Its law office, in a small adobe building that is also home to two beauty shops, is a warren of tiny rooms filled with sagging bookshelves, mismatched furniture and sleeping dogs. The slightly shabby Santa Fe office of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center doesn’t look like it houses a formidable legal force. But it does.
“The Law Center is the most important environmental organization in New Mexico today,” says Antonio Luján, a former state representative. “It has credibility with the Legislature, credibility with communities, and it takes on the right issues.”
For more than two decades, this smart, feisty little group—funded by grants from private foundations and contributions from donors—has been helping communities defend their land, air and water against big polluters, from copper and uranium mining companies to sprawling dairy farms. The Law Center also parries other kinds of attacks. Recently, its lawyers, representing residents in the Datil area, blocked a bid by a wealthy Italian speculator who tried to buy up huge supplies of scarce groundwater to sell for his own profit.
“The biggest environmental issue in New Mexico is water,” says Douglas Meiklejohn, the center’s executive director. “New Mexico doesn’t have enough water, so how can we allow our water to be polluted or sold? It makes no sense. About nine out of 10 New Mexicans get their drinking water from groundwater. ”
Bruce Frederick, one of four lawyers at the center, says many of the state’s environmental laws were “written entirely for the other side—for businesses, for corporations. They’re not written for people.” Giving people a say in environmental decisions that affect their lives and health is at the heart of the Law Center’s mission, says Meiklejohn. “Our clients are involved in strategy, in meetings with regulators. We regard our role as working with the clients, not just working for them.”
In its 26 years, the Law Center has represented 150 groups in 175 communities across the state. While clients include some major organizations, such as the Sierra Club and Turner Enterprises (billionaire Ted Turner owns vast tracts of land in New Mexico), about 40 percent are from Native American or Hispanic communities, many of which are predominantly low-income.
Often, when the people in these neighborhoods and pueblos find they have an ally armed with the legal and scientific expertise necessary to take on the giants of industry, they are galvanized. They find their collective voice and rally for their cause. They educate their communities, protest in marches with hand-lettered signs and fill town hall environmental hearings. “If the Law Center had never come into our lives, I don’t think we would have ever all come together as a group… or had an impact,” says Christine Smith, of Crownpoint, NM, a member of the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, a group that has fought uranium mining on its land for years.
Law Center lawyers helped the Navajos win a ban on conventional uranium mining many years ago. But Crownpoint continues to be threatened by uranium mining because of the efforts of Uranium Resources, Inc., which was granted permits to mine uranium using an alternate method of extraction. Now the Law Center is waging a legal battle against those permits. With the alternative method, uranium is separated from the earth by injecting chemicals into the groundwater aquifer. Critics say this method not only subjects residents to the traditional hazards of radiation leaks, it also endangers their precious water supply, perhaps permanently.
Smith says she and her neighbors will continue to fight uranium mining. And with a flinty resolve, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center is fighting with her, continuing its 18-year battle that has, so far, prevented uranium mining in that corner of the state.
Says Eric Jantz, a Law Center attorney working on the case, “We’re not just a lawyer, we’re part of the resistance, part of the movement.”
Barbara Basler is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe.