Line Dance: Nonprofits, Campaigns and the Rio Grande Foundation

There’s a peculiar sidebar to the legal battle that has pitted Attorney General Gary King against New Mexico’s nonprofit organizations.  You know, that’s the one in which U.S. Tenth Circuit Court recently ruled in favor of two of the nonprofits – the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) and New Mexico Youth Organized (NMYO) .

In a recent Albuquerque Journal op ed, Sara Berger, the attorney for the two nonprofits, explained the outcome of the case:

The Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling was a decisive and unambiguous decision — one that affirms the right of free speech for all nonprofits.

For the two groups involved in the lawsuit, the Tenth Circuit’s decision was a total vindication — and a firm rebuke to critics who publicly doubted any nonprofit organizations’ right to hold public officials accountable and to advocate for those they serve.

What constitutes political campaign intervention?

Heath Haussamen of NMPolitics.net also devoted an in-depth piece to the facts and issues in the 10th Circuit’s decision. In addition, he examined the specific activities that had prompted the allegations against SWOP and NMYO, and contrasted these to what another New Mexico nonprofit, the Rio Grande Foundation (RGF), has been doing.

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Let Freedom Ring: Nonprofits React To Court Ruling

By Tracy Dingmann

The decision handed down yesterday by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver affirmed what most people already knew about nonprofits – that the advocacy in which they engage is a vital part of the important services they provide to their communities, as well as to society at large. (You can read a copy of the ruling here.)

When Secretary of State Mary Herrera, at the direction of Attorney General Gary King, ordered the SouthWest Organizing Project and New Mexico Youth Organized (a project of the Center for Civic Policy) to register as political committees back in 2008, the groups sued to assert their First Amendment rights. The case was never just about those two groups – it was always about the ability of all nonprofits to advocate for the rights of those they serve.

The state is already on the hook for more than $70,000 in attorney’s fees, plus untold more for the time state employees have spent on the case.  That doesn’t count the money spent – fees on the part of the attorneys for the nonprofits and times spent by state workers – appealing it at the 10th Circuit for the past eleven months.

In the wake of yesterday’s decision by the higher court, Clearly New Mexico asked nonprofit leaders in New Mexico and nationwide to share their feelings about what it means for the continued good works of all nonprofits.

Here’s what they said:

Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest:

“Nonprofits are our nation’s best vehicles for broad civic engagement. The 10th Circuit’s decision in this important case means that nonprofit voices will not be silenced through unconstitutional acts intended to intimidate ordinary people from getting involved in public decisions that affect their lives. With the economic crisis and political polarization, nonprofit advocacy with and for those who need it most is more important than ever.”

Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy:

“There is mounting evidence that when nonprofits engage in advocacy and community organizing, it brings clear benefits to communities. This decision affirms the important role of nonprofits in the civic life of our nation, and I hope it encourages organizations to be bold in their advocacy on behalf of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power. The decision also sends a clear message to grantmakers that it is perfectly appropriate to invest in nonprofits engaged in advocacy.”

Joan Lamunyon Sanford, director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice:

“Requiring non-profit organizations to register as political committees would have required us to list all of our members and supporters. As an organization that advocates for reproductive justice in an atmosphere of increasing violence and intimidation, our members would have had to choose between their personal safety or supporting women’s reproductive justice.”

Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness:

“This decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirms the legality of the important educational role that nonprofit organizations play in our democracy. This decision is important because it means nonprofit organizations can exercise free speech about their issues even when the information they have to share is not complimentary about people in power. And it means that nonprofits can tell it like it is without fear of being punished or closed down by people in the government who don’t like their message.”

Ron White, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Grantmakers:

“The 10th Circuit Court has provided, what I believe can genuinely be thought of as, a sane prescription for what the lower court described as a “politically infirm” action. Foundations, community groups, and nonprofits can now all breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that raising our voices on behalf of the environment or the marginalized or the need for support services for constituencies dear to our missions, is well within our rights. We should all be pleased that the right for nonprofits to engage in limited nonpartisan advocacy, which is guaranteed under our charter, has been sensibly affirmed with this ruling.”

State Permit Is All That’s Needed Now

By Tracy Dingmann

The decades-long legal battle over is effectively over – and now uranium mining in Indian Country is just a couple of state permits away from happening.

Last week the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made a crucial ruling in a landmark case that clears the way for Hydro Resources to seek permit renewals from the New Mexico Environment Department for mining on land the company owns near Churchrock.

Specifically, the court ruled that the 160-acre parcel of land was NOT on what’s considered Indian land, meaning that the company must get permission from the state Environment Department – not the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The state had already approved permits for the company to mine there back in 1989 – but the process was stopped by lawsuits filed by the Navajo Nation, which said the parcel of land in question was on Indian land and therefore under federal jurisdiction.

The Najavo Nation and other involved parties said they opposed it because of the possibility that the in situ leaching method of mining the company plans to employ to extract uranium could contaminate precious groundwater for thousands of people.

The Navajo Nation banned uranium mining of all kinds in 2005. Contamination from decades-old abandoned mines and uranium tailings are still a huge problem there and are believed to be the cause of many health problems among people living there.

As of Thursday, Hydro Resources Inc. had not yet applied for any permit renewal, New Mexico Environment Department spokeswoman Marissa Stone Bardino said in a phone interview.

If and when the company’s permitting request does come in, the department anticipates that those in the community who oppose the company’s plan to mine the land will ask for a public hearing on it, Bardino said.

Eric Jantz, an attorney with the Environmental Law Center, which represents Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining and other parties involved in the lawsuit, said his clients have talked about the ruling but haven’t decided what to do about it yet.
New Mexico Environmental Law Center

Jantz said he expects one of the many parties who opposes uranium mining will likely ask for hearing if and when a permit is requested and the scope of the request is known.

Stay tuned to Clearly New Mexico for updates.

The Latest In The Fight Against Uranium Mining In Indian Country

Nadine Padilla

By Tracy Dingmann

The Native American communities around Crownpoint and Churchrock have been living with the toxic legacy of abandoned uranium mines for more than 30 years.

And for the last fifteen years, the only thing keeping new uranium mines out of Indian Country have been the two historic lawsuits filed by Native Americans who sought to protect their land and groundwater from being contaminated by the mining process.

In March, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver issued a final ruling in one of the suits, deciding that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does in fact have the authority to issue permits for new four uranium mines on the Navajo reservation. Late last month, the court denied the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining group’s petition for a rehearing by the full court.

“It was a big loss for our side,” said Nadine Padilla, a Dine organizer with the Multicultural Alliance for Safe Environments, one in a coalition of Native American and environmental groups that’s been fighting the new mines for years.

The Legacy of Contamination

The court’s recent decision is especially hard to stomach, given that Native people in the same area are still living with the effects of past uranium contamination, Padilla said.

At least one new mine, in Churchrock, is scheduled to be located right on top of an old contaminated site which is already emitting levels of airborne radioactivity higher than what the NRC’s own regulations consider to be safe.

Unfortunately, the 10th Circuit ruled that the NRC does not have to consider old emissions when considering the impact of new mines. In the above case, it is estimated that the cumulative effect from the old contamination and the new mine will leave nearby communities exposed to radiation levels anywhere from 9 to 15 times higher than NRC regulations allow, Padilla said.

“This decision is a slap in the face to communities that are still living with contamination left after companies left town and refused to clean their mess, leaving hundreds of abandoned mines and radioactive waste,” said Padilla. “This devastating legacy of continues to haunt our communities, resulting in sky-high rates of various cancers, kidney disease, autoimmune disease, birth defects, and miscarriages.”

Water Contamination

Padilla’s coalition believes the four proposed mines – two of which are less than half a mile away from Crownpoint’s municipal water wells – would purposefully and irreversibly contaminate the sole source of water for about 15,000 people in the Navajo communities of Churchrock and Crownpoint.

That’s because the proposed mines by Hydro-Resources, Inc. (HRI) would use a method of mining known as in-situ leach (ISL), which injects chemicals into aquifers to mobilize uranium and pump it out of the ground.

The main chemical used in in situ mining is lixiviant, which is left behind in the groundwater after the extraction.

According to Padilla, research has shown that no ISL mine in the country has ever been successfully restored to its pre-mining condition.

After last month’s ruling, the groups who brought the suit had to decide whether they would continue to fight, said Padilla. The only thing left to do was to petition the U.S. Supreme Court – and the suit’s backers decided not to do that, she said.

“The Supreme Court has a history of dealing very badly with any Indian issues,” said Padilla. “It has voted against us in (the majority of)  the cases that we’ve ever brought, regarding anything – land, water energy – we’ve just always gotten an unfavorable response.”

If it happens, new mining can’t start until after the disposition of the other long-term suit. Known as the “Indian Country” suit, it was filed 15 years ago to force the courts to decide whether all of the mines are on what’s considered Indian land.

The mines are on a complicated network of Indian trust lands, allotted land and other land, and the court needs to decided whether state or federal government has the authority to issue the mining permits, Padilla said.

That decision could happen at any time.

A Constant Presence

In the meantime, the Texas-based Hydro-Resources Inc. keeps a constant corporate presence in New Mexico, maintaining an office in Crownpoint and attending meetings and court hearings on the mining matter.

Staffers have also been seen handing out frozen turkeys at the Navajo chapter houses at holiday time and passing out back-to-school backpacks to Navajo kids, Padilla said.

“They are trying to confuse people about what the real issue is, which is protecting the groundwater for all of our communities,” she said.

For Communities Living with Uranium Mining Contamination, Court Decision is “Slap in the Face”

Earlier this month a decision was made by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals over a license issued by the NRC for four uranium mines on the Navajo reservation. The four proposed in-situ leach (ISL) mines would purposefully and irreversibly contaminate the sole source of water for Navajo communities in Churchrock and Crownpoint.

The decision of 2-1 in favor of upholding the NRC’s authority to issue the permit follows a 15 year long battle in front of administrative law judges and Federal courts.  The proposed mines by Hydro-Resources, Inc. (HRI) would use a method of mining known as in-situ leach (ISL) mining which injects chemicals into aquifers to mobilize uranium and pump it out of the ground.

No ISL mine in the country has ever been restored to its pre-mining condition.  Two of the proposed HRI mines are less than a half mile away from Crownpoint’s municipal water wells.  The decision by the court supports HRI and the NRC even though all available data show that the sole source of water for more than 15,000 Navajo community members will be irreversibly contaminated.

In addition to water contamination, communities are dealing with problems of airborne radiation caused by mine waste from previous mining during the last uranium boom.  At the proposed Section 17 mine site in Churchrock, abandoned mine waste emits levels of radon beyond even what the NRC’s own regulations consider safe.  To permit new mines will only add to this problem.

The NRC argued that they only had to consider new emissions of radioactivity from the new mines, rather than either existing conditions or cumulative impacts.  The cumulative impacts would leave communities exposed to radiation levels anywhere from 9 to 15 times NRC regulations.

This decision is a slap in the face to communities that are still living with contamination left after companies left town and refused to clean their mess, leaving hundreds of abandoned mines and radioactive waste. This devastating legacy of continues to haunt our communities, resulting in sky-high rates of various cancers, kidney disease, autoimmune disease, birth defects, and miscarriages.

It has been more than thirty years since mining companies left and state and federal agencies that are responsible for protecting the environment and human health are only now beginning to take steps towards reclamating these areas.

As more uranium companies come into our area, our communities stand united against any new uranium mining.  There are an estimated 300 million pounds of uranium in the Grants Mineral Belt, with more than a third on Indian lands and protected under both the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Laguna’s bans on uranium mining.

Another lawsuit over the proposed mines is still pending and community groups continue to work to secure federal and state funding for cleanup.

This is a guest post by Nadine Padilla of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE), a coalition of grassroots organizations working to address the uranium legacy that still plagues many communities.