Skibitski said the NM Community Foundation has the resources to provide an advanced agenda, a facilitated open forum and insisted officials from DOE, LANL, LANS and NMED would attend all meetings depending on the subject matter.
“I really felt after having the discussion with Steve, we had an opportunity to do a better job of public outreach.”
Skibitski said the decision-making process started about three weeks ago to end the CRMG after a discussion with Yanicak.
“We felt these meetings fall under public outreach and that is how we would track the costs,” Skibitski said.
Denise Gonzales, the director of Community Philanthropy for the New Mexico Community Foundation, then described what the organization could do for future community outreach meetings.
“NMCF’s role here has been as the host of numerous public meetings involving interested community organizations, the New Mexico Environment Department’s Hazardous Waste and Oversight Bureau, the Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Laboratory,” Gonzales said.  “The purpose of these meetings has been to encourage public attention and participation in issues affecting the communities that surround LANL.
“In particular, we have worked to engage the public in our RACER program, an online database that allows communities to monitor environmental pollution near LANL.”
Gonzales took exception to the insinuation made by some at the meeting that NMCF had a role in the decision to end CRMG.
“Our role in the CRMG is not a decision making role, NMCF has had absolutely no bearing on the decision by the New Mexico Environment Oversight Bureau to end the CRMG meetings. Nor do we have any role in any decisions made by the Oversight Bureau, NMED, DOE or LANL,” she said.
Skibitski, meanwhile, said he knew the short notice of ending CRMG would not be received well.
And it wasn’t.
Marian Naranjo of Honor Our Pueblo Existence (H.O.P.E) said she has been with CRMG since its inception.
“Sovereign nations were at the table and there was uniqueness because government agencies were at the table with us having discussions,” said Naranjo, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo. “We focused on a lot of subjects but we did talk a lot about air. That’s what air does. It goes everywhere.
“The way the decision was made was very hurtful and not a respectful way to do it. We are open to make things better but you need to remember the sovereign nations. You need to visit the pueblos and the villages and ask them to participate. There needs to be respect to tribal leaders. They are my voice.”
Skibitski said he was moved by Naranjo’s comments.
“What you said was heartfelt,” he said. “I recognize that now by the way I presented this. I am sorry for the way I hurt you and others. I feel like I need to apologize.”
Naranjo responded, “Apology accepted. Let’s move forward.”
After much discussion, it was decided that there would be a transition meeting for the CRMG on March 23 in Española and the first meeting under the auspices of the New Mexico Community Foundation would be the first week of April.
According to a pamphlet distributed by Arends at the meeting, the CRMG came about in 1994 after a public meeting was conducted by the DOE Oversight Bureau. Residents of Northern New Mexico had voiced concerns regarding the lack of timely environmental monitoring information from the laboratory. A citizen working group was formed and pursued a radiation monitoring network that would allow individuals “real-time” access to data from radiation monitors located in their communities. The citizens first called themselves the CRMG in 1997.