By Tracy Dingmann
Does a community have the right to reject a landfill full of out-of-state waste that citizens have said over and over again they don’t want?
The right of concerned citizens to determine what kind of projects affect their environment is a concept that has come to define the issue known as “environmental justice.”
What does that term mean? In part, it means that communities with the least resources to fight are the ones that end up with the most objectionable projects. That tends not to happen in communities whose citizens have money, education and political power and connections – and can afford to wage fights that drag on for years.
The Camino Real Landfill
That’s the issue going on right now with the Camino Real Landfill in Sunland Park, N.M. After a protracted legal battle, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry is scheduled to decide on a 10-year renewal for the plant by Sept. 16.
The Camino Real Landfill (actually, that’s its old name – the owners, Waste Connections Inc., now call it the Camino Real Environmental Center) sits near the one of the largest aquifers in the Southwest. According to the landfill’s website, Waste Connections Inc. is the third largest privately held waste hauler in the country.
The landfill takes in 90 percent of its trash from Mexican maquiladoras and from the city of El Paso, which is located directly across the Texas state border from Sunland Park.
Longtime Community Opposition
For decades, a significant portion of the people who live in Sunland Park have spoken out against the landfill, including the Sunland Park Grassroots Environmental Group and many others in the community.
(For some great history about the landfill and its relationship with the community, check out this great, albeit ancient, book chapter from 1993.)
More recently, local environmental groups, including the Sierra Club have joined the citizens in calling for the state to conduct a comprehensive health assessment before issuing a decision on the renewal.
Local citizens have also been frustrated by the city of Sunland Park’s refusal to take a strong stand against the landfill. In fact, residents seeking to have the item put on the official city council agenda say they’ve been rebuffed and rejected.
And they say they want to know more details about a recent deal the city made with the landfill that allows the city to dump its waste there at a reduced cost.
Adding to the drama is the fact that, on Aug. 10 the city of El Paso opted not to renew a longtime contract with the company to dump its waste at the landfill – wiping out about 75 percent of the landfill’s current business. Instead, the city of El Paso will handle its own waste within its own borders, under a concept known as flow control.
The Same Old Story?
It’s worth noting that Sunland Park fits the profile of so many areas that historically get dumped on: The village of about 13,000 people has a high poverty rate – about 40 percent of residents live under the poverty line – and is 96.44 percent Hispanic. You can check out the rest of the demographics here.
There are so many players battling it out here – it’s almost like a soap opera. Except it’s not at all entertaining – not for the people who live in Sunland Park.
But things might be looking up for them. During a special meeting on Friday (Sept. 10), the Sunland Park city council passed a resolution commending the city of El Paso for adopting flow control and asking Curry not to approve a ten-year extension for the landfill.
Will the Sunland Park city council’s vote against the landfill make any difference? Will Curry grant approval for the landfill, and if so, where will it get its waste from now?
Keep an eye on this blog for more news about what happens next.