SEARCHING FOR AN ANGLE OF REPOSE:
ENVIRONMENTAL NARRATIVES OF QUESTA, NEW MEXICO AND
THE MOLYCORP MINE
MICHELE M. POTTER
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
The University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Robert Morris Potter 1930-1972
Margery Ann Potter Cervetto 1958-2006
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? If you believe in metaphysics or
metaphor (one and the same?) the number is uncountable. Likewise, I hope that the many
strangers and friends alike, who shared their stories, goodwill, and insight, will find my
gratitude written here between the lines. You are too many to mention.
Like many other “accidental activists, I was dragged into this work kicking and screaming
by forces stronger than my will. There have been numerous people who have worked for
justice on the Red River for so long that a mere dissertation pales in comparison.
A big thank you to activists, mediators, and mentors: Ernie Atencio, David and Karen
Douglas, Brooke Tatum, and Rosemary Romero. Particular gratitude goes to Brian
Shields and other friends at Amigos Bravos, including Hope Beuchler, archivist
Thank you for your persistence and patience for serving on my committee: Vera
Norwood, Bazan Romero, Gabriel Melendez, Jake Kosek, Jose Rivera and Paul
Robinson. To my AmStudPhd girlpals Rebecca Hernandez and Kathy Freise, I owe a
glass of champagne. To my friends who burned up the phone lines and goaded me on:
Linda Sonna, Barb Scott, and Colleen Haggis. To my sons Gus, Henry, and Tobin, whose
mother was often distracted, I hope that they, too, can find work and play worthy of body,
mind, and soul. At UNM in Taos, special thanks to Marty Hewlett for telling me that the
worst of times are really the best of times, and to my students, who, as the cliché goes,
continue to teach me more than they realize.
To Margaret, Michael, Murray, and Mary—you know what you mean to me. And to my
own archangel Michael, who, in his infinite wisdom, knows how to simplify.
SEARCHING FOR AN ANGLE OF REPOSE:
ENVIRONMENTAL NARRATIVES OF QUESTA, NEW MEXICO AND
THE MOLYCORP MINE
MICHELE M. POTTER
ABSTRACT OF DISSERTATION
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
The University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico
SEARCHING FOR AN ANGLE OF REPOSE:
ENVIRONMENTAL NARRATIVES OF QUESTA, NEW MEXICO AND THE
MICHELE M. POTTER
M.A., Creative Writing, Rutgers University/Newark, 1994
Ph.D., American Studies, The University of New Mexico, 2007
This project uses literary theory and environmental history to investigate a huge
mine’s impact on the Red River watershed. By examining oral histories, local news
stories, environmental documents, and my personal experiences with activist groups, this
project illustrates how ecological, cultural, and economic factors must be integrated in
shaping a more holistic story of the Molycorp mine and the village of Questa, New
Mexico. The environmental case study is broadened to include an analysis of the stories
beneath the stories, thereby exploring how we might listen more deeply to silenced
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PROLOGUE: CONFLUENCE ..................................................................................... ix
CHAPTER 1: STORIES OF NATURE AND CULTURE ...........................................1
A Story as Told by Water .........................................................................................10
Environmental Justice: Integrating Environmental, Social, and Economic Values .12
CHAPTER 2: MINING, MYTH, AND METAPHOR ...............................................23
Perspectives: The View from Here...........................................................................23
Fools Gold, Acid Rain, and Battery Acid.................................................................37
CHAPTER 3: THE ORAL HISTORIES.....................................................................52
Joe Martinez: “Everything Has Changed”..............................................................56
Roberto Vigil: “I’ve chosen not to sit back and do nothing.” ................................58
Moises Rael: “When you’ve really grown up with the river, it becomes a part of
Marcus Rael: “We said, ‘No way.’” .......................................................................65
Victor Quintana: “It depends on what’s more important. Money or health.” ........68
Joe Cisneros: “What are we going to leave for our grandkids? We’re gonna leave
Will Tarble: “A toxic dust cloud isn’t something I want to be breathing in every
George Weiss: “The mine is not a locally owned company…it’s owned by
Unocal…. They’re people making decisions in an office in L.A and
David Douglas: “This is the whole thing with power and those that have not.” ....79
Taylor Streit: “The health of the river goes up and down with the price of
CHAPTER 4: THE TAOS NEWS: JOURNALISM AS ENVIRONMENTAL
DILEMMA NARRATIVES ...................................................................................85
Narrative I: Economic Volatility: Closures, Mining’s Fragility, and Community
Narrative II: Ecological Calamity: Fact or Fiction ..................................................94
Narrative III: Molycorp’s PR Shift: Making Amends? ............................................99
Narrative IV: Environmental Justice .....................................................................104
Narrative Analysis of the Local News Story ..........................................................106
CHAPTER 5: ACTIVISM’S STORIES ....................................................................110
Activist Stories .......................................................................................................115
Red River Watershed Group: Collaboration ..........................................................120
Rio Colorado Reclamation Committee: Superfund ...............................................123
CHAPTER 6: CONCLUSION....................................................................................137
Narrative Review and Analysis ..............................................................................138
Narrative Analyses in Relation to Contemporary Scholarship ...............................142
CHAPTER 7: EPILOGUE: SOURCE.......................................................................150
LIST OF APPENDICES ...............................................................................................155
APPENDIX A ARTICLE AND ADVERTISEMENT FOR TURQUOISE
APPENDIX B PHOTOGRAPH OF MOLYCORP MINE .............................159
APPENDIX C MAP OF RED RIVER WATERSHED ...................................161
APPENDIX D MOLYCORP TIME LINE .......................................................163
“In the beginning was the story. Or rather many stories, of many places, in many
voices, pointing toward many ends.”
--William Cronon, “A Place for Stories, Nature, History, and Narrative”
On a sweltering June day, I approach the confluence of the Red River and the Rio
Grande. From the rim above, the Rio Grande looks like a coiled, bottle-green snake, and
down here, it is placid. Instead, it is the Red River that hisses and roars as it moves into a
wild embrace with the much larger Rio Grande. Hiking down the trail has been like
descending into Dante’s Inferno, the sun’s radiant energy heating already blackened
ancient canyons walls. The trail clings precariously to the canyon’s steep sides. At last I
am sitting at the confluence of the Red and the Rio Grande. It’s refreshing to sit by a
river, I think, even if you can’t drink the water. At least I can contemplate the Red River’s
story—or stories—with a cooler head.
This process of storying the river might center on hearing the voices of the people
who have lived along it these many years. But to which voice would I listen, to the
farmers along its shore, to the miners in the highlands, or to the countless attorneys,
bureaucrats and environmental activists that have battled over the status of the river.
Perhaps the wisdom is listening to the confluence of the many voices. My emplotment is
how the pollution of a huge mine into a small river gets “spun” into paradoxical and
contradictory tales. Like the canyon walls, these stories are multilayered.
Norm MacClean’s novel, A River Runs Through It may refer to Montana, but
rivers are the thread that hold many a story together in the American West. The fact that
this is just another one of them is revealing in itself. Nearly half the rivers west of the
l00th meridian are polluted. Manifest Indifference, in the language of the subaltern, might
be the cause.
Meanwhile, at the confluence of the two rivers, what I am is thirsty. The canyon
still feels like a blast furnace, and while the cool water at my feet feels refreshing, the
warm water in my plastic bottle isn’t. I can wander further upstream, to Little Arsenic
Springs, where the water, despite its name, is actually drinkable. Perhaps it has been kept
clean because local activists opposed the Bureau of Land Management’s initial decision
to allow the mine to dump waste in the Guadalupe Mountains. That is just another piece
of the puzzle. Since there’s no mine waste dumped there, the water at Little Arsenic is
still clean, or so they say, but I’ve become too skeptical to drink it. Like many layers of
this story, there are misnomers, misunderstandings, and missteps. Information provided
by various entities—technical experts, activist groups, mayors, and mine managers—
often conflicts. It’s like dogs barking, and no one seems able to straighten out the story.
Little Arsenic Springs is an oasis so verdant that poison oak abounds, and even
though other people are less paranoid about poison oak, I trust my instincts, carefully
honed from past experience, and I move on down the trail. Then I come to the smooth,
dark rock etched with petroglyphs. Perhaps the ancienos, or old ones, have left this text to
tell us something about the area. Left here long ago when they drank straight from the Rio
Grande, what story do these pictures tell?
Before I head further afield, I take a swig of warmish water from the Nalgene
bottle I’ve filled earlier at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild and Scenic
Visitor’s Center on the rim high above. I like to visit the exhibit of indigenous artifacts,
thinking of those Anasazi ancestors who roamed the area long before the more sedentary
Taos Pueblos settled here. Apaches also roamed the arid plateaus and valleys of this Rio
Arriba, or upper Rio Grande watershed of what is now southern Colorado and northern
New Mexico, making settlement difficult for Spanish newcomers. If my boys or their
friends are with me, we like to visit the 3-D plastic map of the area, where they like to
push the buttons that make the lights illustrate the specific locations. Typically, though,
the technology is out of order.
Instead, I used my finger to read this piece of text like Braille, to trace the lay of
the land and the flow of the water and etch it on my mind. Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico’s
highest mountain, forms a center point for the area; and as the Red River flows from it, it
descends quickly through several ecological zones into the huge faulted rift to which all
rivers in this areas are drawn—the Rio Grande basin.
Wheeler Peak, at 13,121 feet, is a southern spur of the Rockies known as the
Sangre de Cristos. From this mountain flow three main rivers: the Rio Hondo, the Red
River, and the Rio Pueblo. I mention the Rio Pueblo in particular because the Taos
Pueblo people engaged in a long struggle to regain their watershed through such
improbable alliances as Pueblo spiritual leaders, Anglo artists, and Richard Milhaus
Nixon. They regained their watershed after more than 60 years of struggle because they
told their story over and over again, in spiritual and cultural terms: This was their land,
this lake was where they were emerged from the earth, and this fable/truth/genesis/history
empowered them to know who they were: people of Blue Lake watershed, Taos Pueblo
The Red River itself is a bit longer than the Rio Pueblo, perhaps thirty miles long,
and equally storied. It is one of the most contested and studied rivers in the Southwest,
carrying an almost unparalleled diversity of culture, geology, and ecosystems. According
to environmental historian Bill deBuys the river flows through at least nine separate
ecological zones, depending on whose definition counts. If that weren’t enough, the
cultural diversity is huge, as well. The Red flows through two communities—the town of
Red River (a former old-days-mine town turned western tourist town), and the largely
Hispanic agricultural village of Questa turned mine town. Questa is also different in that
it lies in a huge valley, unlike the more tourist town of Red River. In between, just
upstream from Questa, lies some of the richest molybdenum ore in the world.
The swirling waters in front of me remind me of the tremendous upheaval and
conflict which has inundated the small village of Questa over the past thirty years. The
promise of jobs and financial security from mining have collided with the calls of
pollution, grave health concerns and catastrophic predictions of environmental ills. The
conflict has created rapids of hostility, pitting neighbor against neighbor, at times family
against family. It is a civil war unknown to most outsiders.
The story of how this conflict came to be is as layered as the ecological,
geological, and cultural zones of the Upper Rio Grande region itself. As I gaze on the
colored bands of ancient canyon walls, I think this story is layered, like those walls. It is a
story of place, and what it takes to survive. Some say that the mine may have polluted the
land and the water, but at least it’s still theirs. It has helped people to stay. There are many
ways to tell a story, and when I am weary of the struggle, it seems best to let the people
who live here, and the river itself, speak.
How lovely, sometimes, just to listen to a river. Unfortunately, the river seldom, if
ever, speaks in words; rather its needs are left to be interpreted by all with a vested
interest. I resolve to listen to the river by hearing the varied voices of the Questa
community that are intertwined in the divisive conflict over the mine.
Through the use of personal narrative, the prologue has set the tone and revealed
the multilayered dimensions of this dissertation. Chapter one will present the theoretical
and methodological aspects of the project. This introduction serves to clarify what this
project is, its aims and central questions. It also serves to clarify what this project is not.
This project addresses issues which are normally reserved for environmental case
studies. Specifically, the paper explores the interface between cultural, environmental,
and economic forces as it examines the impact of the Molycorp molybdenum mine on the
Red River watershed. However, the present paper is not, per se, an environmental justice
case study. Environmental case studies traditionally attempt to quantitatively measure the
impact of a selected variable, e.g. the mining practices of the Molycorp mine, upon
selected dependent variables, e.g. the acequia system of Questa. In order to draw
definitive conclusions, the traditional case study inherently breaks down complex issues
into discrete data points. For example, the acequia systems would be examined in terms
of the number or pattern of acequia ditches or the organization of the ditch associations
traditionally assigned to oversee the daily functioning of the acequias.
The present study diverges from the traditional case study in two key aspects.
First, this paper challenges the inherent assumption of quantitative research that one can
break down complex issues into discrete data points in an objective, non biased manner in
order to reach the “truth”. Instead, the present paper builds upon the work of
environmental historian William Cronon who argues that a biased or story telling element
is inherently present in all attempts to analyze or to make meaning of discrete facts. The
same facts can be woven together to create fundamentally different stories as he
illustrates in his classic work which describes the divergent spins one could write given
the discrete facts of the historical event, the Dust Bowl of the early 1930’s. Based on
one’s bias, this collection of facts could be organized as a story of the pioneer’s brave
conquest over a withholding and sparse landscape or as the denouement to years of
abusing the land via agricultural practices that stripped the land of its vitality.
Similarly, the story of the Molycorp mine and its impact on the village of Questa
and the Red River watershed could be spun in numerous ways. The discrete facts could
be told as a tribute to the sacrifice of countless miners who have endured hardships in
order to procure a mineral essential to wartime. In contrast, the story could be spun as an
example of a global corporation raping the land and cultural values of a small community
in order to deepen its financial pockets. Although each of these stories would have merit,
each would leave the essence of the story untold.
The basic premise of the present paper is to avoid the illusion of objectivity and
instead to hear the stories that have already been spun. The use of narrative as the method
of analysis is the second key aspect of divergence from traditional environmental case
studies. The present paper will explore the struggle between the Molycorp mine and the
Red River watershed as a collection of narratives rather than attempting to mine for the
truth by examining key facts. In particular, the present study will explore three narratives
that have been created to try and to tell the story of the Molycorp mine. These stories
include the personal narratives of people who have lived along the Red River for many
years, the public narrative of The Taos News as it has told the story for over forty years,
and lastly the story as told by three environmental activists groups.
There are many kinds of texts and ways of paying attention or “reading” those
texts. For example, in the May/June 2007 issue of Orion magazine, geologist Christopher
Cokinos finds narrative in rock. In “The Consolations of Extinction” he writes:
Sometimes, when I’m sitting at my desk, staring out at a maple, a blue spruce,
cheatgrass, junk in a neighbor’s pasture, cottonwoods, mountains, and blue sky, I
slowly trace my finger along a bump in that small gray stone, a ridge that marks
the benthic passage of a Triassic worm. One of the survivors. For life is a song.
Life is a hemorrhage. That bump is a narrative of the deep past, and even if,
finally, I can’t really comprehend it, I am comforted (42).
His story is not the usual one of disaster, with a focus on the seriousness and intensity
with which we so often address environmental justice concerns. After all, there are so
many injustices, so much work to do. What he succeeds in doing is that “something else.”
He has situated himself personally, aesthetically, and spiritually within the narrative, and
this, in itself, is a political act. He is not somewhere offstage, an expert geologist who
controls the narrative from a pseudo-unbiased position.
He articulates how he feels, and is attentive to the spirited mystery which he
cannot really understand. I use this example because he can see a “bump” in the rock as
“narrative.” How do we express the sense of paradox, irony, humor, aesthetic values, or
even spiritual ones in discourse which is grounded purely in “argument” or in
“quantitative” values, those which are all-too-often mistaken for facts which translate into
what we think of as “truth?” Cokinos finds comfort even in extinction.
I am comforted, too, by nature, and sometimes even by the nature of
impermanence, but this narrative about the mine, community, and water is a narrative of
warning more than one of comfort. I am more contorted, at times, by environmental
justice’s narratives than comforted by them, though the notion of working (and playing)
in community with others in conscious ways helps me to locate meaning in my own life.
How do we tell environmental justice’s narratives in ways that, as Cronon argues, must
contain “joy or meaning” in the telling? We might place more emphasis on right
livelihood, for example, but that, too, is complex because it doesn’t always pay off at the
bank or in the short term. It’s is complex to create such a life in the midst of free markets,
global economics, and capitalist societies which are growth-dependent. It is made more
difficult when people feel they must give up basic human rights to clean air and water in
order to keep jobs. It is not a basic human right to have high-paying jobs, especially if
they are fleeting and destroy the places we love, along with the integrity of our children’s
ecological, cultural, emotional and physical lives.
Justice and freedom are words whose meanings are eroded in the same way that
the connotation of environmentalism has become more negative. Meanings are more fully
felt when stories are seen in relationship to one another and as part of place-based
knowledge. Therefore this project has morphed from “study” to “story.” In a case study,
answers are expected. In this story, I follow signs and signals, like the bump in a rock of a
Benthic invertebrate, which only suggest meanings. There are questions, that perhaps
become better ones, but there are few well-defined answers.
One of this project’s intentions is to tell a greater narrative of warning. One such
example is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Her ways of perceiving the world as
woman, writer, scientist all shaped a narrative which resulted, in part, in the
environmental movement, changed public policy, and helped ban DDT in this country.
But we now have thousands of other insecticides and DDT is still exported and used in
other countries, showing up even in the breast milk of Inuit mothers. Therefore, the
deeper story was not told or perhaps not heard.
This story of mining is also one of warning, helping to educate both workers and
consumers about mining’s deeper costs. For example, from the same edition of Orion
magazine, an article by Adam Stein “Measuring Your Ecological Footprint” reveals that
As part of a twenty point plan to address climate change, Tesco [one of the five
biggest retailers in the world] will being “carbon labeling” all seventy thousand
products on its shelves…Tesco’s new labels will reveal the total amount of carbon
dioxide created from the production, transport and consumption of the goods it
carries (2007, 58).
How does this illuminate my “argument?” It tells me that no matter what our best
intentions (like teaching consumers that there is a larger price tag for Chilean grapes) it is
incredibly difficult to quantify what we use/buy/consume/trade.
Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to examine fresh ways to tell/write/listen to
narratives which engage nature/culture on a deeper level if we want to find fresh political,
social, ecological, and cultural—and aesthetic—and spiritual outcomes?
Another example, I use in the following chapter is that of Laura Pulido’s case
studies in environmental justice, chosen for her theoretical framework about how power
works. She also argues forcefully about the ills of environmentalism. Yet for all the
brilliance of her theory and argument, something else is missing. The possible connection
with “environmentalist grandmothers” like Rachel Carson might be just one example.
Then, too, there are the values of playfulness, humor, aesthetics, and spirituality that a
writer like Gary Snyder provides in The Practice of the Wild (1991) which are based more
on narrative than on argument. Because of those literary values, his work has fueled my
motivation to work for an integration of nature and culture over several decades, whether
or not it is under the auspices of bioregionalism, deep ecology, or environmental justice.
Ultimately, articulating difference becomes less important than espousing a politics of
diversity rooted in place.
Here is what follows:
Chapter 1 sets up a theoretical framework which examines how environmental
history and literary theory can work together to greater ends. It asks, in silencing some
voices (usually those based on qualitative values) and privileging others (often based on
the more quantifiable values of science, technology, and law) what kinds of outcomes
might be expected? It also argues for literary scholarship’s ability to find hidden
meanings and locate other possible meanings that are left out of social and “hard”
Chapter 2 serves to inform readers of some elements basic to mining and water,
but offers a much deeper perspective in order to understand extractive resource as
metaphor, challenging the myth that extractive industry is the fundamental basis for an
economics of the West. I also ask questions of language because we live in a time in
which we are habituated to call, for example, weapons of mass destruction
Chapter 3 uses oral histories to tell stories based on the people who lived in the
Red River watershed pre-large scale mining. In this way, traditional values and place-
based wisdom might be integrated. This includes a way to listen to narratives which use
authentic experience as common denominator.
Chapter 4 provides an overview and chronology of the history of the mine from
1965 to the present ongoing. In the regional newspaper of record, The Taos News, this
chapter review how public narrative is reciprocally shaped into contemporary “issues.” It
examines the way in which stories are those of attribution, supposedly unbiased ones.
Chapter 5 looks at events behind the scenes in which three regionally-based
activist groups serve as a basis for texts, examining the way that personal action and
observation are also part of narrative structures.
Chapter 6 summarizes the research and synthesizes findings, analyzing how
stories are shaped into outcomes.
STORIES OF NATURE AND CULTURE
“….Because I care so much about nature and storytelling both, I would urge upon
environmental historians the task of telling not just stories about nature, but stories about
stories about nature.”
William Cronon, in “A Place for Stories, Nature, History and Narrative”
Questa, an agricultural village of approximately 1800 residents, nestled in the
Sangre de Cristos of northern New Mexico, is a town deeply divided. The village has
been torn asunder by the split loyalties of environmental, cultural and economic forces.
For over forty years the residents in this part of the Rio Arriba, or upper Rio Grande
region, have been impacted by the Molycorp molybdenum mine. Countless heated
community meetings and protests have highlighted the controversy surrounding the mine
and its impacts to health, air, and water. An examination of Questa’s struggles is
mirrored globally, reflecting similar power struggles, often over water.
This story has been told in many ways. The major institutional discourses all-too-
often are privileged stories. Knowledge is power, and the way we tell stories has
important political implications. Narrative elements of environmental histories can help
rebalance those inequalities. For example, in order for stories of environmental justice to
occur, we must understand, listen to and expose the embedded micronarratives to get at
the underlying issues. We must tell narratives that are integrated, broad, and deep,
including social, cultural, and ecological values, and “something more.” That something
more includes other species and the gestalt of a natural world that is more than the sum of
its parts. It includes aesthetics and the values of sustainability. We must learn to hear not
only subaltern stories, but the voices of microorganisms, and rivers, and children not yet
born. In vernacular terms, what I want to know about environmental histories is this: How
do we better tell the stories of who gets heard, who gets what, and who gets hurt?
Following the lead of environmental historian William Cronon, who rightly
contends that environmental histories should be told “not just as stories about nature but
“stories about stories about nature,” my project is not just the history of small town/small
river/big mine/big problem, but also the story about the story. In other words, like the
confluence of two rivers, an analysis of how these stories are told/heard is a part of the
story, too. How do we better learn to listen to silenced voices? Bluntly put, I want to tell
In effect, the present paper is an environmental case study/history of Questa, New
Mexico. My aim is to examine the diverse economic, cultural and environmental forces
that converge in the struggle between Questa and the Molycorp mine, and in that sense, it
is a history. In addition, this “story about a story” also uses the tools of literary theory.
Specifically, I will examine how one story has been spun from different angles, including
the voices of the mine, activists groups, Questa community members and the local
newspaper. My aim is to illuminate the innate complexity of such narratives, thereby
encouraging inclusion rather than exclusion and simplification. I also wish to make clear
that this approach is heuristic. As such it is a way of “self-inquiry and dialogue with
others aimed at finding the underlying meanings of important human experiences.”1
Therefore, writing in the first person is one way to reduce pseudo-objectivity and locate
In Heruistic Research, by Clark Moustakas (1990), he quotes Maslow (1966): “There is no substitute for
experience, none al all.”
oneself (my self) in the midst of complexity. This seems the only honest approach,
illuminating and illustrating the subjective, complex, relational nature of storytelling.
This also challenges the myth that historical narratives are somehow “outside ourselves”
and are essentially objective renditions of facts.
The history of the Molycorp mine in Questa is complex and deep, including
important elements of environmental history,2 but writing it has been maddeningly
problematized by paradox: A complicated narrative should also be told as richly (and
simply) as possible, integrating many levels of meaning. The right metaphors (acequia
culture being one) could do just that. Further, the region is ecologically, culturally,
spiritually, culturally (and geologically!) unparalleled in terms of its extreme diversity.
That would complicate any study. Good. Still, it is a sad truth that indigenous water
systems globally are being colonized by corporate hegemony, degrading the cultural and
ecological fabric of their communities.
There are three key aspects in my approach here: First, it is a story told by water.
Water is central metaphor, used as “wet” water, but also valuable for its transformative
integrative, nature: it morphs into vapor, solid, liquid. Secondly, it is a story told by many
other voices, including oral histories. This is essentially a qualitative approach, in which I
act as narrative bricoleur,3 examining the value of technoscientific data and seeking ways
to both challenge and integrate its power. The stories and voices and experiences (seen as
I will use the terms story and narrative interchangeably and in the broadest sense of the terms, though
technically there are some differences.
According to Denzin and Lincoln, a bricoleur is a “jack of all trades, or a kind of do-it-yourself person.
(Levi-Strauss, 1966, p.17). There are many kinds of bricoleur—interpretive, narrative, theoretical, and
text) of this project are read together, across, and with other divergent stories of
community members, activists, regulators, and academics. Thirdly, it is a story as told by
me, one of participant/observer/activist/scholar. My own “lived experience,” in context
within a community of many others, expresses not only my own experiences, but
thoughts, doubts, and delights throughout the project. I hope to articulate my own deeper
meanings to the story in addition to creating a more linear argument.
The methods I utilize are eclectic indeed, a “choreography” of dynamic
experiences designed to form a quilt, a bricollage (2003 Denzin and Lincoln). My
experience volunteering for three activists groups concerned with the impact of the
Molycorp mine served as the launching pad for this project. I will draw heavily upon the
hours and hours of community meetings which I attended, observing first-hand the
contentious nature of many debates. I became the queen of notes, with everyone wanting
to borrow them from “both” sides of the room where meetings were held. I interviewed
citizens, activists, miners, students and others both formally and informally. In addition, I
scoured materials where I could find them, from files at the Western Environmental Law
Center to mailings from the Water Quality Bureau, The Department of the Environment,
The Land Stability Board, The Colorado Reclamation Committee, a national watershed
newsletter, Amigos Bravos alerts, and communications from the Red River Watershed
Group, not to mention others.
I have tried to assimilate these experiences and tell the story about the Molycorp
mine from three key sources: community residents, the local newspaper and activist
groups. By examining these diverse perspectives, I hope to capture the essence of a
struggle. Before listening to the various voices in the story, I will begin with a literature
overview, placing the present project study within the context of contemporary studies.
“In the beginning was the story.”4 Or “In the beginning was the word.” Thus
begin two particular narratives. Whether it is William Cronon’s “voice” you are hearing
in his essay “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” (1992) or God’s (or “J”
the mysterious female “strand” of the creation story in the book of Genesis), we trust we
are about to hear a story, and we innately recognize its narrative power. The power of
narrative translates into power over resources. Yet some are silenced; some
voices/stories/text we don’t yet know how to hear. What I want to know is this: Who gets
to speak, in what kinds of language, and to what ends? How do we tell, as Cronon asks,
narratives that still have “joy or sense” in the telling? What kinds of stories might
acknowledge—and resist—the silent force of cultural imperialism or corporate
colonialism that shapes our stories in heretofore-unheard of (or unremembered) ways?
As in other narrative strategies, we chose the beginning, the middle, and the end,
of a story, a way of framing or highlighting the values we espouse in these nature/culture
narratives. I have tried, as best I can, to tell the “actual facts,” while admitting that history
or narrative is paradoxical: it is a way of trying to organize reality; all the while it has no
“real” connection to the flow of actual events in life. Yet even forests, Cronon writes,
“are born, persist, and die.” Man, the “storytelling animal,” (and the anthropocentric one)
This quote is from William Cronon’s essay “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,”
published in The Journal of American History, March 1992, Vol. 78, No. 4. This particular quote begins his
has a hard time perceiving the birth, life, or death, of a tree (how do we measure when it
has stopped living and begins to die, if it doesn’t fall over?). We are trying to structure or
order our lives, constructing from the seamless flow of felt experience, a sense of
meaning. Therefore, as Cronon writes, “we cannot avoid encountering the postmodernist
assault on narrative, which calls in to question not just the stories we tell but the deeper
purpose that motivates us in the first place: trying to make sense of nature’s place in the
This is further complicated by including and excluding the “relevant and
irrelevant, empowered and disempowered. (emphasis mine). In the act of separating story
from non-story, we wield the most powerful yet dangerous tool of the narrative form. It is
a commonplace of modern literary theory that the very authority which narrative
represents its vision of reality is achieved by obscuring large portions of that reality.
Narrative succeeds to the extent that it hides the discontinuities, ellipses, and
contradictory experiences that would undermine the intended meaning of its story (1349-
Therefore, the problem of power in narrative is complicated, because it both
sanctions and silences. Cronon writes: A powerful narrative reconstructs commons sense
to make the contingent seems determined and the artificial seem natural. If this is true,
then narrative poses particularly difficult problems of environmental historian, for whom
the boundary between artificial and the natural is the very thing we most wish to study.”
Yet many stories exclude the richness of wild nature, a prime value for me and
other “environmental” writers. How do we understand whole systems which neither reach
some stasis or climax, but keep morphing in ways our computers can’t predict, in chaotic
dynamic dances? Some call it chaos theory. In literary terms, the “soft” language of the
improvable and unquantifiable gets thrown into the messy figurative, feminine gendered
basket, putting it in opposition to more quantifiable approaches. I would like to explore
where those quantifiable approaches might lead us: how much pollution do we allow,
through our legal measurements? How do we tell stories that integrate scientific data and
“masculinist” languages with “others?” How do we use those measurements, that data?
This integration of figurative and technical languages might be guided by nature’s
intrinsic wholeness, the way a river remembers perfectly where it was. Justice, like
science’s claim to the truth, is suspect, perhaps because the legal and political discourse is
so narrowly drawn.
The inherent subjective nature of history or storytelling is exemplified by a
particular event in the life of Questa and its relationship to the Molycorp mine. In 1968,
the Molybdenum Corporation of America, or Molycorp, sold Turquoise Lake to the New
Mexico Department of Fish and Wildlife for one dollar. The lake was promoted as a
recreation site that would enrich the lives of Questa residents and would demonstrate the
harmlessness of mine tailings to aquatic life. The July 4, 1968, edition of The Taos News
announced its version of the story:
Just two years ago tailing water from the Molybdenum Corporation of America
mill near Questa was thought by many anti-pollution authorities to be poisonous
to trout. Following extensive tests by Molycorp and several state agencies the
water is now considered clean and the 65-acre lake created by Molycorp near
Questa will be opened July 4 as a public fishing facility. … More than 8,000
fingerlings were planted in the lake and have grown to an average of nine inches
in length” (The Taos News, July 1968).
Coinciding with the article, a paid advertisement by Molycorp appeared in the
paper, inviting the public to the lake’s official opening (See Appendix A).
What the paper did not reveal is that overnight, the fish died and had to be
scooped out. Shortly thereafter, the lake “disappeared” although it continued to show up
in phone books for several years as an actual place on the map.
In a spoof on this historic day, on July 1, 1998, a warm, summer afternoon, about
fifty of us--Indohispanic and Anglo people--gathered in a park near the Red River in
Questa. Many were from the nearby area, but others, including me, were from Taos, about
twenty miles to the south. We were there to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of
Turquoise Lake. Amigos Bravos, an activist group, chose to use this chronological date as
a way to highlight the fact that they had been fighting pollution for ten years. Amigos
Bravos offered a reward for anyone who could give information leading to the return of
the missing lake. The infamous “lake” was actually a toxic tailings pond. People tend to
tune out when overwhelmed with “march of science” and “parts per million” kinds of
stories. We gathered stories from local people. We highlighted how people were affected
by the situation, noting that the “lake” had dried up and posed problems from airborne
particles; choking kids at the nearby school organized a walkout and had marched in
protest to the mine entrance. We were here, thirty years after the lake’s inaugural social
event, restaging the celebration/elegy (perhaps it was a wake) so the public could not
forget the story of Turquoise Lake.
The “Fish Fry,” as we billed it, in many ways appeared to be a picnic on a normal
summer day, and a good time was had by all. But the subtext of the bad mine was
obvious. We had hot dogs and hamburgers (after all, where had the fish gone?) We
listened to the ways that “downstreamers” were impacted by mine. This group consisted
of many folks whom I might call “accidental activists,” to borrow Barbara Kingsolver’s
term (1996)—local non-experts who were more motivated by the health of their children
than any other “isms.” Most were at odds with their neighbors and even their own
families, who were loathe to bite the hand that fed them. I might project this story as
tragedy (declensional narrative, in which all are poorer, or worse off at story’s end) or
spin it into an ascentional narrative, in which something good—like jobs?—come out of
it at story’s end.
One friend later told a story about a quiet, Questa resident who was awarded a
plaque for “Volunteer of the Year” at the picnic: “Actually, I think she was very proud of
that award. But knowing how she is and how divisive the issues are in Questa, she
probably keeps it in a drawer in the dining room and just takes it out sometimes when no
one else is looking.” This short narrative of the prize hidden in the drawer highlights the
nature of the conflict.
There are many ways to spin the story of the Molycorp mine and its impact upon
Questa. In this paper, I have chosen to place the struggle within the context of the mine’s
impact upon water, specifically upon the Red River watershed. I chose the watershed as a
framework because of water’s central role in the culture, economics, and environmental
concerns of Questa.
A Story as Told by Water
You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room
for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places.
“Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it’s not flooding, it’s remembering.
Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever
trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we
were…and a rush of the imagination is our “flooding” --Tony Morrison, “The Site
This interchange of listening and telling, of imagining forward and remembering back, is
a story best told by water. As Tony Morrison writes: “All water has perfect memory and
is forever trying to get back to where it was.” The Spanish in the semi-arid bioregion
called the Rio Arriba say “El agua es la vida.” We know this: that water is 85% of the
planet and 85% of our bodies. This isn’t about water exactly, though it isn’t not about
water. It’s more the case that it is about nature’s meaning in those narratives. What could
capture water’s transformative power, to become solid, liquid, vapor, to clean and heal, to
wear down the hardest rock, to grow crops? I am searching for the best metaphor water
can buy, something that encapsulates the historical/cultural/ecological/spiritual
dimensions of water in this particular place.
Looking forward, I think I have the concepts: watersheds, bioregions. Then I look
backward and I find it again: acequias. I look back to the future: I know the sound of that
fits the particularity, the peculiarity, and the sound of the place where water still runs in
the ditch, even in the middle of town, as I go out running in the late afternoon. Even in
town, even though only a ghost ditch runs through my yard, no alfalfa grows, and I am a
gringo getting water from the tap, I can still sense that deep aquifer beneath me. The
water is ancient and cold. And I know acequia culture from all that surrounds me: its
art/language/architecture, its green fields and farms. Its very language goes back to the
Moors, its architecture to the Romans. Its language is metaphorical; the words in Spanish
reflect the communal, gravity-driven ditches as the body, its limbs, and its blood. Acequia
culture gives us green, riparian life. It supports the red-tailed hawk on the cottonwood tree
as I drive by the fields of Taos Pueblo. And I laugh as my Anglo friend tells me how,
when he first arrived, he brought a Spanish-speaking translator to a ditch meaning. And I
wiped sweat from my brow helping my friend work off her ditch-cleaning time. I have
written stories about water in northern New Mexico in order to find my own place in the
scheme of thing—and to help others to do the same.5 My point is that we do not
necessarily tell stories to solve problems but to find meanings.
In Acequia Culture, Water, Land, and Community in the Southwest, Jose Rivera
writes: “Yet in many parts of the world the fragile social ecology of traditional
communities is under siege as market and other developmental pressures encroach on the
resource base that has sustained a way of life for hundreds of years or longer.” This
notion that corporate colonialism or cultural imperialism might be resisted by indigenous
communal water-based lifeways might be summed up, at least here in the Rio Arriba, by
Rivera’s phrase “acequia culture.” It is both ancient and post-post-modern; it operates, as
does any metaphor worth its salt, on many levels of integrated meaning. It is global (other
indigenous water systems still work in similar ways) and it is local, telling the story of
water, culture, and ecology in its own imperfectly perfect way in its own particular
region. It is a way to encapsulate, perhaps, the story: how we might resist cultural
Several essays reflect this in High Country magazine, written on the Red River, the Rio Pueblo, and on
acequia culture. The one I speak of here is entitled “Acequias and the Art of Shovel Leaning,” Spring 2001.
imperialism by the traditional story of the practice of sharing water. Even Donald
Rumsfeld, here in Taos, must listen to the mayordomo of his ditch. It is regional
democracy—and environmental storytelling---at its finest.
Environmental Justice: Integrating Environmental, Social, and Economic Values
I have seen how the quest for an “ism” that integrates livelihood issues has been
central to avoiding polarized versions of jobs vs. the environment. Environmental
justice’s expansion and critique of environmentalism regards both economic and
environmental needs as essential rather than subjugating one to the other. It tries to
reconnect the values of both nature and culture, which have become separated. Yet
sometimes it leaves out a deeply cultural sense that it critical to the fabric of a
community—a kind of “ethics of place” which translates into local knowledge.
Devon Pena, in Subversive Kin (1998) writes that ecology provides a radical
scientific basis from which to challenge the legitimacy of the fundamental economic laws
of global capitalism” (1998, 4), adding that:
In the fiercely competitive global order, artificial jurisdictional boundaries,
whether national, state, or country boundaries end up interfering with commerce
in a way that cannot longer be tolerated or indulged. More organic identities such
as…sub continental regions are rapidly emerging as considerably more relevant
economic entities than states, provinces, and nations (1998, 74).
Those organic sub continental regions are not necessarily new to emerge, as in the more
recent construct of bioregionalism, but this story was already present in the form of
acequia culture. It is not altogether true that bioregionalism or globalism are polarities in
which either/or thinking supplies or is the problem or the answer. It is more the case that
we need to know on which levels to tell these complex histories. Pena contends that
Global ecology moves in exactly the same directions as the globalized economy,
sorting itself into layers of organic places, none of them corresponding to the old
linear, mechanical order. Some issues, such as global warning and the thinning of
the ozone layer must be dealt with at the utterly organic level of the earth itself.
Some such as desertification and rainforest issues, are essentially continental. Yet
others, such as species loss and degradation of water quality, are best dealt with at
the level of bioregion and river basin. No ecological issue has anything to do with
national, state, or provincial boundaries, and people only make things more
difficult for themselves by trying to deal with such issues through arbitrarily
shaped political jurisdictions (1998, 4).
Therefore, degradation of water quality, as Pena writes, is best dealt with at the
level of river basins, as in this case. If “placeless truths” (1985, 5) are part of our myopia,
this myopia is increasing the technological means for global expansion. Thus science
becomes separated from ethics and situated and relational truths are not respected. Pena
puts it this way: “The science of globe trotting culture is as destructive as are the
imperialist desires it faithfully serves” (1998, 5). This part of the story is not new, it is
old: Tradition held many of the answers. I see that acequia parciantes, for example, knew
the particulars of place and they knew how to use these “cognitive maps.” Thus stories of
traditional water use can resist the lack of diversity in a global political economy.
Still, I listen as friends and students in Questa remain stuck because they are as yet
able to neither imagine nor construct alternative stories. This is at the heart of the project.
Corporate imperialism fosters this deafness; thus they give their allegiance to huge
megacorporations which hold them ransom. They are not only held ransom to the jobs
they think they must have to survive, they are held socially and culturally held hostage as
well. They are held hostage to the stories they believe. Often “outsiders”, i.e.
environmentalists, don’t understand why the law, policy, and regulatory agencies can’t
solve the problems in conjunction with grassroots resistance because they don’t, by
nature, contain the place-based local knowledge that those affected communities hold.
Yet the local communities are often blind to what is right before them, selling their
birthright for a pittance.
Still, some economists have tried to frame the discourse more broadly. For
example, For the Common Good, by economist Herman E. Daly and theologian John
B.Cobb, Jr. (1994) write that humanity’s greatest myth is one of unlimited economic
development without counting the ecological costs. It is also true that economics—as is
defined as market economics—needs to expand its definition so that it is made more
ecological, and more community-based. In short, capitalism, the metanarrative here,
needs to be reconsidered.
Daly and Cobb also consider, within the narrow definitions of economics,
academic theory: “The need is not for one more theorem squeezed out of the premises of
methodological individualism by a more powerful mathematical press, but for a new
premise that reinstates the critical aspect of reality that has been abstracted from—
namely, community” (1986, 3). They argue that the interrelationships need to be an
organizing center for disciplines, even referring to the privileging of single discipline
perspectives as “disciplinidolatry” (1986, 34). We are still discovering new languages,
new vocabularies for this, as in seeing that globalism itself covers and obscures a
multitude of problems. Free markets, of course, aren’t really free
This is yet another reason why I find the integration of social, economic, and
cultural forces in environmental history a necessity. A transdisciplinary look at economics
is a start; we need to discuss the interrelationships of economics and everything else, from
theology to geology. Part of the assault on nature has been because of the fragmented
nature of disciplinary boundaries around which knowledge is organized (produced,
packaged, and exchanged) in academia, and this is built into the nature of market
economics. Sadly, market economics values the environment as an assortment of
resources to be used, not as source of spirit, aesthetics, or cultural values. This
disappreciation of broader cultural values results in huge power inequities.
In Environmentalism and Economic Justice (1996) Laura Pulido theorizes how
power works. Of her two case studies, one of which is set in northern New Mexico, she
writes: “In the case of marginalized communities, environmental problems reflect, and
may intensity larger existing inequalities and uneven power relations” (1996, xv). Power
“allows certain conceptions of resource use to become hegemonic, thereby masking any
inequalities they may perpetuate” (xv). This plays into an understanding of how people’s
perceived social and ideological position contributes to a certain understanding of
environmentalism, and reveals how power “allows certain conceptions of resource use to
become hegemonic, thereby masking any inequalities they may perpetuate” (1996, 127).
Since in Questa, the population is largely Hispanic, there are parallels to be
explored in both Pulido’s and Pena’s projects, reinforcing the ties between cultural
identity and economic choice. Somewhat idealistically, however, Pulido writes:
“cultivating identity means they can fight for their vision of resource use” (1996, 129).
However, in Questa, the story of the mine has not be told often enough in terms of a
unified Hispanic identity that might identify traditional stewardship of land or water in
order to question the way the mine does business; in fact, the opposite is true. The
villagers are deeply divided: probably 80%, according to one village official, are “pro-
In many northern New Mexico villages, sustainable livelihoods were largely in
place until after World War II, when disconnection resulted and cash economies fractured
many small communities. Because of a disappreciation on the part of environmentalism
for land based people who were like “keystone species”--especially on the part of acequia
parciantes—the split between environmentalist agendas and those of environmental
justice advocates widened.
Environmental historians might write narratives that tell of how people and other
creatures reciprocally interact in specific ways in specific places. In this region, the Rio
Arriba, one might start with either the mountains—the spine of the land—or the water—
the blood of the land, as metaphor. Such elements of narration would help us see past the
windows of our automobiles.
For example, in driving around the “Enchanted Circle”—a popular 85-mile drive
through the mountain towns of Angel Fire, Eagle Next, Red River, Questa, and Taos--it is
easy to see the area’s scenic beauty and its diversity. William deBuys, environmental
historian and author of Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New
Mexico Mountain Range states that “Within the Red River Basin exists an incredible
diversity of ecology and cultural diversity, found perhaps nowhere else in North
America” (1985: 6). DeBuys adds:
There exist nine or ten discrete ecological zones, depending on classification, and
the mix of culture in the Sangres is rich. Pueblo Indians and ancestors have made
their home here for at least 2000 years, and four hundred with Spanish speaking
pioneers from Mexico, pobladores, who build adobe villages in scores of irrigable
valleys nestled in the mountains lower slopes (1985, 6).
As deBuys points out, its cultural diversity, framed in terms of Hispanic, Pueblo,
and Anglo identities, is part of the mix, and thus language becomes important in terms of
telling stories. The area is renowned for its geological diversity as well. The limiting
factor, of course, is water. This precious resource may be theoretically protected in a
number of ways, but the bedrock of the story is the Clean Water Act. The CWA, then, has
various levels of protection, depending on biological and cultural values, and delineates
water in terms of point source and non-point source pollution, and surface and
groundwater. The terms of water stories have not been traditionally been told in this way
because such legal language is off-putting to laypeople. Therefore it bears repeating that it
is important to couch stories in the most inclusive language, using the CWA’s terms,
when applicable, or those of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Still, Pueblo people, for
example, who describe a watershed as a catch-all, basin, or basket, are training
technicians to take the measure of water and to include the CWA to shore up their own
stories. Likewise, acequia organizations are coming together to protect their common
heritage. Many elements of the narrative are beginning to integrate, in ways that bring
together literary elements and those of science.
Gary Snyder is one writer who has long been aware of the nuances of language
and the dangerous dichotomy in telling tales which separate the civilized from the wild. I
have been reading his poetry/mythology/essays/stories for more almost forty years, longer
than environmentalism itself (the beginning of which might be April 22, 1971, the first
Earth Day) and almost as long as the history of the mine’s huge pit. Yet Gary Snyder’s
most profoundly human, simple, precise, and playful work, The Practice of the Wild
(1991) is a model text of philosophy, ecology, etiquette, etymology, and mythology
within its scope. In other words, it tells environmental histories in ways that are more
graceful linguistically than more jargonized versions of much environmental writing.
The older human experience of a fluid, indistinct, but genuine home region was
gradually replaced—across Eurasia—by the arbitrary and often violently imposed
boundaries of emerging national states.…The world of culture and nature, which
is actual, is almost a shadow world now, and the insubstantial world of political
jurisdictions and rarefied economics is what passes for reality. We live in a
backwards time” (1991, 37).
Biota, watersheds, landforms, and elevations can define regions, as well as
language, folklore, and other cultural behaviors. This, naturally, presents problems,
because cultural indicators are, of course, contested and changeable. Though Snyder is
known as a “deep ecologist,” he defies this label, too. His idea of deep ecology becomes a
specific call to action, not a fuzzy sense of the “spirit of place.” He writes:
To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part and that the
whole is made of parts, each of which is whole. You start with the part you are
whole in…Bioregional awareness teaches us in specific ways. It is not enough just
to “love nature” or to want to “be in harmony with Gaia…[O]ur relation to the
natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and
experience” (1991, 38-39).
I associate bioregional theorist Bill Dodge with Snyder; their writing seems
dialogic. Dodge similarly pays attention to etymology and aesthetics. In “Living by Life:
Some Bioregional Theory and Practice” in Literature and the Environment (1999), he
looks at the nature of language. “Bioregionalism,” is from the Greek “bios” (life) and the
French “region” (region) itself from the Latin “region” (territory) and earlier, “regere” (to
rule or govern)” (231). In other words, bioregional theory means to rule a region by life
itself. According to Dodge:
What constitutes this community is uncertain beyond the obvious—that it includes
all interacting life forms, from the tiniest fleck of algae to human beings, as well
as their biological processes. To this bare minimum, already impenetrably
complex, bioregionalism adds to the influences of cultural behavior such as
subsistence techniques and ceremonies.…bioregionalism holds that the health of
natural systems is directly connected to our own physical/psychic health as
individuals and as a species, and for that reason natural systems and their
informing integrations deserve, if not utter veneration, at least our clearest
attention and deepest respect (1999, 231).
Happily, Dodge includes spiritual and aesthetic values as well as the vernacular in his
style: “when we destroy a river, we increase our thirst, ruin the beauty of free-flowing
water, forsake the meat and spirit to the salmon, and lose little bit of our souls” (231),
echoing American Studies scholar Jay Mechling’s language that studying our own
regions is “good for our souls” (1974). Bioregionalism can be both logical and
relational. Watershed frameworks can bring bioregional philosophy down to human
proportions. This adds specificity, beyond the cultural abstraction that bioregional
philosophy includes. Watersheds are defining criteria for Dodge in this way: “humans
are prone to amorphous culturally defined regions”… [watersheds] are “generally
straightforward, since drainages are clearly apparent on topographical maps. Watershed
is usually taken to mean river drainage” (1992, 232). I might add that good storytelling
does this too--concretizing the abstractions of ecocritical literary theory.
As for my own story here, I next turn to mining, in chapter two, and listen to its
meanings, which are material, metaphorical, and mythological. In chapter three, I explore
the oral histories of those who lived along the Red River. Chapter Four deals with the
interplay of forces as they are expressed publicly, primarily through the local newspaper,
The Taos News. Chapter Five focuses on health issues, particularly in the millennium and
looks at the dynamics between various forms of activism and state and federal regulation.
In Chapter Six, I conclude by integrating and analyzing these histories so that a better
future story might be told. I end with a short epilogue, “Source” which reflects upon the
metaphorical/spiritual/organic nature of the sources of stories and watersheds.
However, before shifting to an examination of mining, I want to provide an
overview of Questa to help contextualize the Questa story.
I was having coffee in La Fonda, an old hotel on the Taos Plaza, and a well-
dressed man with a Maine accent commented to the desk clerk: “Your other clerk was
very courteous, but made a mistake in giving me directions to the Enchanted Circle,
forgetting to tell me to turn right at the one stop light in Questa. I didn’t catch my mistake
until I was about 12 miles into Colorado. At least I would like to thank the person, since
on the way back, I stopped for lunch at a café there, and ended up joining the family who
owned the place in celebrating their eleven-year-old daughter’s birthday.”
As I was leaving, I asked him which café it was, since I knew El Seville, run by
the same family for more than forty years, had closed. “The Questa Café?” I asked. He
nodded. “Were you the only out-of-towner there?” I wondered. “Yes,” he said. By way of
conversation he said he was a photographer, taking a class in Santa Fe. I suggested he
might like to take the old “High Road” back, knowing that he was more likely to find
greater “scenic photo opportunities” in the old mountain villages than on the main
highway. Some hide the problems of drug addiction and poverty, but they are gritty and
beautiful. The highway now holds an array of theaters, traffic lights, and sprawling lit
casinos. Neither the desk clerk nor I knew the highway number which marked the turn.
Then I asked about Questa. The mountains were lovely, he said. I wondered what
he had seen—an enormous dam, perhaps. Or what looked like one, towering over the
valley—the huge gaping hole in the side of the mountains; you know, the mine?”
He smiled sardonically. “People don’t look up,” he said.
Perhaps people only see what they are looking for, and part of our job in the
telling of environmental histories is to suggest things to look and listen for. From my own
“outsider” perspective I picture what he missed as this: Reading the names near the
church in the cemetery: Raels, Trujillos, Martinizes; trailer houses; crumbling adobes and
people trying to keep neat houses and gardens; the old grocery story; abandoned buildings
one of which has recently been turned into funeral home; second hand stores; the Questa
Health Clinic; Aretesano’s, a community gallery; the old school turned into a community
center; the liquor store; and a pizza joint; St. Anthony’s Parish Hall, home of so many
meetings; the VFW hall (where at an unemployment meeting a miner told me: “My kids
have a bad habit—they like to eat”); and the mostly-capped but still unlined Turquoise
Lake way off in the distance. You might notice the baseball field, a park (“ugly as hell,”
says my friend), and streetlights, paid for by Molycorp.
Then there’s what you don’t want to see unless you know what you are looking
for: That the town is literally surrounded by the mine’s effects—pipelines, tailings ponds,
and sump dumps--all “collateral damage.”
I don’t blame him for what he did not see. I take it as my job to try to see and hear
more deeply, swapping the gossip of nature/culture and writing them. He had accidentally
discovered something new in his interchange in the café. Perhaps next time he will see a
loping coyote or a bald eagle high on some bare branches. He may get out of his car and
walk the land, hearing water running in the ditch. And seeing the mine for what it is.
MINING, MYTH, AND METAPHOR
“When the ores are washed, the water which has been used poisons the brooks
and streams, and either destroys the fish or drives them away.”
--Georgius Agricola, 1556
“[In] the area of politics and economics, metaphors matter more, because they
constrain our lives. A metaphor in a political or economic system, by virtue of
what it hides, can lead to human degradation.”
-- George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By
Perspectives: The View from Here
I think of the beginning of Ed Abbey’s cantankerous collection of essays/stories
which are a beautiful blur of fiction-nonfiction. His opening line: “This is the most
beautiful place in the world.” He meant the canyon lands of southern Utah, but he added,
to extend the idea of place metaphorically: “There are many such places” (1968, 1). This
place, at the top of the Sangre de Cristos, is surely one of them.
The view of the surrounding landscape is dazzling, with the first dusting of white
snow on acres of golden aspens spread out below, the sky a deep blue hyperbole. A dozen
or so of us, members of the Technical Review Committee (TRC) have joined a tour of the
Molycorp Mine. We stand high atop this mountain squinting into the sharp light from
under orange hard hats. The caveat to this being one of the most beautiful places in the
world, is also advice to acrophobes: “Don’t look down.” The yawning pit below and the
mining equipment strewn about and the huge rock piles are all symptomatic of a huge
If you could see into the narrow ravine, you will notice that, indeed, in this story, a
river runs through it, in this case the Red River. Sometimes it flows a lovely but unnatural
blue, and at other times, a sickly yellow. The scenery is spectacular, but we’re not here to
discuss aesthetics. We are here to haggle over the terms of remediation. There are
lawyers, geologists, engineers, environmental justice advocates, technical experts, and
regulatory folks from Mining and Minerals (MMN) and New Mexico Environment
Department (NMED). I am definitely one of the “non experts,” struggling to understand
the complex conditions of mining reclamation.
We are lucky to be here; we almost didn’t get to come. Earlier in the morning, as
we gathered at the community center, formerly La Cienega School in Questa, the mine
wanted to cancel the trip. After all, it had just snowed, and might be slippery. I thought of
an article, the most comprehensive, spirited news story I know of on this subject, which
appeared in an environmental newspaper, the High Country News written by my friend
Ernie Atencio (2000). It called Molycorp the “slipperiest mine in the entire Rio Grande
watershed.” It is certainly the largest.
The early morning was wet and the mood, heavy. A lessening of tensions, as in
any good tale, often comes, though, from unlikely quarters. At last, after we jump into
four-wheel drive vehicles and head up the highway to the Molycorp mine, the
conversation shifted. The road up to the mine is hardly a road at all, just a heavily
engineered set of narrow benches cut in a series of spirals into the steep sides of the huge
open pit mine. The benches support a huge array of heavy equipment which haul the ore
from the pit to the milling station. After which the useful parts are trucked out, and the
waste sludge heads within pipes ten miles downhill, crossing the Red River in several
sections, until at last reaching waste ponds near Questa.
I climb in the back of the truck with one of Molycorp’s lawyers, an Amigos
Bravos’ technical advisor, a geologist by training, and a geologist from the mine. The
geologists tell me that I won’t want to go with them, because they’re just going to “talk
rocks,” but they are wrong. Having been to the mine with a University of New Mexico
geologist before, and holding a silvery, gray-blue metallic lump in my hand, I thought its
weight and color lovely. To geologists, rocks are the tickets that transform their lives,
taking them to other places, other cultures. They compare globe-trotting from the Middle
East, to Montana, to here. Geologists “talking rocks” is just an excuse to swap stories and
compare notes about food, language, music, and literature. They seem immune to what to
me is a new and startling perspective. This mine is overwhelming, awesome, expansive,
and expensive. The tires alone on some machinery are 12 feet high, and each one costs
more than my car. The economics, scale, and scope of mining are almost beyond belief,
and unbelievably wasteful, creating way more waste than actual product. In point of fact,
mining overall creates 95% waste material (da Lyons & Rosa 1997, 49).
And this pit is not one of the largest. I have heard that Anaconda’s copper mine in
Montana for example, is so huge that astronauts can see it from space. Having seen
Anaconda, from ground zero, I imagine this is not mere fable. The search for golden
mythical cities brought the Spanish to the Southwest, and resulted in miners going round
Cape Horn to get at the golden nuggets in California first. What followed was water law
changes in the West, interestingly termed “Prior Appropriation,” which meant “First in
time, first in right.” Water rights could be separated from the land, and whole cultural and
ecological communities were displaced and the water was polluted, mostly by cyanide, as
men rushed to riches—or poverty. It is estimated that about forty percent of the streams in
the West are now polluted.
On top of the huge Molycorp mine, we all scan the horizon with different eyes,
kicking the dirt under out feet for different purposes. The Taos News (2003) reported that
Francisco Apodaca, Mining Circuit Rider, called Molycorp’s reclamation efforts “a pool-
cue forest.” This metaphor offended Molycorp, who defended by saying that they didn’t
seem to be growing because some trees take a long time to put down roots first.
Ah, another metaphor, I think, but then metaphors are my weakness, and part of
my interest here. Metaphors are a powerful quotient in narratives, and it is hard for me to
fully appreciate narratives without a metaphorical level. This particular kind of figurative
language can be pressed into use of greater understanding, revealing layers of meaning in
the service of ecological and cultural depth, or they can obscure and occlude those
realities. We are here to read the landscape for other values than those of aesthetics or
gendered meanings. For example, the language tends to run to the hardly but supposedly
“neutral free” science of reclamation economics. We are paying attention to geology,
slope inclination, stability. Yet even here the place has memory, history, imagination.
They have mapped the mountain and named its contours for animals, flowers,
confectionary stores: Goat Hill, Columbine, and Sugar Shack. These provide the 2139
acre “footprint” of the mine, on a mixture of both public and private land. Perhaps even a
geologist could re-story geology so that this mineral is not inert grey matter, not just
“ticket” but “animate,” in ways that do not sever nature and culture.
I would love to take in the view and discuss the phenomenology in David
Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, (1996) or the meaning of Gary Snyder’s phrase, “The
earth gives us a stride/the lake, a dive” (1991), reminding myself that nature is animated,
spirited, alive. Why can’t I talk about those values? Apparently, this is neither the time
nor the place. So we still cannot agree on the language and terms of restoration, because
that is the framework of the discussion. Though we may try to bend to one another’s
language, it is mostly like dogs barking.
I certainly don’t pretend to understand. Frankly, I am here to learn but wish I had
done more homework. These meetings always make me feel unprepared, as if I have no
right to speak, since I don’t know the terms. Perhaps they are designed that way? For a
start, I ask the translators, the “technical guides” to tell me what various data bits mean.
Now wielding the language of science and law, not knowing enough about a mine, I can’t
even formulate the questions. I am left out by language.
In order to question things properly, we try to clear our minds of passions,
meanderings, and try to concentrate on the “facts” at hand. When we look at a billion tons
of debris from the digging process, and note the steep angle along which it resides, the
engineers talk about inclinometer readings, and the detractors say there aren’t enough of
them. When the geologists try to prove stability, the literary part of me thinks of Wallace
Stegner’s epic western novel on mining, water, irrigation, geology, and geography, of
love, heartbreak, and how a couple stayed together, for better, or for worse.
In The Angle of Repose, his 1971 classic western novel, the themes--along with
mining—include surviving death and disillusionment—in other words, your basic human
life emplotment. In the end, the protagonist, Susan, a cultured Quaker artist/writer and her
husband, Oliver, a Western mining engineer, break each others hearts, and end up “living
alone together.” By novel’s end, they have no way to speak, and nothing to say to each
other. It is thoroughly tragic. Part of their problem is that they cannot reconcile to each
other’s “languages”—hers is more figurative and nuanced; his is technical. They cannot
forgive, nor understand, nor move on. Their story feels like mining saga, too, so when
they speak of the “angle of repose,” a geologist’s term for the 30 degree angle in which
the rubble comes to rest, it resonates both in human and technical terms.
As I stare at a huge pile of rock, my own intuition doubts the stability, but science
has the terminology to measure and predict. I find myself faced with not only critical but
also materially deconstructionist impulses. What would happen if I just removed a rock or
two? Molycorp says the scary-looking huge rock pile is stable, but if I just removed a few
rocks near the bottom, I might be able to find out fast what gravity does while
inclinometers are gathering data, data, and more data. I guess it moves an inch or two a
month. Is that a lot, I wonder? Glaciers can move that much, too, and mountains,
perhaps? I am left out by geology, and geologic time.
What common ground can there be when all seems to be shifting, measured,
doubted, data-ed to death? The story of the rockpile becomes mythic, with two meanings.
One is an untrue story. The other is that of truth told and retold over time. There is a
stability committee and emergency plans. People begin to imagine disasters: a grand
landslide? When I ask the Forest Service guys, whose office is off the highway lower
down, they say they, too, have emergency measures: they keep their running shoes handy.
This is no joke: Haven’t there been hundred-year storm events before? Engineers measure
some more, and try to find a fix.
Anyway, despite my pleas for expert enlightenment, the whole situation seems
overwhelming. Someone points to the place where mining began in its simpler form--an
underground entrance from the olden days, where it all began, based on the 1882 General
Mining Law. They went underground, starting in 1906/1920/1921—again, depending on
who you believe, and they dug up about 54 tons of ore a day. This was some of the richest
molybdenum ore the world had ever seen. Around 1954 the most accessible ore petered
out. As of 2000, there’s around 20-40 years of left, depending, again, on who the
storyteller is. At the height of its time, the average annual pay of $40,000—or maybe
$60,000, with bonuses. The median Taos County income at the time was about $15,000.
After the rich veins of ore which had been easily mined underground with a pick
and shovel were played out, Molycorp invested $40 million dollars to dig a huge new
open pit mine and built a mill to process this lower-grade material. Soon, the pit began
yielding up to 10,000 tons of ore and 30,000 tons of waste rock—per day. Many local
boys—and I mean boys, lured by the relatively very high wages, quit school to work at
Meanwhile, I imagine the scent of burros, wonder what was in their lunch pails,
and think I hear the clang of shovels and picks. Those were simpler times. But now, it is
totally overwhelming. Indeed, I feel blinded by the light.
Borrowing Stegner’s image, I, too, am “aiming at an angle,” trying to find some
stability on this slippery slope, searching for an angle of repose. Questa is in a similar
plight, searching for stability and sustainability amidst the divergent forces of culture,
economics and environment. To further understand this particular emplotment, a snapshot
of the process of mining is needed, followed by a glance into the environmental sequel as
well as the sequellae of mining. Everything does feel slanted to me, in terms I can’t
measure and don’t quite understand.
One way in which I come to terms with my own lack of understanding is reading
Doyle Kline’s articles. One of the strongest and earliest published voices for questioning
the mine’s environmental impact, Kline was a Southwest fisherman with a background in
resource management. His voice was personal, not “journalistic” meaning that he made
no pretense of his bias in the pursuit of his own environmental narrative, though this
provides another useful example of illustrating my thesis, which is that of finding fresh
ways to tell stories integratively to move people towards protecting environmental,
economic, and cultural values.
Kline allowed his own passion for the Red River watershed to move the piece he
wrote for a 1974 Field and Stream article entitled “My God—They’re Tearing the
Mountain Down!” Reminiscent of mainstream environmentalism, it at first reveals the
destruction of beloved wild scenery. Kline sees, after many years, that the curvy gravelly
highway 38 from Eagle’s Nest has been changed to “a modern asphalt-topped speedway”
(1974, 61). As he comes over the 9,582 foot Red River Pass, he “exploded” when he saw
the decapitated mountains and the mine pit. “They can’t do that!” he writes….There must
be a law.” And there is a law, he realizes—the General Mining Law of 1882, which
allows exactly this kind of “decapitation.”
But Kline’s personal news story and the analysis which follows goes far beyond
the environmentalist, common-for-its-time argument of ruined scenery. He tries, also, to
give the mine its due: “Molycorp has gone to considerable, if reluctant, lengths to protect
the water quality of the Red River, urged onward by New Mexico water quality officials,
the Department of Game and Fish, and by public opinion.” He quotes R.G. Dewey,
Molycorp’s resident manager: “Several years ago, Molycorp retained the Thorne
Ecological Institute to do an ecological research of the entire area as well as provide
recommendations and technical assistance toward the rehabilitation of the entire mine
area” (1974, 66-7).
Then, Kline’s story becomes a declensional narrative, meaning one in which the
end result is worse, poorer, tragic, becomes even more three years later. In his next article
he is scathing. Mining laws, he laments “provide little to no protection.”
His 1977 Fish and Stream article entitled “The Killing of a Wild River” goes far
beyond aesthetics and sentimentality. He tries to see how it is that litigation fails to stop
pollution, adding that there is value in the Red River beyond “even as a trout stream and
fish hatchery.” However, the authorities seemed “powerless to help” even though sections
of the both the Red River and the Rio Grande should have been protected by the federal
National and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Kline has integrated the voices of science into personal narrative: the rivers are
being poisoned through molybdenum, cyanide, and zinc and various salts (not to mention
the lack of oxygen), all of which spread through cattle and other animals besides the
aquatic life, but of additional importance, that these breaches also poison the public trust.
“This river murder is going on in front of everybody,” he writes, including “the EPA, the
EIA, the BLM, USFS, the New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water, the Sierra
Club, and the public at large.” The problem is that the laws have only “rubber teeth”
when there are no “provable data as to Red River or tested water standards regarding
molybdenum contentrations that can be used in a court of law to convince a judge that
harmful poisoning is going on.” He adds “Then there are those questionable “grandfather
clauses in the laws that allow a polluter who was polluting before the law was passed to
Klein’s narrative reveals that environmental laws are ineffective, and
demonstrates some of the politics and economics behind this. Even though the EPA, EIA,
BLM, USFS, Sierra Club and New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water were
represented at conferences held in Santa Fe, all agreed that postponement of the
molybdenum reduction was probably the best compromise. In effect, they felt compelled
to allow Molycorp to go on polluting until 1983 when it would go into effect that
Molycorp would be more likely to have to comply with a promise to come down to a
lower limit. Why would such an outlandish compromise be acceptable?
The reason, his narrative points out, lies in the difficulty of “provable” standards
and the system of law and the organization of big business. Kline reminds us that the
operating capacity was increased to 200,000 pounds a day, but the average was 75,000-
90,000 pounds per day from which l5 pounds of molybdenum was recovered. This, in
turn, meant that 15,000 tons of mill effluent (tailings) were carried eight miles downhill
under pressure each day (1977, 106) in four million gallons of slurry. The forced
compromise was due to the fact that if the entities had lost, it could mean no enforcement
at all due to no “provable data!”
Molycorp, he writes, was effectively given six more years to meet the standard
and to adopt the laws “best available technology.” The EPA said it would stand by this
deadline, but as Kline points out, its past record was less than convincing. Kline writes
that “Molycorp will continue to feed the rivers and the public its dose of poisons,
promises, delays, threats, and legalisms” (1977, 110).
I find Klein’s stories fascinating, telling me that indeed it is possible to combine
the values of careful science and solid data in a way that personally and passionately tells
an accessible environmental history. This is also a moral tale, a necessary quality of such
a history if the narrative is to help us envision a better future.
When Kline writes of the General Mining Law of 1882, he gets to the heart of the
long-standing codification of greed and recklessness behind mining. Environmental Law
Professor Charles Wilkinson calls such policies the “Lords of Yesterday”—outmoded
politics and laws which legitimize irresponsible use of natural resources (1992). This
particular law allows for sale of public lands for prices ranging from $2.50 to $5.00 an
acre. This land giveaway has been in effect for more than 130 years, and is the major
reason that mining has been able, and even encouraged on public lands. It is how
Molycorp was initially able to lay claim to the land, and it was the reason the Bureau of
Land Management (BLM) at first said they could not stop the mine from dumping their
waste in Guadalupe Mountain, despite the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and despite local
resistance. This law allowed mines to run roughshod over ecological welfare, but now
environmental advocates are fighting back, with some organizations using the law in an
aikido-like move, claiming those lands for themselves, thus taking them out of industrial
circulation. The old law comes without any real environmental responsibility attached,
and no payment required for minerals taken from the earth.
Amigos Bravos’ Executive Director Brian Shields, in an editorial to the Taos
News (2001) tells the story from his own slant: “When President Ulysses S. Grant signed
the General Mining Law in May 1872, he had no way of knowing it would cost taxpayers
billions of dollars, poison our water, and create moonscapes of our lands.” He also
quotes Questa local Wilfred Rael as saying: “Big multi-national and foreign corporations
are helping themselves to public property and not paying a dime for the minerals” (2001).
At the time in which it was written, mining was seen as the “highest and best use”
of public lands regardless of the land’s environmental sensitivity or conflicted uses of
land. However, the “highest and best use” meanings have since changed. It was Manifest
Destiny writ large. Rather, Manifest Indifference is what I would call this story, since no
royalties had to be paid on public lands and mining companies can purchase or patent
public lands from the government for cheap. Here, indeed, is a tragic, or declension
narrative structure, one which leaves us all (international corporations excepted) poorer,
less well-off, at story’s end.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to understand the nature of these histories without
addressing the inherently complex material aspects of mining. The story of mining,
milling, and minerals is tangled inextricably with the cultural, social, and economic
aspects of the history, so first I had to learn more about mining history in general. Start
with a hard-to-pronounce light blue mineral which is added to steel to make it harder,
tougher, lighter, and more resilient. It is a “refractory metallic element used principally as
an alloying agent in steels, cast irons and super alloys to enhance hardenability, strength,
toughness, and wear and corrosion resistance (Blossom 1985, 521). Its history of use is
recent, having been mined, intermittently, in Australia and the United States only since
the 1800’s. By 1900 molybdenum and another ore, called “wulfenite concentrate.” were
produced from ore found in Arizona and New Mexico, but by 1906, demand had already
Molybdenum is wonderful for war. Currently, in 2007, amidst the Iraq War, the
Molycorp mine, formerly owned by the 7.7 billion dollar Unocal, has been bought out by
the even-bigger Chevron. Large mining crews are once again on the scene.
The first appreciable use of molybdenum did not occur until World War I, where
it was used as a substitute for tungsten necessary for military armament. Then the
flotation process had been developed, so from 1912 to 1920 there was also a small output
from several companies. After the First World War, it gained peacetime uses for steel and
cast iron alloys, with the Climax mine in the Colorado Rockies producing 73 percent of
the world’s ore.
The United States contains about half the world’s reserves of molybdenum
(Galloway & Lyon 1995; Blossom 1985, 523-4). Geologist John Blossom estimates that
the United States supplied almost half of its own output, with Canada and Chile also as
main producers. Western Europe and Japan are main importers (1985, 521). Mining’s
principal operating expenses include fuel, and electricity for operating equipment—and of
course, the largest expense is labor (1985, 530).
Mining is an incredibly complicated story, and most citizens, even well-educated
and well-intentioned ones, find it difficult, if not impossible, to have their voices heard.
Understanding mining’s effects is not relegated to understanding digging ore body out of
an enormous pit, as in the case of Molycorp, before they began their huge underground
mine. Then, it is important to understand how reclamation might work. For example,
when Molycorp shut down the deep pit and began, in the 1980s to prepare for huge new
underground operations, the effects of mining changed. While it is touted as fact that
underground mining uses less water, since block-caving techniques mean the material
falls in on itself instead of leaving a pit, that may not much lessen the impact on or need
for water, and results in other complexities, such as subsidence. Subsidence is a word that
sounds good except when the problem it causes doesn’t subside.
Flotation methods are used to concentrate the metals, crushing and grinding ore
(metal bearing rock) to a powder, then mix with water to form slurry which is then
pumped into a series of open troughs, or flotation ells. Chemical reagents (collectors and
depressants) are usually added to the slurry to separate the target mineral from the non-
valuable material, causing the parts to float to the top or sink to the bottom (da Rosa &
Lyon 199, 39).
Waste is the chief byproduct of this process, ironically called “beneficiation”
These finely ground wastes (pulverized ore and chemical residue) or “slurry” is known as
“tailings.” Tailings are a second form of mine waste, and normally make up about a third
of all mine waste (da Rosa & Lyon 1997, 40). This ends up in tailings ponds,
euphemistically sometimes called “lagoons.” In the case of Molycorp, the slurry is moved
away from the mine through eight miles of pipes.
This is necessarily a deconstructive process because mining essentially “extracts”
the part that is “beneficial”—i.e. molybdenum—from the ore, its natural context, leaving
much more waste than product. A ton of rock will yield about a pound of molybdenum. It
requires vigilance to understand the process, to master the language, to minimize waste,
and to insure that mine waste is properly secured and stored. This unnatural
deconstruction must now be kept isolated from natural elements since air and water can
mobilize what we may as well by now call “contaminants.”
Fools Gold, Acid Rain, and Battery Acid
The chemical name for sulfuric acid is H2SO4, and results from exposed iron
pyrite, also called, ironically, “fool’s gold.” Having gazed into a huge gold pit in Lead,
South Dakota, where Lakota tribes once roamed, and an Anaconda Pit in Montana that is
so huge astronauts can locate it on the blue planet from space, I wonder if all gold mining
(and much of our other heavy metal mining) is not in the pursuit of “fool’s gold.”
The way gold mining’s story is told is changing, from one of romance and riches
to a newer version. Even Tiffany’s famous blue jewelry boxes now contain politically and
ecologically correct “recycled” gold from someone else’s faded dreams, since more
stories are now being circulated that include the horrible consequences to human,
cultural, and ecological life from gold mining.
Mining is inherently laden with daunting challenges. If there was an
environmental smoking gun in this story, or at least a lot of smoke, it is from a 1996
geologist’s report which at last established a hydrological connection between the
Molycorp mine and the Red River: “Acid mine drainage from waste rock and tailings at
the Molycorp molybdenum mine in northern New Mexico is the primary cause of the
decimation of a once-thriving trout population along the middle section of the Red River”
The reaction that occurs when the mineral compounds are released from their
embedded oxygenless contents is known as Acid Mining Drainage (AMD). This, in
effect, is like digging into a sealed toxic waste dump. The metal bearing rocks (ore),
tailings (already crushed and processed ore), and waste rock (the material that didn’t
contain recoverable minerals) are then exposed to air and water (da Rosa & Lyons 1997,
Therefore when iron sulfide minerals or iron pyrite and pyrrhotite exist alongside
the ore and are exposed to water and oxygen, it creates sulfuric acid (H2SO4). Essentially,
this is the same compound that produces acid rain. Iron sulfides are common components
of metal ores, and acid mine drainage is often 20 to 300 times more acidic than acid rain.
This problem becomes even more difficult to solve since AMD not become apparent until
decades or even centuries have passed and the mine has long been closed (da Rosa &
Lyons 1997, 64-5). This situation continues until the supplied material is leached out. In
some cases, drainage can even have a Ph level (acidity measurement) greater than battery
acid. It virtually destroys surface water resources, kills off valuable wildlife such as trout,
and leaves waterways devoid of life (da Rosa & Lyon (1997, 76). Not surprisingly,
besides being one of the most common and serious water pollution problems associated
with both surface and underground hard rock mines such as the one at Molycorp, AMD is
the most difficult and expensive part to clean up.
Even though detractors have noted broken water pipes and waste spills the most
egregious damage from mining is acid mine drainage, established through the hydrologic
connections between the waste rock piles and the river. For example, when groundwater
is pumped from under the mine, the water changes direction in part of the watershed..
Instead, it flows toward the mine and lowers the water table around it. This drawdown
area is called the cone of depression. Molycorp had created such an area, a huge “cone of
depression,” the word’s meaning in this case is presumably that of cone or cavity, which
some theorize can capture AMD, though this has not been proved effective. It is perhaps
more the case that it is depressing to think that water, after all, seems to defy the laws of
gravity but obeys the laws of capitalism, in which water flows uphill toward money. The
Red River’s acidity, below the mine, approximates that of the lemon juice in my
refrigerator—not a good state of affairs, one that makes aquatic life nearly impossible.
To make the situation even worse, AMD is far from being the only threat to water.
Simple soil erosion and sedimentation compound the situation, stripping away the
vegetation which had previously stabilized the slope. Earth moving machinery and
explosives further fracture rock and road construction increases the disturbance, upsetting
the soil and threatening aquatic life in the nearby rivers. What has required millions of
years of adaptation has begun to unravel (da Rosa & Lyons, 1997, 71).
Then there is the problem of heavy metal contamination as a part of the story. This
accumulates in the surrounding ecosystem and can be a direct threat to human health.
Earthen material moved or processed often contains heavy metals such as lead, cadmium;
arsenic, mercury, and aluminum. When storm water comes into contact with this, for
example at tailings piles and waste rock dumps, the water picks up heavy metal and
deposits it into the groundwater and streams (da Rosa & Lyons 1997, 76). Golden
Dreams, Poisoned Streams also links the costs of mining to water, citing powerful
statistics to make its case.
The writers ask these questions rhetorically: “What would you say of an industry
that dumped 1.7 billion tons, or 9 times the amount of all solid waste from our cities,
much of it toxic or creating acid forming waste? What if it used 2.27 trillion gallons of
water, or as much as Denver could use in 35 years?” (1997, 11). I would say we are all in
a serious state of denial, both toward reckless extraction and toward consumerism. After
all, we buy everything from new stainless steel sinks to new cars whenever we don’t want
to keep the old ones, thus using more molybdenum. There are more than 557,000 hard
rock abandoned mines in at least 32 states and 16,000 of these sites have considerable
surface and groundwater contamination problem (1997, 13).
Add to this the problems of soil erosion and sediment pollution. Mining strips
away vegetation which anchors rock and soil. Explosives and earthmoving machinery
fracture rock. Road building and construction action disturbs land, upsetting aquatic life
which has taken millions of years to adapt. Further, mines require huge amounts of water.
Though underground mining is much more expensive and requires specialized
equipment, it generates less water than surface methods, so there’s often some incentive
to minimize waste. It still does little to solve the problems once they’ve been created.
Mining Engineer Mritunjoy Sengupta points out the fact that mining does also
affects streams because of the simple fact of increased runoff and channel erosion, but
decreased surface runoff can also be a negative factor, depending on specific region,
climate, and geology. This really convolutes the story. Decreased runoff results from
diversions and increased infiltration rates where more permeable rock strata become
exposed by surface mining (1993, 261).
Although there’s much research that mining pollutes, the impact on human health
is intrinsically difficult to demonstrate. A central issue in the health debates linking
physical ailments to environmental contamination is the inherent difficulty in proving
causality. Dr. Alfredo Vigil, a board certified family medicine physician who directed the
Questa Medical Clinic from 1980 to 1985, was interviewed by Sandhya Ganapathy as
part of the Amigos Bravos Oral History Project in 1998. He articulated the difficulty in
proving causal connections between suspected contamination and subsequent health
It takes years and years for anything to cause real harm”--you have to be exposed
to the pollutant for extensive periods of time…Something you’re exposed to in
your 20s and 30s may not show symptoms until you’re in your 60s, 70s, or 80s.
Some things take a long time….These studies take millions of dollars and decades
to prove that individuals are adversely affected… No one has been willing to
invest the time and resources to accomplish this.
In addition, Dr. Vigil notes: “You have to control for other co-existing diseases.
Certainly, there are many mitigating factors which confuse the issues.” He cites a “high
rate of diabetes, hypertension, and alcoholism.” He also reports “problems related to
violence--automobile, domestic, non-domestic,” which are “higher in Questa than the
national norm.” He argues that separating out the effect of the confounding variables is
virtually impossible, thus making any conclusions tentative at best.
Even when mining professionals try to take these health concerns into account, the
results are often negligible. The language of science, economics, and law exerts massive
political power. Few laypeople are well-equipped technically, emotionally, or practically,
to deal with complex cases involving geohydrology, economics, technology, or other
complex data. Squillace acknowledges this problem, “Few citizens, however well
intentioned can cope with the array of industry experts and lawyers that they will face
when opposing a mine” (1990, introduction).
Science is important to understand, because, like myth and story, it is potent, and
dangerous, taken out of context. According to Rosa and Lyon, clean up of those more
than half million abandoned mines is projected at $32,072 billion. More than 60 mines
are EPA listed on Superfund National Priority List for cleanup. Molycorp is now listed,
but not yet enacted. EPA’s Superfund program carries out some federal cleanup activity
but criteria for getting this listing for funds is narrowly drawn: Sites must pose imminent
hazards to public health in heavily populated areas—and Questa and its surrounding tiny
communities are outside much of the criteria.
Then, too, cleanup costs of existing listed toxic-waste sites already outstrip
Superfund’s budget. President George W. Bush’s environmental policies have further
gutted these monies.
Newer histories and theories of environmental economics provide some shift in
perspective. Yet as recently as 1989, historian Clark C. Spence, wrote that almost no
comprehensive mining history has been written (104). In other words, most mining
history was told from a narrow perspective, not from a more holistic one. The history of
the West seemed predicated upon Turnerian frontier theory that did not disclose the larger
price of “free” land. The fact that the antiquated 1989 General Mining Law is still in
effect illustrates the entrenchment of power—as in the case of mining—over the health of
land, water, and community.
“New Western Historians” such as William Cronon (1992) and Richard White
(1995) as well as “New Western Economists” such as Thomas Power (1996, 1997)
provide a wider understanding on the real costs of resource extraction, moving us toward
quality of life issues instead of old extractive paradigms. They employ understandings
which fundamentally take into account the larger ecological and cultural costs of the
histories they are telling.
Mrintunjoy Sengupta, in an international interdisciplinary conference on mining,
spins the story of mining into a supposedly interdisciplinary one, but tells it that mineral
deposits have fixed locations, therefore, unlike renewable resource activities such as
fishing, agriculture, and forestry are not subject to advance planning. He points out that
there’s no choice about characteristics of ecological setting, the biological and chemical
characteristics, mineral composition, or grade of ore. These factors include the ultimate
design, layout and size of operation (1993). However, shouldn’t alternative stories be
told, such as those that include the idea of advance planning? Why do we retell stories of
mining’s supposed inevitability? Environmental histories need to offer more integrated
stories than these.
Mining in Questa is complicated by the fact that the location of the minerals was
predetermined long before a formal study could be conducted as to the ideal placement. In
addition, the minerals were located within the context of an impoverished area, making it
vulnerable to the usual story of economic necessity. Using terms such as “quality of life”
or “sustainable development” does little to shift the paradigm in a place like Questa
where people need their next paycheck yesterday and don’t aspire to become another
Taos or Red River. That might require twisting their village into the next tourist Mecca in
which they sell out their culture to tourism along the “enchanted circle.” “Tourism” is
another loaded word. They are indeed caught between a rock and a hard place, literally
surrounded by the mine’s effects, but they are caught more so by habits of mind, unable
to imagine realistic economic alternatives. That is harder to change. It is unrealistic to
imagine that this community can suddenly embrace a version of “New Western
Economics.” It is indeed an environmental justice study.
Thomas Powers’ Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: The Search for a Value
of Place (1996) addresses the root of the communication problem. He addressed the
notion that economic necessity is another case of myth masquerading as history:
If we could lay to rest the fear that environmental protection will cause the
imminent economic collapse of communities, the acrimony would subside and it
would be much easier to engage in civil discourse over the real choices
communities face. For that reason, it is important to examine two issues: first, the
role actually played by extractive industry in local communities and second, the
impact that protected landscapes are likely to have on local economies. In fact,
extractive industry does not play as central a role in local economies as many
assume. In addition, to the extent that protected landscapes actually support local
economic vitality, the choices “extractive-dependent” communities face, as well
as their likely futures, are drastically altered. Neither the present nor the future are
quite so grim (1996, 3).
Theoretically, the divide or the polarity between the deleterious environmental
effects of mining and the economic realities of making a living could be assuaged by
stringent environmental controls and regulation. However, the legal stories are like a
crazy-quilt patchwork rather than stringent and clear requirements. They must have
political will behind them. New Mexico finally passed its first hardrock mine reclamation
law in 1993 and adopted rules under the New Mexico Mining Act (NMMA) in June of
1994. Under the NMMA, new mining operations--those begun after June 18, 1993--
cannot receive operating permits without approved reclamation plans and posted financial
assurance (reclamation bonds). The law provides for an abbreviated permitting process
for mining operations with minimum impact on the environment These operations are
required to submit general plans as opposed to the more detailed and specific application
documents required of other operations.
The 1993 NMMA also is a legal text which provides a basis for more careful
consideration on the part of mining’s reckless use of resources with little restraint. The
fact is that if the NMMA if it were implemented as intended it could come “very close to
establishing a standard for mining and reclamation that would leave in the wake of
mining at least a well-dressed wound.” (Squillace 1990). The subversion of this legal
mandate is not unique to New Mexico, however. Mark Squillace, writing in The Strip
Mining Handbook explains this subversions of law. It is “….a reflection of the tendency
of humans in general to encourage the degeneration of systems that prove onerous to the
political structure of a given area. It is also a reflection of the weakness of regulators, the
greed of a corporate-driven industry, and the absence of an active citizenry that
understands and values the things necessary to sustain their lives and future”
Reclamation under the NMMA is required to achieve a self-sustaining ecosystem
of post mining land use, yet this vague requirement may be waived for an open pit
or waste unit if it is technically or economically infeasible or environmentally
unsound, provided that measures will be taken to ensure that the open pit or waste
unit we will meet all applicable federal or state laws, regulations and standards for
air, surface water and groundwater protection following closure and [the unit] will
not pose a current or future hazard to public health and safety (Da Rosa & Lyon,
New Mexico’s legal version of the story is that it has a long history of allowing mines to
pollute. When Governor Bruce King was able to see the 1993 law passed, it was one of
the last western states to pass a mining reclamation law.
The Molycorp molybdenum mine near Questa, on the Red River, provides an
example of the lack of state regulation for hard rock mines: Although the state had
instituted a groundwater discharge permitting system 15 years earlier, it was only in
November of 1992 that Molycorp was ordered to obtain a permit. In the meantime, the
mine was responsible for over 100 tailings spills (Amigos Bravos’ website estimates as
many as 268 in its first thirty years). Local citizens groups have long blamed Molycorp
for polluting the Red River with heavy metals. In contrast to a 1996 Public Health
Department Study, which rated the river’s chemical and biological quality as “good to
excellent,” the study was contradicted by others which cited that it was “biologically dead
for eight miles below the Molycorp mine.”
When the price of molybdenum dropped and the mine ceased operations, it
increased the risk of further contamination since groundwater flooded was allowed to fill
the underground portions (da Rosa & Lyons 1997, 211). Lyons and da Rosa contend that
“judging by the inadequacies of the state’s water quality program, however, regulation of
hardrock mining in New Mexico, even with the new program, is likely to sustain
continued problems” (1997, 212).
How can mining now address such huge impacts? One new story, perhaps a more
effective one, is that of the environmental audit. While it is true that mines now require
lengthy processes to open, that doesn’t apply to mines previously in place. Several
parallel processes are in place, including engineering, design, layout, and technological
requirements and environmental programs to meet regulations and standards for air,
water, and land quality. New mines must consider a collection of environmental baseline
data, an EIS, and sometimes, a socioeconomic impact assessment (Sengupta 1993).
However, these were not in place when Molycorp started.
Furthermore, hard rock mining, (as in the case of molybdenum) has been
traditionally underregulated in the United States. The patchwork of federal and state
regulations is riddled with gaps, weak standards, and vague language. Additionally,
mining companies have incentives for deregulation and often, so do state and federal
There are other laws, for example, NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) is
model environmental legislation which can utilize Environmental Impact Statements
(EIS). Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was intended to regulate all
aspects of the nation’s management of solid and hazardous waste, but sadly, in 1980
congress passed an amendment (aka the “Evil Amendment”) which exempted much
mining-related waste (da Rosa & Lyon 1997, 19).
A.K. Barbour, in the introduction to Environmental Policy in Mining, reiterates
the problem of the way that mining’s story has almost always been told in polarized
versions: “Environmental issues are often presented confrontationally—development or
environmental devastation; compliance specifics of policy, environmental regulatory
agencies, and the law, a few points need to be made about why regulatory agencies are
challenging in regulating industry.” For example, according to Paul Pourtney, in his
chapter “EPA and the Evolution of Federal Regulation,” he points out the “newer social
regulator agencies are different than old ones like the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) which were meant either to control “natural monopolies to protect individuals as
consumers. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) job is to regulate
air and water pollution from entities such as the steel or electric industry. But the broader
mandate of the social regulatory agencies may be a more difficult one to satisfy, since it
require s each agency to become knowledgeable about and sensitive to the special
problems and production technologies in many different industries (1993, 59).
Several entities are in place at the state level to deal with mining and health issues.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) was established in 1991 under the
Department of the Environment to regulate both surface and ground water under the
SWQB and the GWQB (surface and ground water quality bureaus). Additionally, the
New Mexico Mining Division (MMD) is under the state’s Resource Department. It
regulates both coal and hardrock mines, and its mandate is to reclaim, educate, and to
advance economic development related to mining.
Also, at the state level, the New Mexico Department of Health has recently been
brought into the investigation of health problems experienced by many people in Questa.
The Questa drinking water supply is suspected of containing coliform bacteria and heavy
metals. Studies continue while people continue to suffer “alleged” illnesses.
NMED and other organizations began to document toxic metal loading, and have
found aluminum, copper, zinc, lead, cadmium, and silver in the twenty-mile reach
between the river's confluence with Placer Creek and its confluence with the Río Grande,
a reach which includes the Molycorp mine. The mine has been cited and fined for point
source pollution involving broken tailings pipes. Amigos Bravos’s Molycorp Watch
Website estimates the slurry spills into the Red River at more than 200 (1995).
Heavy metals (metallic elements with high atomic weights e.g., mercury, nickel,
manganese, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, and lead) can cause damage even at low levels
and accumulate in the food chain. Interceptor wells, which collect and intercept ground
water, are used at the mine. However if the water table becomes too low, the water may
require treatment before being discharged. The Clean Water Act does identify various
standards, but that doesn’t make it easy to apply them. Having been to a day and a half
workshop to learn about standards under the CWA, I learned more culturally about how
Spanish, Indians, and Anglos talk about water, using various languages to describe the
same thing. Still, no matter what culture or ethnicity we claimed, or how we pronounced
the Rio Grande, it was difficult for any of us to access the language and means of
enforcement easily, without a lot of education.
Designated uses for the Red River are those of a coldwater fishery, fish culture,
irrigation, livestock watering, wildlife habitat, and primary contact, e.g., swimming.
Amigos Bravos, as we will see, did, with the Western Environmental Law Center
(WELC). initiate a lawsuit in 1995 against the mine under the CWA, for pollution of the
Red River. There is a longer story, but the first version went like this: after many years of
hard work, the case was thrown out of court because of a technicality. They were telling
the right story in the wrong place.
The plight of Questa is complex. Differing versions of what happened are “spun”
into various agendas and policies: When we hear “eight miles of dead river” or “Taos
County’s number one economic provider” we know we are listening to a story that has
become polarized. The mine’s defense: they are not polluting the river; if there’s any
problem it must be because of “natural scar areas” (requiring more expensive
geohydrological studies!). They point to other problems, also. There were already many
other old mines in the upper watershed; there were problems with inadequate septic
systems. These issues polarize and problematize an already complicated situation.
In sum, the narrative structures, either ascentional and progressive, or declensional
and tragic, are both polarizing, obscuring other more complex and relational issues along
the way to achieving their own ends. Of course we all have agendas in the telling of our
histories and stories, and human agency is central to the way we tell stories. However, the
myth that the story is inevitable, one shaped only by the inevitable one of capitalist forces
is one that must be challenged. We must not only tell alternative stories, we must tell
integrative ones, those that include economic, cultural, spiritual, and ecological values.
We must include human and other-than-human voices, telling history within the context
of an ethics of place. That place is global, regional, local, and personal.
In the next three chapters I explore key voices in the struggle: the oral histories of
many long-term residents of the Red River valley, the media’s spin on the dilemma as
told through the Taos News from 1965-2007, and the testimony of various activists
groups concerned with the mine.
THE ORAL HISTORIES
Compared with history, which has always been in the hands of those with power,
the intellectual or professional authorities, memory goes hand in hand with the
privileges of popular forms of protest. It seemed to be the revenge of the poor, the
oppressed, the unfortunate, the history of those who possessed no right to history.
Go to the river, take what it offers you.
When you were young, it guarded and promised you
That you would follow other rivers
Oceans away from a landlocked childhood.
--Marilyn Hacker, “Going Back to the River”
There is perhaps no better way to empathize and learn traditional knowledge than
from the stories of people who have lived along the rivers. In this case, cultural, social,
and political values are naturally integrated into the ways in which stories are told. These
are the voices in particular for which I wanted to find a context. Those who have lived
along the Red River and fought for its health have largely been ignored, their voices lost
among the technoscientific discourse. There are many more voices, many conversations
which are not formally included. It seemed tragic to privilege other more quantitative
data, and yet silence the voices of the people for whom it most mattered.
Ernie Atencio, a cultural anthropologist, organized the project to interview people
as a way of documenting cultural and ecological traditions associated with the watershed
prior to 1960, and to use these voices as a way to help guide restoration project and
account for traditional knowledge in Rio Arriba watersheds.
Specifically, the project involved using four interns, mostly from Atencio’s alma
mater Northern Arizona University. The anthropology interns came to Taos during the
summer of the years 1997-1999. The interviews were taped and transcribed, and some, as
were additionally videotaped.
Initially, the work was simply that of gathering data. For example, I recall that in
1997, when I first moved to Taos, I called Amigos Bravos and volunteered to help. Their
earlier projects director told me of the oral histories, but said that they, as yet, didn’t have
a specific plan for using the transcripts. Initially, I used some of them for a National
Public Radio essay in which I wove the voices of the ancienos into personal story of the
Rio Grande. Additionally, I have used some of the interviews in writing for the Red River
Watershed Group. I have transcribed only a few interviews of my own for this project,
largely because the work already very much in place, though I expect to contribute my
own interviews to their archives. Much of my own interview material is woven into the
following chapters, particularly chapter five, which covers activist stories.
I have mostly used the work of Sandhya Ganapathy, an applied anthropology
intern from Florida, who conducted interviews along the Red River area during the
summer of 1999. Unless otherwise stated, these interviews were conducted by her during
that time period. Overall, there are around 45 interviews, conducted mainly with Hispanic
and Native American elders, which speak to ecology, tradition, and culture in the Upper
Rio Grande valley. I examine ten interviews that explore life along the Red River. I have
used Sandhya Ganapathy’s interviews because her work matches that of the Red River
My central question is this: How could I honor these voices and highlight what I
saw as their value, keeping the aesthetic and even spiritual qualities intact, even as I
believed that extracting information from them reflected mining’s fundamental
challenge? Using literary critical theory and the idea of story allowed more range—
providing space for aesthetics, paradox, humor, and irony in a way that social sciences
often left out. These elements are central to storytelling, our very human impulse. I hoped
to put the stories in relationship to one another in a way that would allow them to be
more fluid and dynamic, even though the writing down of oral history might “freeze”
The oral histories do highlight diversity and complexity. Most people self-identify
in these texts but in some cases the names have been changed. Often, people are under
legal gag orders because of having reached settlements with the mine and are hesitant and
unsure of what they can legally say. But many people have effectively been gagged
simply by being left out of the larger discourse that excludes them. Others fear of
alienating relationships with neighbors, family, and friends.
There is an emplotment to the stories that can all-too-easily be read as one of poor
town/big industry, with little choice about how industry operates. We find fresh
environmental historical narratives challenge other more official paradigms. These oral
stories juggle nature and culture: they offer glimpses of life within community and
culture, reinforcing and changing each other’s views.
As a trained mediator, I have been told that I need to choose between a position of
advocacy or mediation when it comes to environmental justice issues. Perhaps a look at
environmental narratives is a way past what I see as a “false choice.” A look at language,
particularly vernacular ways of speaking that integrate daily life in ways that defy more
official polarities, offer us glimpses into the nature of being human. We advocate and
mediate our way through life every day. We do it through stories. We can listen creatively
to stories that advocate, mediate, litigate, collaborate, educate, wonder, and worry. Our
strategies change as our wisdom and knowledge integrate and deepen. Ultimately, I try to
read these various “texts” for meaning and pattern; thus my “history,” though qualitative
in nature of course includes quantitative data.
I have also been advised to “mine” these narratives for their cultural, social, and
political information. In many cases, I have; yet I hypocritically (hypercritically?) resent
it, lest I take the narrative information out of context. Still, I have tried to mine these
interviews with sensitivity towards the themes of how the divergent forces of economics,
culture, and the environment have affected the lives of residents along the Red River.
Whether it is natural resources or someone’s story, extraction should be done carefully,
honoring the ways in which people construct their own realities. We all extract,
deconstruct, and take parts from wholes; that is how we tell stories—by ranging,
rearranging, and highlighting in order to bring about fresh meanings. The idea is to go
back to the place, the community, and the watershed, and to see the place “we are whole
in.” By sharing stories, we are also creating community. In my own case, and in the case
of the other “interviewers,” the “informants” often expressed a bonding with those with
whom they shared their stories. I listened, sometimes, as people just cried. Who does not
want to feel heard, understood? We may not have a fix to the problem. Stories help us to
connect, to heal, and to move on. Perhaps the next time, we can make different choices.
“Everything Has Changed”
In an interview at the Questa Senior Center on May 20, 1999, Sandhya Ganapathy
interviewed Joe Martinez. I value this interview for the way in which he sets the stage for
recalling traditional lifeways, in which people grew gardens and diverted water into the
acequias. The Red River was very different then.
We didn’t have no swimming pools or anything like that. So we get together a
group and go out along the river and we do swimming. And take care of cattle.
We had, in our home, we had about thirteen cows. And me and my brothers had to
go along the rivers taking the cattles so to feed ‘em. Feed ‘em all day so that they
wouldn’t eat out hay that we had at home. So during the summer, we pasture the
animals along the river, along the roads. So everything has changed.
He describes what happened along the river, and he says he thinks it’s because of the
I think the water’s not clear. It’s always like cloudy colored pewter, kind of a
brownish. Ore they digging in the mine. And I don’t know if it goes through there
with the dump or what. But the water, if you go from here to the mine and look at
the river, the color of the water, and then go beyond mine towards Red River and
see the color, how clear it is… and we didn’t have that before.
He differentiates clearly between the Red River and the Cabresto:
Red River is this way.” [points towards the southeast]. “Cabresto is this way.”
[points toward the northeast]. “Cabresto, there’s nothing, no mining, no nothing.
So it’s just the river and a little canyon where you go fishing and all that. And you
go to Cabresto Lake. There’s a lake above. And that was the dam that we had for
irrigating here in Questa for your gardens. And that where get the water now too.
Once the river gets low, they open the dam up above. Then the water goes through
the river. And then they have irrigation ditches. They have a place where they
separate it to the ditches. So everybody could have some to make their own
gardens or feed the animals. It’s very rare. Maybe there might be ten families in
Questa that make gardens. Years ago it was everybody. So that’s how come it’s
He, too, decries the aesthetic changes:
Well, I think years ago was better because you don’t tear the sceneries in
anyplace. Now, that they cut the mountains and they make buildings and all that,
you see it. For example, if you see that house over there [points to a house], there
it was just a pasture for animals and raising something for the animals. Well today
you go up with a bulldozer. And the mine I think has destroyed the scenery in
Joe tells of a painting he has, four feet by five, on his wall at home. It shows what the
mountains looked like in around 1945, before the open pit: “You have to fight city hall.
You’re not gonna close the mine. The mine is worth billions of dollars.” He continues:
… I don’t think that they have a case that they could prove that the lungs of a
certain individual were caused by that dust. So I imagine that by the time they do
decide to prove it, by that time maybe half of those people are dead. And then you
better have some money if you’re gonna fight city hall. Well the state sends an
ordinance that this thing is gonna be done, me and you can’t do nothing unless the
whole community screams.
He believes that the state could complain to the “feds” who would send in
investigators, but says the state won’t do that because “it has to be the community…as
long as you don’t go following the channels, nothing is going to be done…now-a-days,
everybody got good jobs, everybody got a new car or truck and all that. They’re happy.
Then you show pictures of your grandfather, in his dress, his coverall and boots and straw
hat. Nobody wants to go back to those years.”
In sum, despite the apparent health and environmental concerns, Mr. Martinez
contends that the community at large will be and has been relatively silenced by the
economic gains associated with the mine.
“I’ve chosen not to sit back and do nothing.”
Roberto, a fourth generation woodworker, has been one of the mine’s most
tenacious critics. His interview here helps establish that the case in Questa is one of
environmental justice, in which livelihood issues are central to the way that citizens in
Questa view the mine. Nevertheless, Roberto won’t allow people to forget that, thought
the issues are complex, more than simply about short term economic gain in the form of
jobs. Roberto’s manner that belies the tenacity and moral firmness with which he has
questioned the mine. Roberto
I met Roberto6 as we planned the Turquoise Lake Day event in 1998. Since then,
whenever I see Roberto, he is usually wearing the same Turquoise Day baseball hat, the
dates 1968-1998 emblazoned on it, and his long hair tucked back under it. I always have
to ask. “New hat?”
In 2004, when I visited the National History Museum in Washington, D.C. I found
myself at home. The Spanish entrada into the Southwest was a key feature in this
museum space, and I immediately noticed a sturdily carved Santo along one wall. I
instantly recognized it as Roberto’s. Glancing at the identifying text, I realized I was
right. It was straight out of Questa, a quintessential northern New Mexican town.
In July of 2000 I went to a community party at Artesanos honoring Roberto as
Artist of the Month. There was great Nuevo Mexicano food and music, and Roberto made
I chose to use first names because many informants have the same last names.
a speech in which he said that for him, art provided another way to express his
fundamental belief that he had a moral imperative to care for land and water. For him it is
a deeply cultural, Catholic belief. He believes that when life is over he will have to
account for what he did with his time. The need to fight pollution is part of a larger
personal mission. He wants to leave something for the next generations.
Sandhya’s interview with Roberto reveals that he worked for Molycorp in the
mid-1970s for three years. As with most employees, he said the pay was good but it was
difficult. You were always tired, he said, and there were three shift changes to adjust to.
He thought he would stay. He was doing everything from shoveling rocks to driving huge
trucks; he was being trained to become an electronic technician. At that time, he said,
everyone wanted to work for Molycorp. Students dropped out of high school to work for
the mine, and didn’t finish their educations. This meant they could only go on to work for
He credits Molycorp with some civic projects, such as street lights, a bridge down
Embargo Road, and water expansion projects, but does not believe that that makes up for
the contamination. Roberto has a vision of the kinds of possibilities of other surrounding
communities, that of art, tradition, and quality of life.
There’s no doubt that tourism’s a major contributor in this area as well as
anywhere else. I don’t know where—we’re in the enchanted circle and I think we
should try to benefit from that. For many years I used to hear that Questa was a
mining community…We’re a mining community, take it or leave it…that was a
very strong mentality a few years ago. But now, it’s kind of changing.
There was once a union, he recalls, and in the late seventies there was the first strike. The
company eventually weakened the union, until by the latter part of the eighties the
employees were at the mercy of the mine. Roberto points out that because the mine has
shut down so many times, “people don’t feel secure, not like twenty years ago when the
mine was operating for ten straight years and was a strong employer…everyone that
works at the mine is at the mercy of the mine and they have no say so.” He points to the
company’s “bad safety track record.”
For Roberto, this history may only go back thirty years, but he feels it’s important
to the people of Questa. As for Turquoise Lake—“it’s got a very unique history and a lot
of people don’t even like to look at it or even think about it, but it’s there and it’s there
for anybody to look at because it’s real.” Turquoise Lake, like it or not, is part of the
history of place, and though the lake is distanced from the school and “capped” it’s now a
part of the landscape: “It’s not like a piece of furniture that you can get rid of and it’s
He admits that if you are a “Molycorp supporter” you don’t want to see “that side
of the history of Molycorp.” The drinking water at the mine became contaminated, he
says, and warnings were posted not to drink the water.
According to Vigil, if even the professionals “tell us [that there’s pollution] and
we disbelieve it, then it’s either one, we’re loyal, or we’re ignorant. So it’s a matter of
deciding by choice what you want to believe. And so that’s the way the community is.
Some are not bothered by the contamination, and some are and some don’t want to
Vigil goes on to talk about many other reports in other places that are similar, but
points out that chemicals from tailings enter the grasses and cattle eat those, too. He
chooses to use acequia water from the Red River but very rarely, and only if he has to.
The state, he says, “should be responsible, but is not because the excuses are that it costs
too much and they’re understaffed. They’d rather not commit.”
He is even unhappier about the EPA: “If the state doesn’t care about the people
here, the federal government’s worse.” Vigil credits various entities for taking on
Molycorp early on:
It was the efforts of the Sierra Club, I think, the Citizens for Clean Air and Water,
and I believe it was the state that initiated that suit against Molycorp…So they
fined them hundreds of thousands of dollars but what happens, the federal
government runs away with a chunk of the pie, and maybe the state got another
piece of the pie, and maybe Sierra Club another piece of the pie but the
community never got anything to remedy the problem.
He is not the only one who believes that the location of the mine was not solely
because of geology, but also because
this was a Hispanic community and most of the people were not going to know
what they were doing anyway in terms of their operation. I mean, for us, what they
do in the process with the chemicals that they get down here…nobody’s gonna
ask questions. That’s what they want. They don’t want people to ask questions.
Molycorp, according to Roberto, failed to even do the minimum to comply legally:
All they had to do was pay the state, the federal government their permits. That’s
it. They always say we’re in compliance with this permit and that permit even
though our children were suffocating in the dust and they had…people down
below the tailings getting sick from drinking the water, cows dying with nobody
to hold them accountable. As long as they were in compliance with the permits,
that’s all that matters to them. There’s not very much one can do.
People are more wary of the river, of catching fish, or anyway, of eating them. There are
“more question marks about using water to irrigate gardens” and the more people become
educated, according to him, the more likely they are to not use the water. Roberto
explains that much of this is common sense.
He points out that there are many people in the middle, not mine supporters, but
those who for whatever reason are threatened, thinking that “something horrible is going
to happen to them or whatever.” He has been scared himself, and says “I’ve been to a
hostile meeting where there’s maybe a couple hundred mine supporters and there’s only,
what, thirty of you, it can get a little scary.”
“Still,” he says, “We have never taken a hatchet to one another. That is one of the
things that I think makes me the most proud, and it helps me to keep on going, to not be
confrontational. That’s been real possible. That’s something that I really cherish as a
“When you’ve really grown up with the river, it becomes a part of you.”
This interview reveals a particular point of view of someone who has lived
directly along the river, so that it is part of the fabric of daily life. Sandhya Ganapathy
interviewed Questa resident Moises Rael, age 52, at his house in Questa. Moises’ family
has lived in the Questa area for several generations. Moises’ grew up with his sister and
brother floating and fishing the Red River: “When you’re part of the river, when you’ve
really grown up with the river, it becomes part of you. You’re hurt when the river’s not
the same as it was. I don’t know how to explain it but it becomes a part of you and you
don’t want to see anything happen to it.”
He believes proximity to the river helps explain why many people don’t care so
much about the issues: “I think when you live maybe five miles from the river you
probably say, “well, it’s maybe polluted there in Questa a few miles, but by the time it
gets to the hatchery it looks good so it’s not that bad.”
Acequia culture has been a basic fact of life in communities such as Questa, where
people rely on the water connects them, according to one source, “more than the church.”
Moises is one person who doesn’t trust the water in his acequia these days: “It’s worse in
the fall, when the water is low: You get runoff from the hillsides, and the water turns
yellow because the runoff and then sometimes irrigating-- they don’t want that yellow
water on their property, so they kind of close off the ditch and the water ends up coming
down to my property at the end of the ditch line.” This, he says, is sediment: “When it
rains a lot up in the canyon, the hillsides are yellow, so all this yellow comes down kind
of muddy yellow and it gets in the Red River, so the river turns a yellowish color.”
Another change he’s noted is that in the past ten or fifteen year, there is nothing alive
under the rocks in the river and that the natural springs that feed the river; they do have all
kinds of growth until they mix with the Red River.
“It was always clear and, for me it was always running just as clear as it was in
upper Red River where the river starts, and…probably in the last twenty thirty year you
can notice a difference, a decided difference. Now the water often is whitish grayish and
was never like that…It’s sad to see it that way…I know that’s not normal.” He notes the
deep piles of waste on the hillsides of the mine. During one mine hearing, people
commented that they had never seen that color but were told it was due to geothermal
scars. “That is when “lost all confidence in whatever or whoever was saying that,” he
Other people with similar expertise no longer trust the mine because they can’t
rely on the mine to say that there are changes in the water. Rael explains: “If you admit
anything, then you might have to pay out the money to fix the problem, so the idea to
them is not to admit anything, but blame something else. That way you don’t have to
spend anymore of your profits to fix something that you caused.”
As a kid, he felt that whatever the mine did was okay because they were “giving
jobs to people.” Moises was the only one in his family to go away to school, becoming an
engineer before moving back. He says:
…I think as you get an engineering knowledge, you realize that companies can
extract profit but they can also do it the right way, and fix things that they might
mess up in extracting that profit. In other words, there’s a right way of doing it,
You learn that in Engineering that whenever you’re involved in a certain process
there’s going to be problems involved with it and you have to account for them
and take responsibility and insure that you don’t mess the environment up in that
area that you are dealing with.…there’s usually a solution somewhere.
He also lacked confidence that the river would improve, feeling instead that, the
waste dump was so huge the river might get worse.…“Probably a hundred years from
now it might be running just as bad or worse just by looking at the size of the waste
dump. …Maybe in ten thousand years it might improve.” A key reason for the lack of
hope in a timely solution: “A lot of people maybe feel that they have relatives that work at
the mine and they want to stay in the background even though they probably feels that the
mine has polluted the river.”
“We said, ‘No way.’”
Eirian Humphrey conducted an interview with Marcus Rael in 1989. It is
particularly important it not only fills in a story of how local Hispanos traditionally
survived economically, but on what basis many decided to resist Molycorp’s methods of
controlling the community. Marcus’s grandfather was a miner in the pick-and-shovel
days, when he says that miners filled up a little cart and pushed it out. Women ended up
doing some of the men’s work since they were now working various shifts at the mine.
“People from here would migrate to Colorado to work on farms and harvest potatoes,
beets, and all that. So did the kids. Kids in his class would take off to go work, hard
backbreaking work. “My dad,” he says, “would never let me go. Kids who left came back
to school far behind.”
Small mercantiles began to disappear when Molycorp came in: “people would go
to Colorado. They would go to Taos. A lot of people migrated from here to Colorado,
Denver, Colorado Springs, following the mines. Arizona, the copper mines. I don’t know
why people took on mining, but that’s what they learned here so that’s what they took
with them and that’s what they did.”
In the sixties, when the pit was opened, “they had probably 900 people working,
so everybody came home. The town grew. We had trailer parks all over town. Molycorp
had trailer parks themselves built. They brought people from Taos, Penasco, San Luis.
Questa put in a water system. In the eighties we put in a sewer system.”
He talks about the fight over the Guadalupe Mountains, which are near Questa,
not far from the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande. “These mountains, he
said, “are a kind of natural bowl. The company said if they used the pit [existing mine pit]
for waste it would endanger miners below, but when an engineering solution was offered
(drying by conveyer belt) they said that wouldn’t work.”
Local workers were intimidated because the company threatened to close if they
couldn’t use the Guadalupes. People said “What about the Rio Grande? Now you’re
going to pollute that. You’ve already polluted the Red River. Now you want to pollute the
The fight against the mine’s takeover of the Guadalupes galvanized grassroots
opposition. According to Marcus:
We fought it hard enough that they had to drill test wells in Guadalupe…and put
some dye in the well to see where the water would go. The mine said it wouldn’t
hurt…But actually it did. It was going to show pollution. So we fought even
harder. We said “no way.”
What happened next was economic. The price of molybdenum took a dive on world
markets. According to Marcus, the mine said, “We’re gonna close down forever.”
He points out that the larger picture was that the cold war was ending and the
Soviet Union, a big moly producer with huge stockpiles, dumped it on world markets. As
he put it: “you’re paying people fifteen, twenty dollars an hour, versus two or three
dollars a day in Russia. So they could afford to dump the ore for whatever they got. And
Marcus understands the economics of large companies: “Union Oil…closed it
down and basically that was it until that ore ran out. So when that ore ran out. And then
you got wars breaking out, and the demand for steel hardeners, lubricants or whatever
moly is used. The need for that increased. The demand for that increased. So the price of
the ore went up again.”
There were accidents, cave-ins, and economic problems. They closed the mine
and allowed it to flood. When they wanted to reopen, they needed $250 million
and that didn’t do it. They needed probably another $250 million to get in back up
and going. They got it back up running as cheaply as possible, but there was a
major cave-in. Meantime, Amigos Bravos, the Concerned Citizens [CCQ], a lot of
people are concerned about the major pumping of the mine. The underground
mine had to be pumped. Where is all this water going? At that same time
unionization plant was shut off. Which was a big farce over there.
According to him, many lawsuits were settled out of court and people won’t talk, so it is
difficult to say exactly what happened next. But as far as the river goes: “It was polluted.
It was during the time that this case was being fourth, they came up with a lot of crap that
was really bad. That water was bad, real bad.”
He recounts that “at first people got pretty irate…they said we’re gonna file law
suits, this and that. But then at the same time, Molycorp came in and said, ‘Look, why
don’t you let us clean it up. Restore it to its original….we’ll help you re-seed, whatever
you need to do.’”
Marcus says that in response to the community’s outcry, Molycorp began lining
all their tailing pipes; they invested in a water system since so many wells were polluting.
According to him, “they moved the tailing pipe from next to the river to the other side of
the road. So that if it broke, they would have a little bit of space to stop it before it went
into the river.”
He reports that the Questa residents distrusted the mines efforts but were
systematically silenced: “Most people won’t discuss it with you because they have some
kind of a hush-hush agreement (legal gag order).” His family was among them: “My dad
and his brothers and brother-in-law had some land over here that was polluted once.
Molycorp cleaned it up. The second time they spoiled into it, they bought the land. They
said, “We don’t want to be a liability ever again.”
“It depends on what’s more important. Money or health.”
In the same time period, Sandhya also interviewed Victor Quintana, whose family
has also been in the area for five generations, and were farmers. Victor was a teacher and
counselor in Questa for twenty years, and has strong political feelings about the poor,
about war, and injustice. This interview speaks to the ways in which political power
“How do you conquer a nation?” he asks rhetorically, “You take away their
water.” He has a deep distrust of the government people and says they have been unjust to
Indian and Hispanic people, particularly concerning land grants. “Indian people and the
Hispanic people have been asking the U.S. government for over two hundred years to
return the lands to the people, or give us part.” He says “people moved to cities to make a
livelihood because when they came back from various wars they found they had lost their
water rights…to me that’s cruel. They took the Indian way of life. They took the Hispanic
way of life. The people that were mixed, both Indian and Spanish, they didn’t honor our
culture.” Victor believes that:
They [the powerful] come and destroy and they take away the good things that is
there and they go away. And it’s like nothing has happened. The people that have
to suffer are the poor. It’s happening all over the world. The struggle for power, it
happens at different scales, a lower scale, a higher scale. In other words,
somebody up there probably should have given us better intellect.”
He point out that:
[History] keeps repeating itself….The mine right there…pollutes the river, it
pollutes that land on the side, the people inhale those chemicals. And the people
that live there immediately are the ones to suffer with the problems, while the
other guys that are elsewhere that are making the big money, they’re not living
there in Questa. They’re gonna live elsewhere where it is nice and clean. Like they
say in Spanish, La reyna el rive cavada (The chicken that are in the ladder, the
one on the top will shit on the ones under).
This dicho might apply to Victor’s own health problems: “I’m an asthmatic…it
hurt me. Like I had a hard time breathing. And there is a higher percentage of kids that
have asthma, breathing problems, in relation to what there was in the years back…so
that’s dangerous chemicals in there. There is usually gold found in small amounts with
molybdenum. So there’s a dangerous chemical used for extracting gold.” He believes the
complacency in Questa is a simple matter: “It depends what’s more important. Money or
like any other big company, they come in. And some people start working for
them….people lose their dependence on the land” According to him, “they say,
‘We don’t need the water for survival.’ So, if they don’t need that and they just
take money, they don’t realize that when their jobs are gone . . . they probably get
rid of their land and their water because it is too hard to take care of. And then
they realize that they don’t have nothing at the very end.
This has happened in many communities, believes Victor, and now they are shrinking and
Look at how many people in this community that have sold their land, both in
Questa, in Costilla, in Amalia and in surrounding areas. And they realize that…
they no longer have a job. And you try to come back to the communities to work
and they don’t have anything left. And the other people have come in and taken
away their land. Which is one of the most precious things — land and water.
Those are the precious things in life.
He describes Molycorp’s presence in the community as: “entrapment.” He understands
why people do it: “they sell themselves to the mine….they have to eat.” For him, it is a
worldwide phenomenon. His ideas fit with those of environmental justice theory,
believing that it is the poor who bear the brunt of toxicity: He says that if Questa were in
a middle class suburban area, Molycorp simply wouldn’t be there.
“What are we going to leave for our grandkids? We’re gonna leave nothing.”
Joe Cisneros, who proudly tells people he is the protagonist of Taos author John
Nichol’s novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, has no problem speaking his mind. I have
included parts of this interview not only because he is an outspoken and colorful
character, but also because he points out that little will be left for the next generations if
nothing is done to challenge the mine. He told Sandhya Ganapathy in 1999: “I was one of
the first ones to start fighting over the contamination of the Red River. And, up to this
day, I’m still fighting them.” He started working for Molycorp the day John Kennedy was
shot. He was later fired. He then sued the mine.
Joe’s feisty personality is captured in Nichol’s portrayal of Joe Mondragon in
Milagro. Joe says his family were farmers in the area for generations. Though he’s moved
around, and served in the military, he went back to Questa. He says he had a tenth grade
education, that his father was the first to have a thrashing machine, and they were the first
ones to own a tractor. He makes fun of Molycorp’s “good neighbor” slogan:
The valley was beautiful until Molycorp came. You see a lot of trailers up here
now. You see a lot of people moved into the area. I still don’t even know who
they are. And it’s really changed a bit….they turned brothers against brothers,
neighbors against neighbors, over jobs. Molycorp hasn’t been a good neighbor to
us. They have destroyed our water, destroyed our air.
He adds that:
“The state has let these people get away with a lot of stuff around here. Especially
the Environmental Departmental (ED) hasn’t done anything to protect the area, protect
the water….When you have sixty-four spoils going into the river and they don’t get fined
for it. And if they get fined for it, they negotiate their fines.”
He notices the economic impact, that management does not live in Questa and that
the money earned is spent elsewhere, like Wendy’s and McDonald’s: “What are we going
to leave for our grandkids? We’re gonna leave nothing. This giant monolith moves into
town, they destroy everything. They don’t respect anyone. People up here they give ‘em a
hand out, they give a job, they give ‘em a little contract. And they think that Molycorp is
god to them.”
Joe doesn’t care if people disagree with him:
You go to town and if you are vocal and fight Molycorp, you’re a radical and
you’re a trouble maker. They call you all kinds of names. And for me, I don’t give
a damn. I’ve lived my life….I have to tell Molycorp that they’re liars, I’ll tell them
right in their face…I'm not scared of them…all the way up, from the senators to
the county sheriffs to the president, they all contribute and that’s why they can’t
enforce the law….You can’t bite the hand that feeds you.
He has gone so far as to say he wouldn’t even work for people who worked for Molycorp:
“I don’t need it. God has been a good provider for me. I’ve always had food on my table.
And I’ve always had a job. If I had fifty hands, I’d have fifty hands occupied.”
Cisneros, also known as “Little Joe,” talks about the acequias. He says Molycorp
has pumped the water out of the aquifers:
Now we don’t have enough….There used to be creek right there. I haven’t seen
water in that thing since Molycorp came here. Because they started pumping their
operations, there’s no water left. He also says that if you compare the Cabresto
you can see the difference in the water. We never had that aluminization coming
in the middle of the river.…I was the first one to look at that. I went up there and I
walked that river and I found a lot of places where all that aluminization is
coming out. It’s coming out of the mines.
He says when he worked as a maintenance man for Molycorp he saw that they used
cyanide and arsenic, used for the separation process. He says the mine didn’t measure it.
He also speaks of the other stories, of Turquoise Lake, the dead fish, the cows that turned
white, a woman who lost her liver. He says people drank contaminated water, but that
people also settled lawsuits out of court: “It took the environmental department over
thirty years to say that Molycorp was directly responsible for the contamination of the
Red River. Over thirty years. And I fought it…I fought it for at least twelve years alone.”
Joe negates the view that one man can do nothing, especially without money or
technical expertise: “Let me tell you it's not an easy job to fight big corporations. You get
right into it. You don’t need money to fight those people. Just be vocal. Somebody’ll
listen. Somebody will come around. And that’s what happened. A lot of people have
come around to listen. You gotta stand up.”
“A toxic dust cloud isn’t something I want to be breathing in every day.”
Will Tarble provides a particular perspective on Questa as someone who isn’t
from there, and didn’t grow up along the Red River. The interview illustrates that
“outsider” perspectives can bring new energy to the struggle. Sandhya Ganapathy
interviewed Will Tarble on July 2, 1999 at Five Star Remodeling in Questa. Will is not
from Questa. He moved there around June of 1993 from Seattle, settling just above Cerro,
a tiny village just north of town where he said he gets a “great view” of the Molycorp
mine, the tailings ponds and the dust clouds blowing every time that the winds kicked up:
I’ve seen it like three hundred feet tall, a thousand feet long….I hate to see what
happens to those folks in Cerro…it’s a concern of mine and a lot of my friends
that are younger. But older folks don’t really seem to mind as much. You get a lot
of comments like ‘another beautiful day in paradise.’ Which it is, but . . . A toxic
dust cloud isn’t some thing that I want to be breathing in every day.
He points out that “there’s hundreds of people that live in Cerro, which is directly
downwind that suck that stuff in everyday. Most of the old folks around here have
hacking coughs and shit. Molycorp, making the world a harder place to live.”
This is his way of joking about Molycorp’s “good neighbor” slogan. He adds: “I
know that air-borne silicates cause silicosis. And I’d be kind of interested to find out how
many folks in Cerro came down with silicosis or silicate borne related disease…I know
that there’s a girl who lives here in town, Roberto’s [Vigil’s]daughter, had problems
processing copper and stuff.” He adds, “I know the older folks really have been supported
by the mine for so many years that it kind of, it’s been their life blood for so long. They
don’t really know any other existence without it…”
Will believes that if the community were to become more involved with
“environmental groups” it would help, yet he acknowledges the resistance. The way for
groups like Amigos Bravos to change that is to listen, he thinks: “Most of the folks
around here don’t really like [environmental groups]. He cites the usual reasons: people
have been shut out of their commons and restricted from traditional uses: “So it’s been
really hard for a lot of the locals to deal with that kind of stuff. That spotted owl thing,
nobody could cut firewood.”
He thinks the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is responsible for many of
the mine’s problems: “If the EPA would get their shit together and look at that thing and
start on it. They could be making much better money working for the EPA cleaning it up
then they ever could be mining it. Cause I know guys who muck for that mine and they
only make ten bucks an hour. Five thousand feet underground.”
“The mine is not a locally owned company…it’s owned by Unocal…. They’re people
making decisions in an office in L.A and Bangladesh.”
George Weiss likewise did not grow up in Questa. He came from out East as a
young man because his wife was pregnant and “he didn’t want to raise a kid in New York
City.” He had heard that New Mexico “was a hospitable kind of place…We took the train
without knowing much about it, with two duffle bags and a guitar.” This narrative also
highlights the global dimensions of the environmental justice narrative.
He learned of Molycorp through working for Gomersindo Martinez who owned
the supermarket and a scrap metal business, part of which was hauling scrap metal for the
mine: “He had a backhoe and a dump truck over there. I did a lot of different jobs for him
there.” He said:
One of my jobs was going up to the mine, loading metal into the dump truck, and
driving it back to his property and dumping in so that he had enough to take a
semi-load to Boulder or Denver or Pueblo. And so I knew the mine existed, but I
didn’t really . . . I was kind of ignorant or oblivious…Pollution, in 1971, or 72
was not even spoken of: I can’t remember ever hearing anything negative. And at
the same time, the mine wasn’t very big-time…It wasn’t really like the big
affluent period that sort of happened in the later seventies. You know, increased
production quite a bit, started hiring a lot of people and paying more wages and
started the changes in the whole economy.
Of those times, he says people were “kinda good hard hustlers and hard workers, but it
wasn’t the kind of affluence you saw when the mine was really going.” People had a few
animals, George recalls, and he articulates the problem as one of not just environmental
pollution but cultural pollution. He also believes that the mine and cash economics killed
some basic values:
Pretty soon, people changed to a more cash, consumerism type typical American
economy which is one of the sorta social things that happened, via the mine. You
could call it like cultural pollution instead of dust pollution or water pollution.
The people’s whole outlooks changed. They became hooked on consumerism and
the El Dorados and satellite dishes. And everybody had a snowmobile. I mean I
can remember in the ‘70s, nobody had a Jeep. You know, you think nothing of
driving in a snow truck with just a pick-up truck and a weight in the back, a log or
whatever. I mean now, nobody goes five feet without a four-wheel drive if they
seen one snowflake.
Like many people, it was concern over his children’s health that ignited George’s
I became interested in the public health issue. The river, you know, I was aware
of. But the dust was more of an issue with me, ‘cause I had school-age kids. The
river to me was another issue. And once we got into it, it became an obvious
issue. I’m sure you’ve walked the river. You can see the point where it’s this
milkyish, bluish, whiteish looking stuff. And then you go up, up, up, and all of a
sudden you have got a fine looking, normal looking river. It’s clear, semi-clear,
and vegetation and all that. So that’s kinda like a no-brainer. It’s like ‘Wow. Look
at that.’ Somebody gonna do something? You know, we had people come out
from . . . At that time, my first exposure to it was the State Environmental
He underscores the frustration of trying to create change in the face of bureaucratic chaos.
So we first got a tip from a guy . . . They had different areas, the Surface Water
Control, the Ground Water people, the Air Quality people. We got an inter-office
memo from a guy who was an employee in the Air Quality. And it showed that
they had monitoring up there by the . . . near the school, there was an air
monitor… And they recorded violations of the Federal and State maximum of
what they call “air-borne particulates” of a certain size. I think it was less then ten
microns. They have some sort of air filtration system and meter that allows you to
test how much passes by in a period of time.
He points out that it is local people who ultimately must put up with the effects of the
mine and know the land and water, but they can’t afford to continue to challenge the
They’re [the professionals] getting paid. You’re talking to…the state
environmental people. Meanwhile, you’re taking time off of work, that’s number
one. Number two, except for one time or two times, you have to go down there to
their place. You know, wait around, etc., etc., have your meeting. If you’re
making a good point…. and then, more often then not, this was Molycorp people
there, with their attorneys to rebut anything you have to say.
In addition, George contends that people, even those in acequia organizations,
often didn’t complain about the problems because they were “cowed” by the mine. He
concedes that Molycorp improved their pipes and moved them across the road, lessening
the likelihood of spills. It didn’t change, because the company wasn’t motivated to care
about land or water that they weren’t farming or drinking from. The mine operated from
an economic perspective. George says:
My point was always if it was oil or something valuable, no way would they let it
spill. But since they didn’t care, they’d have spills and just deal with it, basically.
…they’ve improved. You know, they don’t have the amount of spills that they
used to. I mean it was like cement pouring out, fill up the irrigation ditches. The
people were so cowed by the mine, because they were hooked on the salaries that
even if they were a miner and the shit came all over their land and irrigation
ditches, they wouldn’t make waves.
He talks simply about what happens in the community when there is a layoff and people
are suddenly out of work again: “a lot of the people cried their eyes out for a year or so
and then started getting other jobs.” Many of them prospered. Mine issues can easily
become both polarized and personalized, which he believes benefits the mine
You have to be careful not to take an anti mine position and then your brothers
and family are miners and it becomes very personal. You can’t just dissociate
yourself from the issue…it became an ‘us and them’ thing. Just a typical tactic,
you know, power structures used to control people. You know, just divide ‘em up,
divide ‘em up. Meanwhile, everybody’s getting screwed by the mine…“I always
felt that the miners were getting screwed because they were making like . . . two
dollars a pound or whatever it goes for. But at a certain point, it was going for like
thirty dollars a pound. And it cost them like $1.50 to extract it. And they’re paying
guys like $12 bucks and hour, which was maybe good money to them. But . . .
they were taking tons of money out of the area. Then as soon as the price drops,
they cut benefits on ‘em. They were like “The price of the ore is dropping. We’re
gonna have to close. But if you give up you’re benefits, we’ll stay open.” People
were like “we’ll give ‘em up!” And then they close anyway in three months or
four months. And then when they open again, they open without the benefit.
There’s also the recognition that the economics of the situation are much larger than even
Molycorp, which was bought by Unocal. There is a connection to global economics, and
what happened in Questa was being decided upon by corporate entities with holdings all
over the world, and the corporate offices were in Brea, California (near Los Angeles). He
stated the problem this way: “…they don’t care…they’re looking at numbers on a paper.
You know, ‘Open. Close.’”
“We had a little bit of momentum going in the town, where we had some good
presentations at meetings. Things were getting stirred. The Taos News was picking up on
it. They sent about three or four guys from L.A. out to kinda feel the pulse of the town,”
he says. “We had luncheon with them.”
Next, he discusses quality of life issues, providing an example for the kinds of
choices people make regarding where they life. Perception, not hard data, determine these
choices. People make choices depending upon the quality of life, not hard-wired market
economics or parts-per-million kinds of data. At this time the blowing dust was
something very visible, so people were concerned about it. George tells it this way:
Everybody was concerned with health effects. And that’s one of the reasons we
moved to Taos. The other reason was, probably equal if not more so, the schools
are better in Taos. But that had something to do with it. I kinda felt like, I can’t
send my kids here, you know, knowing that this is blowing. You know, it wasn’t
like ‘Blow-Pow,’ you know, where some kind of gas comes and people drop. It
was more like long term lung problems, silicosis or maybe emphysema thirty
years later. But people would be like ‘Well I feel okay.’ Yeah, but maybe in
twenty years, [you have a problem with] your lungs or something. Or maybe the
quality of your life your last five years won’t be as good as it should of been.
George also makes the point that people over look health issues because
family is very important in a place like Questa, perhaps bucking the kind of
American trend overall where people generally accept that they will take a higher
paying job elsewhere…people live in a certain spot in Questa and their parents
live there and their brothers and sisters. It’d take a lot to move. And wasn’t
dramatic. You know, like you never hear of anybody like suddenly getting lung
cancer three days after a dust cloud…Maybe there was some asthma, but people
are like used to taking medicines now-a-days…There’s a lot of health problems
that people have in northern New Mexico anyways.
After around 1988, he stopped putting energy into it:
As the river goes, I think it’s distressing. But at a certain point, I became not an
activist. I’m real happy that Amigos Bravos has picked it up and done what
they’re doing. And I’m glad Bobby Vigil is still active. I got kind of discouraged
‘cause I put a lot of energy into it…Some of it was just really seeing not too much
accomplishment for a lot of time, cause you can really put a lot time into
something like that. . . you can just shoot a day like that going to Santa Fe. A
couple days maybe for preparation, rehashing what happened. You should be
going every week.. …I’m trying to concentrate on clean air and not something that
happened fourteen years ago. Those are the kind of things that can happen and I
don’t want to deal with that. I mean I approached it from an objective point of
view and I really didn’t want to get into something that wasn’t objective. But it’s
very hard not to. Nobody wants to get misunderstood, right? Or
misrepresented…at this point in my life, if I’m gonna get involved in a movement
that’s environmental or political, I gotta be really sure that I really want to do it,
cause I know what it takes now. And I’m really gonna go full hook, line, and
“This is the whole thing with power and those that have not.”
I interviewed David Douglas on August 21, 2004 in Taos. David is especially
passionate about the process of waking up to environmental destruction. He and his wife
Karen exemplify those who have suffered egregious health effects and have had to find
their own very uneasy “angle of repose” with the mine. They have fought a lengthy and
exhaustive legal battle, suing the mine due to the pollution of their wells. David also
fights bouts of depression over losing a beloved place. A legal gag order keeps certain
aspects of the story under wraps, but David’s memory of the place he spent much of his
childhood is acute. He was three years old when his family came to the cabins along the
Red River in 1952.
At that time, the mine was nothing but a teeny tiny operation, had a single shack
that went underground, had a little, little train that would move the miners in and
out, and the ore in and out, and the waste in and out…. I liked watching for the
little train to come out…that was a big thrill when it came out of the shaft….The
entrance to the mine is still there, of the old shaft. And in fact, the road, coming
from Red River through where the plant is, right through it. I seemed dank, and
dark. And it never struck me as the most pleasant place in the world to be but,
people lived there. they had a whole town, they had a school, had a village.
In the mid-sixties the open pit was dug and once it started, says David, “It was a 24-hour-
a-day operation for 20 years but I didn’t think about it a lot....the water from our well was
good. The well water tasted fine. We had it tested regularly for chloroform bacteria. And
that was the only kind of test that we knew that we should do, just to make sure it was
still drinkable, and there was no problem with the mine. And every time we tested it, it
Then the mine shut down:
The mine had had some problems with the labor union which resulted in some
brief shutdowns of the mine while they tried to resolve their labor issues. And
then, I remember when they shut down in the early nineties that there was an issue
made with whether the mine would pump their tunnels, as they usually do when
they shut down. They decided not to pump their tunnels, so the tunnels flooded.
And it was sometime after that, that we noticed a seepage coming out from behind
our property of discolored water and it was so obvious that the river immediately
above the seep looked fine and clear, and right out the seep it turned to this awful
milky, rust looking water. I didn’t associate any of that with our well, at the time. I
just saw that and thought okay, well, this is what happened when the mine decided
not to pump their tunnels. The water gradually tasted worse.7
“The health of the river goes up and down with the price of molybdenum.”
I conducted this interview with Taylor Streit on my front porch on a summer’s day
in 2004. A long time guide, activist, and writer, he provides an historical picture of how
the river appeared over the last thirty years. He recalls: “I started guiding fishing trips
along the Red River about 25 years ago but I fished it as soon as I moved here about 32,
33 years ago. Molycorp opened in ‘65. I was here in ‘69.” He says the Red River was
clear, then: “except for slurry breaks it would be clean and clear and then it would have a
break and that would be quite catastrophic and then it would disappear and it was only
after the underground operation in 1981 or whatever. It developed a general deterioration.
It was always a weird color…before that it was clear.”
Taylor remembers the river running in colors:
Until about 1980 the fishing was extremely good and that’s when…huge
degeneration started and the river started to run blue and green and the visibility
was a couple inches for like, two years. There was an amazing amount of
pollution. I think that was ’80, ’82, ‘83 or something…I remember being with the
Game and Fish Department when we did a shocking survey and we came up with
80 fish per mile which was an extremely low number and there was a period then
it was unbelievable…over the EPA limits. At that period it must have been a
thousand times over the limit…aluminum that’s in the water.
David and his wife, Karen, lived at the cabins until 2004, at which point, they settled a lawsuit against
Molycorp mine for pollution of their well. They still suffer from numerous health effects. The cabins have
been razed, and David and Karen continue to work on behalf of environmental justices concerning the mine.
Streit and others remember a time in which the water was in better condition, and
they hope for a cleaner future. The oral histories reviewed presented a memory of what
the Red River and Questa were like before large scale mining in the 1960’s. Many
recount not only their own childhoods but also the stories of their own grandparents who
drank from the acequias and the rivers as children and that sometimes reach back more
than a century. Others are happy that the mine has given them a way to stay put, to
educate their children and provide for a stable retirement.
Some people are grateful, but others are suspicious, their distrust often bordering
on paranoia. Unfortunately, overgeneralized fears make it easier for them to be
discredited. Informants include miners as well as critics of the mine. The narratives
provide a refreshing counterpoint to “death by data” and technical jargon that leave most
people feeling disenfranchised.
The old ones recant losses, of days when it seemed, in the villages of northern
New Mexico, that people worked together, bartered their goods, trusted their acequia
water, and ate the fish they caught. The work of Jose Rivera (1998) and Devon Pena
(1998) come to mind, in which they use acequia culture as a kind of metaphor as well,
one which integrates economic, ecological, and cultural values. But in the case of the
mine, the ditch associations have often remained silent unless a spill has directly
impacted their ditch.
The oral histories reveal common themes: that people once drank from the river,
raised animals, grew crops, and their kids swam in the rivers, giving rise to a common
background. But they also reveal diversity, and highlight how oral stories are reshaped
with each telling. The notion of “story” like “river” is fluid, never the same twice.
The fact that this comes from “just” our own experience and is subjective need not
undermine the teller’s veracity in narrative. Perhaps, I think, if anthropologists and
sociologists look for the collective, and psychologists look for the personal, storytellers
might look for what is most relational. Bronislaw Malinkowski wrote that “One of the
first conditions of acceptable ethnographic work certainly is that is should deal with the
totality of all social, cultural and psychological aspects of the community” (1992).8 It is
most useful to state that this “qualitative research” or study might as easily be considered
story/narrative/history. In laying particular claim to environmental history, I value the
reciprocal culture/nature aspects. Historiographer Kerwin Kline writes: “Historical
narratives are actually a literary form without any logical connection to the seamless flow
of events that constitute living” (1999, 1).
Be that as it may, that does not denigrate the power of the story. In Taking History
to Heart (2000) James Green writes that good histories make us care about their subjects.
I also might add that it makes us care about its human subjects. The value of these oral
histories, then, is that, through their vernacular telling, we find ourselves caring about
these subjects as people, not simply about their morals, but those are reciprocal values.
Green also quotes Walter Benjamin, who said in 1936 that every good story contains
“openly or covertly, something useful, some kind of counsel” (2000, 10).
Quoted in endnotes by Robert E. State in an article entitled “Case Studies” in which he adds “Good spirit
there, although totalities defy the acuity of the eye and longevity of the watch” (Strategies of Qualitative
The oral histories also hinge on the connotation of “environmentalism” and “law.”
While many community members have negative connotations of environmentalism,
others acknowledge that environmental laws provide a basis for enforcement, or at least a
leg to stand on. Yet wielding this language requires a degree of sophistication most
laypeople lack. I address these problems, particularly in chapter four, about the role media
played. The Taos News reportage especially reflects how the mine was able to constantly
remind the community of its economic primacy.
THE TAOS NEWS: JOURNALISM AS ENVIRONMENTAL DILEMMA
“The function of news is to signalize an event; the function of truth is to bring to
light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other and make a picture
of reality on which men can act.”
--Walter Lippman, Public Opinion
It is Thursday. I take this as a fact because, all over town, the local weekly Taos
News is being sold. The usual faces are in the usual places hawking their stacks of
newspapers—each about 250 pages of newsprint, including everything from legals to
advertisements, sports, TV schedules, movie reviews, local happenings, and special
sections for “Vecinos” and “Spanish.” Paper-selling corners are jealously guarded against
usurpers. Today (March 29, 2007) a photo captioned “Spring Runoff, Good or Bad?”
hovers over a front-page article about how the spring season will affect Taos Valley’s
more than 80 acequias. Thus, even news of spring runoff is put into polarized and
dramatic headlines. I hand my dollar over for the 75 cent paper to the same woman who
has sold it on my nearby corner every week for the last six years, thinking that she has
made from that quarter per paper (and an additional quarter from The Taos News office) a
greater hourly wage than I did writing for The Taos News. Economics are a bottom line
not only for the Molycorp mine and for these paper-sellers, but for part-time Taos News
writers, such as me.
For my study, I have scanned The Taos News for the years between 1965-2007 for
all stories, letters to the editor, and advertising related to the Molycorp mine. The vast
majority of the articles on the Molycorp mine are post 1975. For whatever reasons, little
that went on at the Molycorp mine before 1975 was deemed “newsworthy”. There were
advertisements in 1968 for the mine’s gift (italics added) of the “Turquoise Lake
Miracle,” there were spills into acequias, and even workers injured or killed, but little was
reported in The Taos News until around 1975 when the mine’s effluent— held in the
tailings ponds—began to create ongoing, and obvious problems.
According to both William Cronon and Walter Lippman, in order for an event to
become news it must be highlighted or noticed from the flow of human events in general:
“There must be a manifestation. The course of events must assume a certain definable
shape, and until it is in a shape where some aspect is an accomplished fact, news does not
separate itself from the ocean of possible truth” (Lippmann 1922, 215). Consequently, I
review The Taos News for three key reasons. First, by its very nature the process of
identifying an event as news worthy is a distilling process, specific events or facts are
highlighted while vast amounts of data are left unattended and thereby remain in relative
obscurity. By reviewing The Taos News, I was curious to learn what data points from the
mine’s operations and impact on the environmental, cultural, and economic well being of
the Questa community would be chosen to be entered into the community’s
consciousness and conversely what information would be obscured.
A key criticism of local newspapers is that they may pander to the populace and
exemplify regionalism in a derogatory and provincial sense. The Taos News, replete with
local gossip and small town boosterism has for much of its history reflected much about
the communities it serves. As such, it helps to reveal aspects of this story, particularly as
it relates to ecological, economic, and cultural values. The economic values appear to be
paramount. Yet the stories do include ecological values, and these have become stronger
The Taos News is vital in that it generates readable, accessible, consumable news,
news almost entirely related specifically to this small area of New Mexico, and as such, it
is important to the community. Most citizens will never read the difficult technical,
scholarly, or legal reports that may be lodged in the local library or the Courthouse.
Sometimes the most updated and important material on Molycorp is available only at the
Taos Library and the Questa Village Offices, and only in English, a fact poorly publicized
if at all. In Questa these are circumstances which leave the citizens out, yet this is where
the impacts of extractive industry are most sharply felt. And so I look to The Taos News
for what it both reveals and conceals about the Molycorp story and to glean insight into
the way that this, too, is a “story about the story.”
Secondly, I reviewed The Taos News for its impact on molding thought and action
about the Molycorp Mine. This chapter gives embodiment and chronology to the events.
It acts as a bridge between the previous chapter’s oral histories, and the following
chapter’s activist stories. As the “paper of record” The Taos News fleshes out the series of
events, shaping them into regional stories about mining and the regional environment.
This chapter examines the relationship between The Taos News and public
opinion of the Molycorp mine. “The news” includes not only traditional story forms but
also editorial and advertising. I wish to understand how this local newspaper has reported
the story of Molycorp and the Red River over the years. A feature of narrative structure is
beginnings, middles, and ends, but in this case, the Red River/Questa/Molycorp story is
one with “no denouement…it just goes on and on.” Walter Lippman, in Public Opinion
(1922) his seminal work on how journalism is integral to democracy, argues that:
From the point of view of the worker, or of the disinterested seeker of justice, the
demand, the strike, and the disorder, are merely incidents in a process that for
them is richly complicated. But since all the immediate realities lie outside the
direct experience both of the reporter, and the special public by which most
newspapers are supported, they have normally to wait for a signal in the shape of
an overt act.…The unseen struggle has none of its own flavor…It is noted
Thirdly, The Taos News is the only constant way of looking at this study as told in
persistent ongoing terms. Because the story of the impacts on Questa and the Red River
have been so chronic, there is no other source that has looked at it from a supposedly
unbiased view in the ongoing fluidity of time. Other local conflicts play out and are
“over”—for example, military practice bomber runs over Taos, or the legislation which
stopped proposed oil and gas drilling in the Valle Vidal, all stories more easily covered
because they encompass shorter time lines, more easily locatable beginnings and ends,
and because they are much less complex. Those stories generate both heat and light, but
are more meteoric, burning brightly and dying away. Molycorp has been a presence in this
area for nearly a century.
In an article in Mining in New Mexico (2005) Stephen D’Esposito of the Santa Fe-
based Earthworks Institute makes an important point regarding the negative perception of
mines in terms of public story:
There are today a number of hot-button issues that tend to foster public
controversy and push the reputation of mining into the negative column. I will
describe two such issues: 1) Mine location and land use conflicts and 2)
responsibility for closure and cleanup and the definition of responsible
reclamation. In each of these examples the public is listening to arguments that are
both technical and value-laden but the industry is typically making only technical
arguments. Mining Company officials too often act as if the less-quantifiable
values held by the public are irrelevant (2005, 42).
Esposito’s point that the public listens to technical and value laden arguments
while the industry “acts as if the…less quantifiable values are irrelevant” is an important
one. Newspapers try, at differing points, to deploy “facts” and values to arrive at a
perceived “truth.” I contend that news stories regarding Questa, the Red River and the
Molycorp have been addressed via The Taos News as public environmental narratives.
The stories raise what D’Esposito believes are “hot-button issues:” groundwater
contamination, pollution of the Red River, toxic airborne particles, the potential for a
disastrous rock slide, and health issues.
Therefore, I have arranged the news stories into the four key themes to better
examine the ways that The Taos News has told the story of the Molycorp mine and its
impact on Questa. In the first section I will address the theme, or “narrative” concerning
the economic volatility of the mine. I begin with this theme since economics has been the
baseline narrative and has been the background to each of the three other narratives,
namely: Ecological Calamity: Fact or Fiction, Environmental Justice, and Molycorp
Makes Amends. The other three sections reflect, respectively: the polarized view of
whether ecological problems are “real,” how news stories frame the narratives in terms of
environmental justice, and the ways in which Molycorp purports to remedy mining’s
Narrative I: Economic Volatility: Closures, Mining’s Fragility, and Community Collapse
The Taos News consistently identifies the mine’s positive aspect: jobs. Numerous
articles throughout the span of 1969-2007 note that the mine has been, during boom
cycles, Taos County’s major economic provider. The economic arguments truncate the
debates about ecological factors, and cultural ones. Examples of economic boosterism in
The Taos News go back to the 1960’s. A 1978 article by Phil Bateman, entitled “Moly
expansion to boost Taos growth” reports that “Molycorp has planned a 67 percent
expansion of its work force.” The estimated 600 new jobs will represent a “substantial
increase in the economic viability of Taos County.”
Similarly, in a September 26, 1983 article by Steve Winston and Billie Blair,
written at the crucial time when Molycorp was reverting to underground mining on a vast
scale, the then Governor of New Mexico, Bruce King, was quoted as pledging support to
the mine and linking its success to the economic well being of not only Taos County but
also of the entire state. This was at a time when the mine was estimated to be adding $10
million a year to Taos County alone.
The economic impact of the mine is highlighted by numerous Taos News articles
that speak of the economic fragility of the mine. Indeed, the tandem emphasis upon both
the economic benefit of the mine and the precarious economic status of the mine often
seems to serve as a stranglehold on serious inquiry into the potentially deleterious impacts
of the mine on environmental or cultural issues. The implied and at times explicit
assumption is that the mine is too fragile economically to withstand attacks from
environmentalists and yet too vital economically to Questa for the community to risk
closure of the mine. Over the forty year time span 1968-2007, several articles have
detailed the mercurial fluctuations in the price of molybdenum and consequently, the rise
and fall of the mine’s economic viability. A January 27, 1980 article, “Molydenum [sic]
price drops” reported that between 1978 and 1979 molybdenum went from $6 a pound to
$32 but currently is at $7.75 a pound. Similarly, a December 14, 2000 article notes that
the price of molybdenum dropped to $2.27 per pound but has since “skyrocketed in
Again in June 30, 2005, we also see a headline which reads: “High molybdenum
prices mean steady work,” pointing to great news about the escalating price of
molybdenum. This is a very short article, consisting of about 500 words and with no
photos or actual quotes except a couple of lines from Kristen Knoepfle, Molycorp
spokesperson. Therefore, it is likely that it came from a Molycorp Press Release.
In addition to fluctuating molybdenum prices, The Taos News identifies other
factors contributing to the economic fragility of the mine. The Taos News explained, in
October 1984, in an article entitled “Molycorp sees end of tunnel”, that it was difficult it
is for the mine to remain economically viable. The General Manager of the mine was
quoted as saying that: “labor costs have doubled since 1977, the cost of electricity has
doubled, and other fuel costs have tripled.” He went on to point out the low cost of labor
in other parts of the world, specifically Central and South America.
Similarly, The Taos News noted that mine management said it costs “several
hundred thousand dollars a year to pump out the 350 gallons of water that seep into the
mine per minute” (The Taos News, March 16, 1986). In this way, the mine spins the story
that they can hardly afford to operate the mine. Interestingly, the Molycorp financial
claims of economic fragility are never questioned by The Taos News. The bedrock of
imminent economic collapse are repeated over and over without any serious debate. For
example, The Taos News does not tell the story that the potential money lost is merely a
pittance to Molycorp’s owner, Unocal, and may have even a positive value as a tax write-
Instead, the economic fragility of the mine is deeply reinforced by extensive Taos
News coverage of the mine’s periodic closures. In spite of “jobs” being the perceived
positive value of having a mine in one’s midst, the economic volatility of the mine can be
seen in the three separate closures it has experienced in the past 40 years. The Taos News
covered each closure and its economic impact on the Questa community. The closures are
framed as paramount, given the purported enormous expense of re-opening the mine once
it has closed. In a January 30, 1986 article by Billie Blair, the Union President of the mine
is quoted as saying: “if the mine closes completely, it might be all over, since reopening it
would cost at least $50 million and is financially infeasible.”
Similarly, the threat of mine closure is cited as a means of coercing workers to
accept lower wages. The January 30, 1986 article “Mine awaits word on closing” by
Billie Blair stated that the mine union offered (italics added) a “20 percent salary cut and
relaxed work assignments” to avert the closure. Union members were given until
midnight to decide whether to accept wage and work concessions otherwise “Unocal
threatened to close the next day.” The offer was rejected and the mine closed down for
several years. At the time of one mine closing, I clearly recall a line in one particular
news article about the mine’s closure: “The bars did a booming business,” a particularly
apt ending, reflecting not only mining’s boom-and-bust cycles, but also the cultural
scenario of looming alcoholism and broken families which accompanied every closure.
The article followed with numbers on how many unemployment cases were filed the next
The implied threat of economic loss if Molycorp’s mining operations are
adversely affected by environmentalism is embedded within several articles. Readers are
left to muddle through the opposing allegations of environmentalists and the mine. The
drama of environmentalism versus jobs is a basic plot line. One such example appeared
on July 30, 2003, when the mine attempted to downplay a large rock slide which had
occurred as well as the overall issue of stability of the rock piles (also known as Waste
Rock Dumps or WRDs). The newspaper cited a study by a board of three engineers,
jointly selected by the mine, the state and Amigos Bravos that found a significant risk for
a catastrophic landslide. Congressional Representative Diane Snyder was quoted as
confronting Molycorp’s previous denials by stating “Why did we suddenly just find this
to be a problem?” The article ends by reinforcing the economic underpinnings to the
debate: Mine manager Apodaca reminded State Legislators of the economic impact of the
mine due to its “$9 million annual payroll and $31 million in annual procurements.”
In short, the economic fragility of the mine coupled by its reported vital role in the
economic viability of Questa often frames, and seemingly, truncates, serious inquiries
into the environmental and cultural impact of the mine. During the period of 1968-2007,
The Taos News narratives on the ecological impact of the mine slowly shifted from
apologetic to the mine to more confrontational. The next section reviews this gradual shift
Narrative II: Ecological Calamity: Fact or Fiction
From 1968 to circa 2001, The Taos News reported numerous allegations of serious
pollution and environmental hazards created by the mine. However, the articles are
striking in their attempt to voice both the allegations and the mine’s adamant denials. The
stories are rarely confrontational of the mine and indeed, at times seem apologetic. Once
the mine was deemed a Superfund site, the perspectives of The Taos News appeared to
shift to an increasingly confrontational stance. This section reviews this gradual shift.
Articles on the alleged mining pollution began to appear in The Taos News as
early as 1975. On May 22, 1975 an article in The Taos News reported “continuing mine
spills” and Molycorp’s refusal to pay any state fines for violating the State Water Quality
Control Commission regulations. Similarly, an August 5, 1975 article reported that the
“State of New Mexico had fined Molycorp for unreported tailings spills which had
flooded a campground and poured into the Red River, killing nearly 300 trout.” The
mine’s response was reported two weeks later in an article by Merilee Danneman entitled
“Moly tries to be clean.” The mine’s General Manager was quoted as saying: “Because of
our unique location along one of the finest trout streams in the state…we have come in
for an unfair amount of publicity as a polluter.” The quotation is spectacularly ironic, as if
the mine had no choice but to dig an enormous pit and run miles of tailings pipeline along
a pristine trout stream. Yet The Taos News was clearly non-confrontational in its
reporting of the pollution allegations.
Similarly, the newspaper reported the mine’s adamant denials of any significant
water pollution as a result of its mining operations in articles dated March 26, 1981;
December 28, 1991; April 16, 1998; and December 31, 1998. In the March 26, 1981
article by Phil Bateman entitled “Moly, zinc measured in river,” Molycorp refuted a BLM
study which had found “moly and zinc levels in the Red River are higher below the
Molycorp mine than above it.” Molycorp spokesperson Lew Thompson was reported as
saying that the levels of minerals quoted in the study are not harmful to humans or fish
and are “well below” the firm’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System
(NPDES) permit from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In addition, the nature and extent of any negative environmental impact by the
mine was obscured by contradictory studies reported in The Taos News between 1987 and
2003. In essence, the studies, funded by Molycorp, denied water pollution whereas
independent or state funded research suggested the opposite. In the November 12, 1987
article “Aluminum in soil turns Red River bright blue,” the Santa Fe EID (now NMED)
was reported as stating that the problem with the Red River’s supernatural blue was
“volcanic activity.” Larry Smolka of the EID said scientists learned that the “high
aluminum concentrate originally came from volcanic activity.” According to him, fish
were “simply staying out of the stretch of water between the mine and Highway 38. The
ground water around Molycorp shows the same characteristics of low Ph and high acidity,
but we don’t have any proof (my emphasis) that it’s caused by the mine.” However, one
of the problems was that the EPA didn’t have any drinking water standard for aluminum.
He said “I don’t recommend drinking it, personally,” added Smolka, noting that
“investigations will continue.”
Similarly, an April 16, 1998 article by Staci Matlock included a study done on
behalf of Molycorp by Chadwick Ecological Consultant, Inc. This 1997 report concluded
that the real problem for fish and benthic invertebrates in the Red River was not pollution
but rather “sediment.” The report, based on historical data, said: “The higher fish
densities in 1997 indicate that the Red River is at least as suitable for sustaining trout in
1997 as it was in 1960.”
In effect, The Taos News articles between 1975-circa 2003, reported the Molycorp
standardized “greenspeak” in which it denied any substantial contamination and instead
billed itself as environmentally sensitive and conscientious. Along side the denials of
polluting; The Taos News would often cite specific grievances or violations by the mine.
The key variable is that the local newspaper seemingly actively avoided any direct
confrontation. Instead, the readers are presumably left to their own devices to sort out the
polarized presentations and to weigh the evidence for themselves.
However, two key issues seem to have tilted the scale for The Taos News towards
a more confrontational perspective. The shift seemed to involve the polarized debate over
the safety of the massive rock piles generated by the mine and the mine’s allocation as a
Superfund site. On June 18, 2003 The Taos News ran a story by William Maxwell entitled
“Massive rock slide possible in Questa.” The report cited concerns that the estimated 2
billion pound rock pile at the Molycorp mine was not stable and presented a danger of a
major land slide in the direct path of Questa. Over the next 18 months several articles
reported on the potential danger. The specific concerns over rock slides waned
subsequent to experimental remediation measures taken by the mine, measures which
were mandated by state agencies, including an evacuation plan for Questa and the entire
Red River Valley.
Similarly, the evidence linking mining operations with water contamination
continued to pile up. In a September 10, 2003 article by William Maxwell entitled “River
pollution levels elevated below mine,” a community meeting between the EPA and
residents of Questa was summarized. Representatives from The EPA told Questa
community members about their recent findings. Clint Werden, who works with CDM,
an EPA contractor, said aluminum, molybdenum and zinc concentrations in the Red
River below the mine were elevated. They are elevated before the mine, but then rise
even further. He added that levels of a long list of toxic metals were elevated below the
safety level in the groundwater under the Red River at the mine’s Sugar Shack and
Sulphur Gulch waste rock piles. At the top end, manganese was at 232 times the safety
level. “Toxic metal levels in the groundwater under the waste rock piles were even
higher,” Maxwell reported.
Toxic metals in the groundwater due to waste piles were an area of growing
concern, and gradually, particularly after Superfund listing in 2001, the newspaper at least
reflected this. Health worries were growing, but reporting them was a fascinating issue
because toxicologists and immunologists were unable to draw clear parallels between
toxic levels and health problems. A September 22, 2004 article by Bobby Magill “CDC
(Center for Disease Control) assessment says Molycorp contaminants could pose health
risk” clearly stated the problem of health issues. The article reported that contaminants
released from the molybdenum mine in the 1970s through 1990s could still be a health
hazard, adding that officials from the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease
Registry, a subdivision of the federal Centers for Disease Control) were coming to
Questa. The article also stated that “though the Molycorp mine itself may not present a
public health risk today, it has in the past and it could again if Molycorp doesn’t keep its
contaminants in check, according to the CDC public health assessment released
Thursday.” The ATSDR report cited that the mine, which presents “no immediate health
dangers if proper precautions are taken…could be a future public health
hazard….Without actions and regulations to protect the public from contaminants in
physical hazards at the site, the potential for adverse health effects remains.” The
ATSDR report warns that Molycorp should continue dust control measures, the report
warns against drinking water from contaminated wells, and it advises Molycorp to
address stability issues, all of which could “adversely affect public health.”
In June 30, 2005, the paper (also via Bobby Magill) contains the headline: “EPA
study cites ‘potential pollutants’ near Molycorp, contaminants leaking to Red River.”
This article revealed that EPA Project Manager Mark Purcell updated Questa residents on
their study, released in May, which outlined heavy metals found in the ground water near
the tailings ponds, including “aluminum, arsenic, molybdenum, lead, cadmium,
vanadium, zinc and many others.” However the article added that Purcell said the EPA
“needs more data (my emphasis) to determine if Molycorp’s waste rock piles are the
source of the pollutants.”
The quotes, journalism’s essence, become repetitive over time. The oft-quoted
Anne Wagner, Molycorp’s Manager of Environmental and Health Services was reported
as saying that she “can’t speculate on the outcome of the final study.” The also-
frequently-quoted Rachel Conn, Amigos Bravos’ Water Circuit Rider, was quoted as
saying that it is "time to move forward with a cleanup action.”
Narrative III: Molycorp’s PR Shift: Making Amends?
A review of The Taos News 1968-2007 reveals a rather dramatic shift in
Molycorp’s presentation circa the year 2000. By around 2000, Molycorp’s stance shifted
from one of adamantly denying responsibility for any deleterious impacts to framing
themselves as working hard to redress the errors of the past and of being highly
conscientious in the present.
In an October 5, 2000 article in The Taos News, by William Maxwell entitled
“Molycorp cooperating in cleanup,” it was reported that the Molycorp has done an “about
face,” accepting the fact that it will have to “obtain a groundwater discharge permit from
the New Mexico Environment Department.” It may also be noted that in this year,
Molycorp was placed on the list of Superfund sites, and the company could stand to lose
huge amounts of money if Superfund were actually enacted. They had reasons to try hard
to avoid actual Superfund cleanup.
Similarly, in two Taos News articles, May 5, 2004 and August 25, 2004, specific
measures to remediate the potential problem caused by the massive rock piles are
outlined. The August 25 article “Rock pile project phase one nearly done” by Bobby
Magill notes that more than one million tons of rocks were being moved to stabilize the
Goat Hill North rock pile. The article concludes by stating: “the engineered fix should put
the brakes on the Goat Hill North Pile which has slowly been creeping downhill for 30
years.” Here, we learn by implication that Molycorp can control the problem of
“instability” by superior engineering.
The following example is likely press-release generated, and revisits the “angle of
repose” issue. A July 6, 2005 article’s headline “Goat Hill North likely stable, barely
moving” indicates that all is well. The comments are solely positive about the stability. A
Molycorp spokeswoman was quoted as saying “We want to make sure there’s no
movement in the pile before we’re done,” thus attempting to assure the public that
Molycorp is protecting them. The landslide articles serve as a metaphor for the alarm, at
times implicit, at other times explicit, that the precarious economic state of the mine
renders it susceptible to closures.
Molycorp, therefore, needed to appear to be acting responsibly. In addition to
shifting its stance towards pollution allegations, the Molycorp mine began an aggressive
campaign ad targeting its portrayal as a vital part of the community and a “good
neighbor”. These ads often seem to be timed to off set any potential for negative press.
For example, a March 29, 2007 story in The Taos News about Molycorp’s efforts to buy
out property and water rights in Questa, to allegedly to avoid any lawsuits over health
problems due to groundwater contamination are followed by two full-page ads in the
same issue of The Taos News. One of the colored ads includes six photos of Molycorp
workers and community. The ad reads, in part: “We believe that the environment can be
protected while we continue to mine.” and uses such phrases as “reclamation,” “best
science and engineering technology” and “we do all this with a family of employees that
never put production over safety,” and “we care about where we live.”
Similarly, on April 5, 2007, a full page Molycorp ad appeared in The Taos News.
The ad was in memo format:
To: Our Neighbors
From: Roy Torres, General Mine Manager
Re: “Yes, we’re operating.”
This approach personalizes the message and implies that the mine is so
unnoticeable that the public might need reminding that there are people even working
The body of the memo begins with: “You may not know it, but Molycorp’s
molybdenum mine has been operating with excellence right here in Taos County for
almost 90 years.” This length of time makes the company seem part of a good and
honorable tradition. The words “environment,” “environmentally responsible,” “natural
beauty” and “environmentally sound” are all used frequently in this three-paragraph ad. It
ends on a friendly note, “we are not just Molycorp employees; we’re your friends and
Interestingly, the reversal of the course came at a time that the mine was being
threatened to accept Superfund status, a designation that would substantially strengthen
enforcement of any cleanup, and therefore raise the mine’s costs.
Thus, the mine also agreed to put up a bond to guarantee it would clean up
Molycorp at closure time, as required by the New Mexico Mining Act of 1993. The sum
of “$129 million is less than the $180 million sought by Environment Department and the
more than $300 million sought by Amigos Bravos.” The paper said that mine manager
Leroy Apodaca: “sounded like a newborn environmentalist” when he said this week:
“We’ve pledged our future to the preservation of the environment…Molycorp is
committed to conducting all of our operations in an environmentally sound manner.”
Part of Molycorp’s perceived “reversal of course” might be seen through the
nature of language itself. For many readers, the spin that Molycorp was taking
responsibility for its actions was difficult to decipher, since it was obscured by
“greenwashing.” Since “the language is the story,” as Leslie Silko remarks, I offer the
following example: In the summer of 2005 there was a flurry of stories (nearly all in
June) around the conflict of “glory holes.” There were about eight stories in all and
additionally, editorial versions. The conflict revolved around “nature taking its course.” A
June 29, 2005 article by Bobby Magill, is entitled “Proposal: Let nature reclaim Molycorp
‘glory holes.’” The lead reads: “Molycorp simply wants to let nature take its course.”
Glory holes are otherwise known as subsidence zones or cave-in areas created
where mining implodes the surface area. The article illustrates the case that journalists
often get their quotes from the same sources over and over again. In this case, Molycorp
spokesperson Kirsten Knoepfle, was quoted as saying that subsidence is “normal” and
Brian Shields was reported to note that “What I see is they’re trying to absolve itself from
responsibility to clean up the mine…that they’re not proposing to do anything at all, so
they’re basically calling (the glory holes) sacrifice zones…” The quote, as printed, makes
no sense. It only makes sense that Shields is pointing out that the mine is doing a
disservice to portray a “sacrificial area” as something glorious. This “word fight” is an
example of a struggle over language, which is a struggle for meaning, which ultimately
results in power over resources.
Turning to editorials, however, leads to some shift in perception. Oftentimes,
organizations or individuals will try to refine or correct what a news story reports
incorrectly, leaves out, or simply obscures. The Taos News has, on numerous occasions,
printed letters and “My Turn” articles from Amigos Bravos’ Director Brian Shields and
others, for example, or offered their own editorial, as they did in this particular case of
“glory holes.” In that same issue, the editorial headline read “Molycorp must prove nature
will take its course.” It reads, in part, “Molycorp wants to deal with its ‘glory hole’” by
not doing anything, by letting nature reclaim it in its own way. Amigos Bravos has
seemingly won some of the paper’s sympathy: The editorial states, “Environmental
Groups like Amigos Bravos think it’s not that simple, and we’re inclined to agree.”
The next week, (July 13, 2005) Magill’s headline is that “Enviros demand
Molycorp take responsibility for its pollution”, with Rachel Conn of Amigos Bravos
quoted, in part, “It’s time to take action now…” What is instructive about this article is
Shield’s comments on how the mine might specifically take action. He proposes that the
mine “close out the tailings site, close out the practice that adds water onto the tailings,”
and employ a more modern technology that would “protect the community.” He argues
that by investing up front “in a closed system, they’re going to reduce they’re [sic] own
liability in the future.”
During this same time period in 2005, what is notably un-notable is the global
dimensions of Molycorp. A bid to buy out Unocal was reported in sources, from The
Santa Fe New Mexican to The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal that the
potential buy out of Unocal by rival bidders CNOOC (Chinese National Offshore Oil
Company) and Chevron made international news. Ultimately, Chevron won, even though
it offered a lower amount (l6.5 billion instead of 18.5 billion according to Bob Quick,
July 8, 2005, of the New Mexican) because of national defense and environmental
concerns. Yet international news does not local headlines make. Though the paper does
not have an international news wire service, there would have been ways to find a local
angle for the story nonetheless. I believe that the mine wants the regional public to
consider it as “family” or a “neighborly” operation. It wants to be seen as a part of the
community—not as Multinational Corporation.
Narrative IV: Environmental Justice
The implied threat of economic loss if Molycorp’s mining operations are
adversely affected is embedded within several articles, thus holding the community
hostage to overriding economic concerns. The drama of environmentalism versus jobs is
a basic plot line, thus avoiding a real integration of deeper forces, which a framework of
environmental justice brings to the picture. In this way, reading the newspaper articles for
an eye to an environmental justice framework helps us to read between the lines,
searching for ways that citizens are taken advantage of due to their own subaltern status.
The situation in Questa was most clearly framed in terms of environmental justice
beginning with a 1985 story which revealed possible economic coercion on the part of the
mine during labor disputes. In a September 20, 1985 article by Billie Blair, the writer
covered a meeting between mine representatives and 150 community residents. Citizens
reportedly complained that the mine hired too many people from outside the Questa area.
“Of the 537 employees at Molycorp, only 212 lived in Questa and 41 in nearby Cerro.” In
addition, the citizens were quoted as charging the mine with “forcing locals who own
land to sell their land to the mine before they could be hired.” The alleged financial
extortion reportedly allowed the mine to acquire land for expansion. During the meeting,
the mine’s Director of Administrative Services, Leroy Apodaca, reminded the citizens of
the fragile economic state of the mine, saying that world demand for molybdenum was
down partly because it was being obtained elsewhere as a byproduct of mining other
metals. Here, the mine intimates that it, too, is a victim, held hostage to global
economics. It did not mention that, as stepchild of the 7.7 billion dollar Unocal, it could
easily weather the hardship, that this loss provided tax relief for the corporation at large,
and that its own financial, legal, and technical resources were, and still are, enormous.
I would also like to note that Amigos Bravos attempted to frame the story as one
of environmental justice, and at one point took out a full-page ad to demonstrate that it
would take Superfund Status to deal with restoration. The ad appeared on June 1, 2000.
“It’s Cleanup Time,” reads the headline, using, in part, a quote from the Oral History
Project: “We should be able to drink it, wash our hands with it and feel safe.” The photo
shows a cleaning woman, with mop and gloves and one hand on her hip, looking both
determined and disgusted. The message reveals: “On May 11, 2000 Molycorp Mine was
proposed as Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency….It is
acknowledged as the world’s toughest cleanup program.”
The ad featured in bulleted points out that the mine had, among other things,
2080 acres approximate total disturbed area
328,000,000 tons of metal-laced waste rock
50,000-ft tailings line, breached over 100 times
10,000 ft seep zone, contaminated with sulfate, aluminum iron,
manganese, cobalt, copper, nickel, zinc, cadmium and fluorine
It asks the reader to “envision instead” these things, among others:
A sustainable and diverse economy which is free of boom and bust cycles
Where reclamation and mining jobs coexist
Where agriculture benefits from clean air, soil, and water
In effect, the precarious economic state of the mine provides a context for the
debates over environmental issues, rather than finding that economic issues are embedded
within the context of nature. The public was left to cipher through the contradictory
versions of reality until after 25 years of hotly contested debate, a mine representative
appeared to capitulate and finally acknowledge the possible veracity of the environmental
concerns. Finally, mining contamination gradually becomes a more frequent theme in
later news stories.
Narrative Analysis of the Local News Story
A review of The Taos News 1968-2007 reveals several key insights into the nature
of narratives. The mine operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and
sixty five days a year with the exception for the periodic closures it has experienced
ostensibly for economic reasons. The enormous amount of data thus generated by the
mine has been distilled to four key narratives: economic fragility, ecological calamity,
environmental justice and Molycorp making amends. The basic emplotment for each of
the narratives has been jobs versus the environment with the implicit assumption that the
mine’s economic benefit is too great and its economic viability too fragile to withstand
too much scrutiny of its potentially deleterious impacts.
The Taos News articles reflect a type of stream of consciousness reflecting how
the perceptions of the mine and its impact on the community of Questa have shifted over
time. Initially, the potential for serious pollution or contamination was either ignored or
minimized. The mine’s assertions of little, if any, negative environmental impact were
reported without contradiction. Gradually, The Taos News gave a stronger voice to the
environmental groups which challenged the mines assertions. Moreover, the newspaper
itself joined in the criticism of the mine via editorials confronting the mine’s
Also, by looking at the news as consciousness of the community, it appears that
economic data is of paramount importance while environmental issues are viewed as
second rate and cultural issues are seldom if ever addressed. Environmental justice, the
examination of the interface between the environment, economics and cultural values is
almost non-existent in The Taos News. The struggle between these forces has seldom
been signalized as news. Instead, the complex issues are reduced to the paradigm of jobs
versus the environment.
Why is this enormous amount of data, over 40 years of printed material, worth
sifting through? I recalled something feminist social historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall wrote
in her 1989 article, “Partial Truths” (qtd in Taking History to Heart 2002, 9). She
declares that: “We are heirs to a grand story telling tradition…Our method consists of
downright perverse willingness to sit for months in the archives, learning from strangers.”
She believes we are doing it “for imagined readers who stretch far beyond the academy;
for our ancestors; for our children…” She believes we must tell these stories “to save our
That “saving of lives” is not merely metaphorical. Over the years, patterns
emerge, revealing the Faustian bargain people have made to have a mine (and its jobs) in
their midst. It is not difficult to see that dramatic headlines help sell newspapers. The
polarizations keep people divided, more likely to turn on one another and less likely to
see that the mine is not being held accountable. The space between the lines is gossip,
unattributable, “off-the-record” stories, which can be read in a positive light. It is
unfortunately beyond the scope of this project to include them all. However, reading the
other chapters in relation to this one will reveal the way that the narratives tell differing
versions of the “facts.” That is why, by itself, the huge amount of time reading the news,
in and of itself, is far less effective than reading it in relation to the other chapters. In this
way, we see more, for example, of what is omitted from the papers. The lie is not one of
untruth so much as it is one of omission. From reading these stories in conjunction, we
learn that that no one has a monopoly on the truth. Without two eyes seeing as one, there
is no depth of field. Further depth (perspective) comes from three or more triangulated
I am trying to show that these archival stories, the “rough draft of history,” when
put into patterns, can make a difference. I argue that “saving our lives” can be both
figurative and literal. As I see the names and faces of other activists appearing in the
newspapers over and over again, year in and year out, I have learned to read between the
lines. I know what courage and persistence it takes to keep working for a soulful
integration of nature and culture over the long haul, even as the local news reports that
fundamentally, what we really need is “more data,” thus resulting in an easy stasis or
“They only appear to be listening”
`--Inconclusive by Design
There are myriad perspectives on any narrative, framed, here for the global,
regional and personal perspectives. This “third” perspective is tied to that of groups and
activists working both publicly and “behind the scenes” to find solutions. I will review
three groups here for their perspectives.
Having looked at oral histories as well as how mining issues were portrayed by
the media, this chapter works to reveal the nature of those dynamics. I observe the
interplay of activists with federal and state regulators, trying again to read across and with
the stories of the mine, regulators, and activists. In particular, I will highlight how their
unique spins or ways of telling the Molycorp mine story to the community has been
shaped by and has, in turn, forged the nature of their activist work.
I begin by placing the activist works within the context and chronology of the year
2000. I choose the millennium as metaphor and marker. This historical moment is
approximately thirty years after Earth Day, the Moon Walk, the Return of Blue Lake
Watershed, Silent Spring, post-feminism, post civil rights, and almost post-post-
modernism. This time is post-industrial, and also called the age of information but still
we cannot communicate. We are still unsure of how to tell fundamental stories in this
time that do not separate nature from culture
One way to combat this is the ways in which we explore what is text. In Strategies
of Qualitative Inquiry, Denzin and Lincoln use the year 2000 to delineate a time in which
we are trying to find new ways to represent experience, i.e. to tell stories using life itself
as text. They describe seven historical moments, and describe 2000 forward as “now,”
“the future.” This “seventh movement, is concerned with moral discourse, with the
development of sacred textualities. The seventh moment asks that the social sciences and
the humanities become sites for critical conversations about democracy, race, gender,
class, nation-states, globalization, freedom, and community. They observe that this new
research calls for autobiographical inclusion.
Thus in this chapter I seek more ways to represent my own perspectives in
relationship to a community of others. Again, the “environment” mirrors and reflects
ideology. In 2000 we were about to watch the twin trade towers destroyed by terrorists
before we could deconstruct them ideologically on our own—as the twin towers of greed
and fear. We have met a formidable enemy, the terrorist within, the tourist in our own
land, the one who does not know his/her own land, water, and culture, and who fears that
there will never be enough. The usual story of this occasion is one of tragedy and fear. It
is devastating on many levels, yet we might use the occasion to tell other stories as well.
We might, for example, seek to understand the role of fear in our own soul lives. We
might focus on replacing greed and fear with two basic rights, those of clean air and
Within such tellings, we live our lives. For many of us, the new millennium was a
story of our own inability to take care of our children, to put food on the table. This was
already true in Questa, since the mine was in a slump. The Red River was no longer the
pristine trout stream it once had been. The Rio Grande continued to find its way—in fits
and starts—to the Gulf of Mexico. But in 2001, for the first time, it wouldn’t.
I could empathize with people in Questa. For Taosenos, thought to be rich, our per
capita incomes are only slightly more than the average Questa citizen. Except for Mora
County, Taos County is the poorest county in New Mexico. Many of us live below the
poverty line and health insurance is nonexistent for a great number of people.
I had many reasons to be sympathetic on social justice issues. I had once worked
as a dynamiter for Companie General de Géophysique, who was now a subcontractor for
Unocal, Molycorp’s owners. Injured in a rock explosion, I had my own reasons for being
suspicious of any story told by Unocal, who denied any connection with environmental
and human rights abuses in Myanmar (formerly Burma).
It was easy for me to understand how people feel trapped in an amorphous system
that makes it hard to get out. Yet I did not understand how to represent the stories of
activists of so many persuasions who were trying to both clean up the pollution and also
to help free each other from myriad “entrapments.” Having listened to the stories of
mining families who don’t want to move, and mining activists who have had death
threats, it’s not hard to see that the paranoid are that way for a reason. Domestic abuse
workers, environmental justice activists, and the human species in general need to pay
attention to the paradoxical psychological underpinnings of the stories of the
“victims/patients/clients/subaltern/marginalized” and heed the ways in which they frame
such stories in trying to “help.”
But most Questa locals were telling an old story, one still based on extractive
industry, aka “jobs” as economic survival. They were breathing swirls of toxic dust and
others were sick, allegedly from toxic dust and many kids in the local school suffered
from higher-than-normal rates of learning disabilities. Despite health surveys, lawsuits,
visits from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and ATSDR, dealing with Questa’s
health issues proved to be comparable to wrestling eels. People tended either to inflate or
deny symptoms, to the discredit of both, and it was similarly easy to blame the victims:
According to some stories, people were unwell because they smoked, drank, lived in
aluminum trailer houses, and suffered from lack of genetic diversity. It was a story of
“blame the victim,” rather like “Stockholm Syndrome.” If people weren’t born there, the
problem might be blamed on toxic urban environments from whence they came. Questa
was too small to provide real sample groups. Questanos did not want to come forward
with a culturally-unified identity. They weren’t Chicano enough, environmentalist
enough, and weren’t activist enough. They didn’t know their “isms.”
By now, most waste ponds were capped, though not lined, and spills were fewer
and reported oftener. Stability--or rather instability--issues made for potential catastrophe
but jazzier headlines, with a billion tons of rock waiting for a hundred year storm event,
whereupon the whole mountain might slide into the Red River.
But since that had not happened, and as one local put it: “Nobody died yet”—
things seemed less dire than many had predicted. Despite a special committee on stability
issues in which the three experts walked off the job, the giant rockpile had apparently
been engineered into submission, and dramatic headlines diminished. Maybe the next
millennium turned out not to be as dire as many people feared. With fisher/writer/activist
Taylor Streit, I caught a giant fish in the Rio Grande that year, one that was alive despite
years of stuff pouring into the river. I wanted to believe that the river was coming back. I
wanted to believe that nature really could clean up the human mess—take care of us. On
the other hand, I wasn’t going to eat that fish. The real ecological and human health costs
just might take a century or two to show up, and that is exactly the kind of story that is
hard to prove and that doesn’t make the headlines.
Particularly after the year 2000, though, health issues did come to the fore. By
2000 Molycorp made the NPL—or national priority list for Superfund. It was the sword
of Damocles, hanging over the mine, an expensive and embarrassing incentive for them
to engage in BMPs (best mining practices under the current state of the industry). With
the added perspiration and inspiration of regulatory agencies (or sometimes in spite of
them) and groups like Amigos Bravos, they anted up, in 2000, for the highest mining
bond in New Mexico history, of $129 million bond for reclamation work and an
additional $23 million to reclaim tailings.
If actual Superfund enactment, not just listing, were to take place, it would cost
the mine substantially more, since federal oversight is costly, and the mine would
theoretically be billed for it. This, though, would avoid what many communities have
been faced with: a mine which just walks away from a mess and there is no one left to
step in and clean it up. The George W. Bush administration was about to gut Superfund
anyway, as well as weakening the enforcement of other environmental laws, as if they
weren’t hard enough to enforce in the first place, as we have seen, for example, with the
CWA. Still, Molycorp was also pressured into proper permitting. It was also required to
put up $3 million a year towards restoration even though the mine was still operating,
sometimes with only a skeleton crew, since shutting down completely would require
To illustrate the way that various activist philosophies and practices play out in
the story, I review three particular activist groups, the RCRC (Rio Colorado Reclamation
Committee—“colorado” meaning “red” in Spanish), Amigos Bravos (AB), and The Red
River Watershed Group (RRWG). I was a member of these groups and worked with them
to varying degrees, and often, at meetings, members from each of the groups were
present, particularly AB and the RCRC.
Amigos Bravos is integrative, in that they define their mission as working on
behalf of the Rio Grande watershed, protecting cultural diversity as much as ecological
diversity. Not only their language but their actions usually reflect this balance. In terms of
Molycorp, they set up a website called “Molycorp Watch” and stressed not only the local
dynamics but global, political and economic dimensions of the problem. They recognized
that for Questanos and others in Taos County, the mine was fundamentally a livelihood
In their 2001 report published with the Ecology and Law Institute, Amigos Bravos
used the language of economics to validate its environmental agenda, the reclamation of
the mine. The report argued that, based on their input/output model, a $200 million
reclamation investment would yield direct and indirect benefits ranging between $640
and $784 million. Through regional multiplier effects, reclamation would support an
average of 772 jobs over a 20 year period, with an annual salary range between “$32,000-
$84,000. Additionally, the report calculated non market benefits (fishing, aesthetic river
values, change in property values, etc) at between $671-$932 million total economic
benefits over the next twenty years” (2001 intro). In effect, Amigos Bravos told a win/win
narrative in which they could have their cake and eat it, too: A $200 million clean up
project by the mine would have dramatic positive impacts upon the local economy.
Additionally, Amigos Bravos worked to determine the degree of the mine’s
responsibility for contamination along the river. In addition to “holding polluters
accountable” it also educated and advocated for local economic development, recognizing
that livelihood issues were the primal scream in a poor place.
Amigos Bravos worked to continue pressuring for reclamation dollars. The 1993
Mining Law, mandating, “ecological sustainability” needed teeth and Amigos Bravos
worked to increase its bite. They often had to speak softly (but clearly, precisely and
firmly and carry a big legal stick). In 2000, after years of fierce legal battles, Amigos
Bravos successfully helped to force the mine to raise its reclamation bond to $129 million
with an additional $23 million to reclaim tailings. Though the bond was about half of
what AB had advocated for, it was nevertheless a huge victory in New Mexico, far
outstripping any number theretofore imagined, in a state in which Phelps Dodge and other
mining companies had long kept environmentalist pressures at bay by using the time-
worn economic story, summed up in a four-letter word, “jobs.”
Amigos Bravos, in 2000, numbered around 1000 members, with offices in both
Taos and Albuquerque. They also work on other watershed issues after organizing around
Molycorp’s pollution of the Red River. Amigos Bravos worked to provide training for its
people, educating key players or technical experts to testify at hearings. Along with the
RCRC, it also established a website, Molycorp Watch. The website became a model for
other communities needing more sophistication in negotiating the complicated corporate-
bureaucratic permitting and hearing process. The group provided the technical training
needed for hearings. It helped activists to counteract the legal stonewalling and
outmaneuvering by the mine. This required more specialized knowledge, even though
sometimes the most moving and poignant voices were those of people who just spoke
from the heart.
After a report was released by the New Mexico Water Quality Control
Commission Report to the U.S. Congress: “For several miles at and below Molycorp, the
sheer volume of steady-state metal-loaded drainage seeping out of the mine waste dumps
and old underground workings overwhelms the river and has rendered it dead for at least
eight miles.” This language gave Amigos Bravos and others verbal ammunition. The Red
River was now the “Dead River” at least for those eight miles.
However, at hearings for the company to get a groundwater permit, Molycorp still
contested responsibility. Because the State Environment Department and Amigos Bravos
negotiated these settlements, the bond agreement amounted to more than $150 million.
By November 2000, as a result of Amigos Bravos' 1999 lawsuit, the EPA issued the mine
with a NPDES water permit to control 15 million pounds of metals and other pollutants
entering the Red River annually.
Also in 2000 the group took the lead in setting up a New Mexico Mining Act
Network to coordinate grassroots mining advocacy and technical mining expertise over
the next two years to work on restoration agreements, then being finalized for all of the
state’s hardrock mines. Amigos Bravos worked with the Western Environmental Law
Center (WELC), which represented them and the Citizens for New Mexico Clean Air and
Water in a Clean Water Act lawsuit which had been dismissed earlier on technical
grounds. They did eventually succeed in having a permit issues to control acid mine
drainage in the year 2000.
With each environmental victory, the echoes of dissent intensified during public
debates. In June, 2000 a community meeting to discuss Superfund status exemplifies the
opposing voices and how economic factors are figural. As in many other cases, the
meeting was held at St. Anthony’s Parish Hall. As in Sunday services you can tell a bit
about the congregation by the cars in the parking lot—in this case, lots of pickup trucks, a
few Subaru wagons, and a few out-of-county SUV’s. Inside, the metal folding chairs
arranged in two sides with an aisle down the middle were filled, with miners in the back.
A table with donuts, coffee, and water was set up by the broken water fountain. I tried to
sit on different sides, but it usually depended upon where the electric outlet for my
computer was. Technology won out. The comments below were from my transcripts and
serve to illuminate micronarratives that are all a part of the larger history.
Carlos Cisneros (state senator and Molycorp safety officer): “I have an affinity for
the environment. This employer is important to us. Our state should not go on record as
David Trujillo, mine employee, equipment operator: “We’re hanging in there. I
feel really good about the mine.” He said that he had worked there since 1982 and made
“good money” throughout the years. “The mine has hung in there with us.”
Benito Bazan worked for Molycorp, and says of its detractors: “If you want to
make a difference go to Los Alamos, instead of criticizing people here who are trying to
make a living.”
Bobby Ortega is the former mayor and councilman for 12 years. As Vice President
of Centinel Bank’s lending division, he says that he is not afraid to use Red River water
to irrigate his properties. He said: “Every opportunity I get I speak on behalf of Molycorp.
Economically it has been criticized but it is the lifeline of this community. Rural New
Mexico has been going through a critical time. Molycorp provides $9 million in annual
payroll, and there are more than fifty employees….There has been a turnaround since the
70’s….Their environmental programs are improving some of the problems. If you polled
this community they would be in favor of Molycorp.”
Paul Gallegos Jr., states that he was with Molycorp for 28 years but is now retired:
“When I was a kid I used to catch the fish all summer….We ate those fish. When it
rained, water would go into gulches. Water is now going underground.” [As a result of
the open pit]. He says that he thinks this is good, because the mine pit holds the water and
keeps the contamination at bay: “The problem is less then they [sic] used to be before the
open pit…my favorite spot is below the mine. I can prove it. People say there is no fish in
the river. I think they don’t know how to catch a fish. He added: “I don’t think the mine is
Ironically, this last statement was in reference to fishing guide Taylor Streit, who
had fished the river for more than thirty years, and had given testimony and showed slides
illustrating the difference in the water over the years.
During the coffee break, I quietly took my donuts and coffee outside, trying
unobtrusively to listen to the men arguing, pointing fingers, leaning against the hoods of
their trucks and arguing, half in Spanish, half in English. I hear one say something like
this (I had left my computer inside, so it’s not verbatim): “Why don’t you trust the mine?
It’s better now. Don’t you remember when my father died up there on the mountain? It’s
better these days…they have ambulances now.”
I appeared not to be listening.
Red River Watershed Group: Collaboration
I also worked with the Red River Watershed (RRWG) during the early part of the
new millennium, writing newsletters and working on outreach. In this regard, I tried,
whenever I could, to include traditional stories as told to me by people who had known
the Red River and who were hoping to renew agriculture and sustainable lifeways. The
RRWG’s voice is distinct amongst activists groups in its perspective. The RRWG’s
interests extend beyond the mine to include the entire watershed. In addition, this activist
group is fundamentally non-confrontational; it places a premium upon inclusion of all
voices. Its constituents or “stakeholders” are invited to the table to offer their points of
The RRWG, at the time I worked with it, was focused on drafting the Watershed
Restoration Action Strategy (WRAS), a blue print for identifying usable, practical
projects along the entire length of the River. It only indirectly deals with the mine as part
of the watershed; its funding, through 3-19 grants, is essentially under the Clean Water
Act’s (CWA) “non-point source pollution” section, meaning pollution that can not be
identified from one single source, but diffused sources. We must suspend judgment,
working for inclusion. The RRWG has no enforcement power, but works on a voluntary
My own activist story shifted while I worked with the RRWG, from a position of
advocacy and confrontation to a collaborative, bioregional perspective. Rosemary
Romero, a trained environmental mediator, coordinated the RRWG’s activities. Under
her leadership, the group carefully tended relationships with the Town of Red River, The
Village of Questa, the mine, citizens, the BLM, the Forest Service, and even
neighborhood associations on the fringes of the watershed, such as Llama, whose
members were sharply divided over forest thinning a decade after the huge Llama fire had
decimated their community. Rosemary facilitated meetings with members of the upper
watershed, mostly Texas second-home owners, who were up in arms about ATV (all-
terrain-vehicle) use. Rosemary used mediation skills to identify concerns and to articulate
the common ground among apparently discrepant view points.
Activist groups typically rely upon a common enemy to galvanize people into
action. The RRWG strove to tell enemy-less stories. Its mission was not to “hold polluters
accountable” but to identify stakeholders, problems, and projects, and to create
partnerships which would result in positive change. How would this story change things,
As I wrote newsletters, sometimes using parts of the oral history project as a basis
for reminding people of stories of the old days, when the water was cleaner, and I took
notes and listened at meetings. I tracked the language and agendas of the various partners,
from Molycorp, to part-time inhabitants of the river, to the Forest Service. Sometimes it
was like walking on eggshells. At least we were walking, albeit slowly. Bit by bit things
were getting done, from water testing to cleaning up Hunts Pond in Questa, to tree
thinning in Llama, to ATV education and restriction with the Forest Service in the upper
watershed. These were cooperative ventures, and it was hard not to feel good about it. We
all need feel-good stories to restore our spirits and create genuinely better relationships in
order to work out differences over the long haul. Sometimes, though, it is a better story if
David can just beat Goliath. This was not that kind of story.
Regarding the WRAS, for example, it was more of a roadmap or blueprint than a
narrative. At the last minute, a mine employee showed up to make picky editorial changes
to the last draft of the WRAS, lest there was a any inference that it had any responsibility
for issues up and down the river. Meanwhile, Molycorp was still using its “good
neighbor” rhetoric, which was becoming greener by the moment. A few “stakeholders”
from up and down the river did show up for meetings, but they were rarely the ones
impacted most directly by the pollution. Perhaps adamant opponents of the mine either
elected other avenues of protest or perhaps were silenced. Perhaps even the word
“stakeholder” instead of “storyteller” might tell us something.
On one particular occasion, a long-time Questano did come to a meeting, an
acequia parciante, but it is most memorable for its exceptional quality. In a later
interview, he told me about his involvement at the National Environmental People of
Color Conference in Washington in 1991, and told me how he had grown very sick from
working at the mine. It was the old time remedios that had healed him, he said, and like
many others, he had grown weary of meetings. Those were fascinating stories.
He didn’t come back. Perhaps if it had been a different day, when we were
actually testing water, digging, or doing. Though we tried to be welcoming, he seemed
suspicious and out of place at the meeting. Sadly enough, amidst Forest Service
employees and professional environmentalists, he probably was. Herein lies the gap
between acequia parciantes, those who have long used the old water systems in the old
ways and in the old language, and the way the story was now being addressed were in
terms that, however inclusive they were designed to be, weren’t in terms that felt user
friendly to him. I remember writing an article entitled, “What the heck is the WRAS?” in
order to inform the uninitiated, but it was too late.
Rio Colorado Reclamation Committee: Superfund
Under the Environmental Protection Agency, funds are doled out for TAG
(Technical Assistance Grants) which provide money for activities to help community-
based decisions in the mine reclamation process. The EPA awarded a TAG of $50,000 to
the Rio Colorado Reclamation Committee (RCRC) to pay for technical advisors whose
responsibility is to translate the EPA findings to the community and to translate the
community’s needs back to the EPA. In effect, RCRC is designed as a liaison between
governmental regulators and the local community of Questa. The group’s members must
also match funds with in-kind volunteer hours from its members. The idea is that the
group can translate to the EPA, in this case federal Region 6, headquartered in Dallas,
what the community needs from the EPA.
The RCRC’s website informs the community of its mission: “On May 11, 2000
the Molycorp mine was entered into the Federal Register and put on the National
Priorities List of proposed Superfund Cleanup sites. …the EPA has initiated a Remedial
Investigation/Feasibility Study which will help in determining the best way to clean up
the Moly mine site and restore the Red River to its former quality.” The goal of the
RCRC is to facilitate the most efficacious expenditure of the funds available for clean up.
The RCRC is particularly attuned to environmental issues and their impact upon the
health of community residents.
One example of the work done by the RCRC was to address the safety of the
town’s water supply. Questa’s municipal water pipes had been laid down in tailings when
the pipes were installed in 1968 by the Molycorp mine as part of a community relations
project. Complaints of health problems by Questa residents ensued, but there was never a
direct link confirmed between the health problems and the water lines, which, when they
were broken, could lead to intake of tailings.
In 2004, The EPA said that the drinking water was safe after testing for various
elements, but they had no official standards for molybdenum. Still, the EPA noted that
molybdenum was still considered safe in amounts far exceeding those they had had tested
for in Questa. Nevertheless, the RCRC continued to push for replacement of the city
water lines embedded in tailings. After years of debate, Molycorp agreed to remove the
potentially toxic tailings surrounding the water pipes. This project is currently underway
and will take several years to complete.
The debate between RCRC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry (ATSDR) over a disputed report published in November, 2002 by the ATSDR is
exemplary of the vital role of activists groups in giving voice to a local community. The
disputed ATSDR report contended that there was no evidence of any health risk posed by
the Molycorp mine. The RCRC protested the findings on several accounts, including its
lack of community input. The RCRC wrote a letter reprimanding the ATSDR. The letter
said, in part:
[Your] public Health assessment states that” Assuming exposure conditions do not
change; ATSDR concludes that contamination associated with the site “does not pose a
present or future public health hazard.” Further, the study classifies Moly mine site as
posing “no apparent public health hazard for current and potential future exposures.”
l. “The ATSCDR spent one day in Questa in 2000 and did not interview
members of public, local health care providers, or local government officials.
They did not review the administrative record for the mine that shows more
than 230 tailings spills since 1965, numerous air quality violations associated
with blowing dust from tailings ponds, records from contaminated domestic
wells, citizens complaints about health ATSDR’s.
2. The EPA did not mention the release of the report at a public meeting held in
Questa on Nov 12, 2002.
3. ATSDR made no effort to review extensive newspaper accounts of public
The RCRC also notes that the ATSDR report makes a “definitive claim that is
contradicted by existing data.” It reminded them that “Molycorp has been required to post
warning notices at all water taps...that it is unsafe to drink water from the tap because of
elevated levels of beryllium and nickel. The letter also warned the ATSDR that if it did
not reissue with appendix of public comments they would work with senators Domenici
and Bingaman and Udall (who were sent copies of the letter) to see that it is properly
In response, the ATSDR agreed to “throw out their preliminary public health
assessment and start from scratch.” (Taos News, July 3, 2003). This was nearly
unprecedented in the case of ATSDR, embarrassing to them and a moral victory, at least,
for ATSDR members.
Consequently six representatives from the Region 6 EPA arrived in Questa on
June 24, 2003. Their visit consisted of three parts: a brief meeting with RCRC members,
a tour of Questa designed by RCRC to highlight the negative environmental impacts of
the mine (termed the “Toxic Tour”) and a community meeting.
In the first few minutes of the meeting with RCRC members, ATSDR admitted
they didn’t really do their work. They had done basically no research in telling their story,
which was thoroughly bad history. And they admitted it. I was amazed when they simply
listened. Further, they said they now wanted to talk to anyone who might have a health
problem related to the mine. It would be another thing if people in Questa might actually
trust them and be willing to tell their stories, but they generally are not. By this time, they
were generally distrustful not only of outsiders but disgusted with anyone who said they
would help with local issues, because they have heard that story too many times to no
We were set. The next day, we toured several sites near Questa to see and hear for
ourselves what happened to people. I felt sure that if we could just get people with the
power to change things to the right places to hear the real stories, then, and perhaps only
then, positive change would occur. My elation didn’t last long, not even 24 hours.
The next day we met again with the representatives of ATSDR in Questa. The
following are my reflections and notes from that day:
It is June 23, 2003, and I wish I had air conditioning in my old Subaru. It is really
hot and getting hotter. In my car are two local Hispanic activists, men from Questa. One
has a hard time hearing and peppers his English with Spanish words such as “pero” and
“que.” Also in my car is a well-dressed African-American woman from Atlanta, whose
speech and clothes indicate that she is not from here. I look for signs to see if she is
listening and understanding, but I can’t “read” her.
We are all on the Toxic Tour, guided by members of the Rio Colorado
Reclamation Committee of which I am a member, and I am chauffeur/participant, driving
the ATSDR representatives and others to six homes and farms in Questa where people
had suffered from toxic spills or pipe breaks, or ground water contamination. The tour
proceeds down the road outside of Questa in a caravan, like a funeral. We turn into the
Douglass’ cabins, which sit right alongside the Red River at the base of the mine. The
Douglasses, who are in the midst of civil litigation against the mine, point out where a
sickly yellow seep enters the river near their cabins. In addition, David Douglas talked
about the groundwater contamination of his well which was drilled in 1974 to 48 feet. He
noted: “In the early ‘90s when the mine had a shutdown they decided not to pump the
tunnels. They let the tunnels flood…there appeared new seeps along the river. Me and my
sisters used to play in the river, bathe in the river. Then our water started to taste funny
and we attributed that to life in the mines. Over time it got worse and worse…finally it
got to point where we decided to stop drinking it.”
David Douglas continued, telling a story of how the dynamics worked between
the various entities:
In June 1988, NMED expressed interest in doing a sample of our well water. Prior
to that we offered Moly to sample our well but they didn’t want anything to do
with it. They declined every time. Only when they heard the state was going to
sample our well. In August we got a report back that proved our well was
contaminated. Since then has it has been tested on a quarterly basis by the state.
They wrote it into the 1055 (permit). You can’t see it but the waste rock dump is
directly above us. Thanks to the state we have a water contamination report on a
quarterly basis…it’s basically getting worse.
Next, we drive downriver to the sump dump, where an overflow had caused
damage to the surrounding area, then to a beautiful green yard, watered by a well—
Marsha Redell’s yard, which had been covered three feet deep in sludge due to a pipe
break several years back. We visited an area near the mine by the sump dump. It looked
deserted, but wasn’t. One of the technical advisors made a comment about how it was
Tailings will actually support vegetation, but there are questions about toxic
uptake, according to one of the scientists. There are also doubts about how long the
alluvial soil the mine has covered them with, might last. “This whole area we call
‘Milagro Beanfield,’” said one board member, Brooke, concerned about children in the
area. “It’s all tailings. Children ride their bikes and motorcycles in here.” Steve, a
technical advisor said, “It’s poor management, mismanagement.”
We drive across town to Roberto Vigil’s house, where he illustrates the village
water system, supplied by Molycorp years ago, is actually embedded in tailings, which
means that a crack in the pipe could impact the water people drink. Molycorp transports
waste via above ground pipes across the river for a distance of over one mile. He points to
a waste transport pipe that stopped at his property. He adamantly shows that water is
flowing out of the end off the waste pipe, a fact that makes him highly uncomfortable.
Next we find ourselves at a farm place along the Red River. By now, the June heat
is overbearing. We pile out of cars and stand in the sun at a neat, tidy house surrounded
by gardens. A nearby well has been condemned. Below, the fields lie almost emerald
green with the Red River in the background. It looks bucolic, this particular day, with the
mountains singular and reassuring against the clear blue sky.
We stand next to two wells dug by the DE (Department of the Environment) to
test Marcos’ groundwater. The wells are by an old abandoned adobe house which sits
next to his current residence. Molycorp recently bought the land and the well identified as
contaminated. Mike, a state regulator, tells of the problem drilling the test wells. They
called Molycorp to get permission but were told that Molycorp didn’t own the property. A
title check revealed that Molycorp, had, in fact, bought the property. Mike shakes his
head. He wants to get the facts, and is trying to figure out where, exactly, the problem
might be coming from. The wells? The huge tailings dump on the hills rising right behind
Marcos’ house? The end of a pipe out across the valley? He wants facts, but no one quite
Mike says, “I’m trying to connect the dots….I’m trying to see what’s making the
cattle sick…water? Vegetation? Wind blown deposits?”
Marcos’ old house will soon be razed, since Molycorp has bought them out. What
Marcos has is his own version of the story, and there are many skips and gaps because he,
too, is under a gag order not to talk about it.9 He has a story no one wants to believe. So
far, no one was telling the story in terms that made nature and culture come together. The
mine was obscuring the story by using strategies that made the facts and data appear to be
incongruent. No one was telling a deeper truth. Nature cannot be measured, is not
predictable, and it will not hold still until all the data is in. Fundamentally, our attempts to
I have not used his real name.
measure how much pollution might harm our children, our watersheds, our cultures, or
our health often serves to delay the choices we must inevitably make anyway: finding
sustainable long-term alternatives.
By now, most of us there have heard the story about his cows turning white so
often that it is the stuff of legend. But Marcos is forced to tell the story all over again. He
tells it that the cows were in good health. They came back from the Midnight Mountains
where they were grazing. “They came back. Then the calf quit growing.” He tells a story
of the cattle dying, their sending the evidence to the state for testing, and the reports came
back that there was a problem with heavy metal poisoning.” His story is that of his wife’s
liver failure, his kids’ illnesses and their hair turning white, too.
At one point Marcos looks around at the regulators and says cautiously, “Well,
I’m not supposed to say this, but I’ll say it once. He recalls the day the mine manager
came to his house and said, “The water’s contaminated.” He came back a week later and
said, “I have good news for you. It’s not your well. It’s a Molycorp well.” In other words,
the acknowledgement of contamination was retracted by the mine. Marcos later admits
that it made him feel “crazy” that he couldn’t understand why he had trusted the mine for
so long. A technical expert tells me that if he were Marcos, he’d have taken out his
shotgun years ago. “The people running the mine are criminals.” That is what he says,
well out of their earshot.
After supper along the river with friends, I go back with many others, re-
converging at the St. Anthony’s Parish Center, the site of many hearings and meetings.
Today there are around 75 people there--ATSDR staff, Amigos Bravos folks, mine
employees, state and federal regulators, and Molycorp employees and RCRC members.
Debra Joseph, the ATSDR “community involvement person” explains that they are a non
regulatory public health agency. She explains that when the original draft was written,
they had “lost” part of the list of local contacts during an agency move. “We now have
the list and are adding to the list,” she says. She lays out the ground rules of the meeting
so that all constituents will remain well-behaved.
I wonder at the irony of telling stories in these terms. That “we” must follow rules
for good behavior (not the mine?), that the story of a mine’s affect on human health was
ignored, that a “list was lost” and that this is a “hearing.”
Here are glimpses of the transcript of the question and answer period. I could not,
verbatim, capture the entire transcript, so the parts are being “mined for meaning.”
Q. From citizen, wanting to know about toxins…“What contaminants…”
ATSDR: “We don’t have all the data yet. For example, we’ve just heard air data has been
collected, we don’t have that yet.”
Q: “For example, metals are to be expected with a mining site. Are they at levels of
A: “From what we’ve heard, community water is not a problem.”
Q: “And what health problems are associated with that type of contaminant?”
A: “When we come back next time, we will…”
Q: (RCRC member): “I’m confused…citizens on the community water system may be
affected because of breaks…”
A: (ATSDR): “Based on information to date, we would still say there’s no problem with
community water system….we don’t have any info at this date…”
Q: (Citizen): “I’m from south quarter…the water has more aluminum in the south
quarter…comes from tailings…the lines at least in the south quarter were laid in sand.
After two years of living there, I have had part of the lining of my large intestine
[destroyed]. …There is a problem with the health…Some days it’s worse than other
days…it is really really really really major. My life has been cut really short from it.”
A: (Mark Purcell): “I am managing RI/FS (Research Investigation/ Feasibility Study).
under Superfund. The issue has been brought to our attention...we have no data [that
signifies] there is a problem with municipal water…they regulate according to the
state…EPA is looking into it…we’re considering collecting water samples with
Q: (Citizen): “…We need to hear there is a problem.”
A: (Mark): “I can’t do that….We went very close to your house today. We were looking
at where lines were laid. People were apparently very sick…whatever we do I want to
make sure we satisfy the concerns…I’m working with the state. NMED is here too. I
wanna make sure whatever we do we’ll be comfortable with whatever the data shows us.
(old data shows us the stuff was fine).”
Q: (Citizen): “When you took that data we were in a major drought.”
A: (Mark): “…that data was lacking…”
Q: (Citizen): “Whether you’re pro mining or against, human health supersedes
[economic issues]. My point is public is an integral part of your assessment. I don’t want
to be too critical…this is a sacred place…also in the sense that our children are
sacred…we go to science…it has to be good science…good science takes the public
first…not only will I ask you to reissue this but retract it…Basically you did no new
research…you can’t just go around talking to Molycorp. It takes me about ten minutes to
go to the Red River…(he shows two bottles, one bottle of water looks murky). “There’s
a lot of problems here…You’ve been doing this for two decades….Take a drink of that
and you’ll have Alzheimer’s...take a drink of that and give it to your kids—God forbid—
and they’ll be behind in school. I guarantee it.”
He then cites an investigative study by the Environmental Health Network and
National Toxic Campaign Fund entitled Inconclusive by Design (Sanford 1992). This
report he alleges contends that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other federal
agencies shirked their responsibility in taking charge of public health issues. The report
points out that “one sixth of the US population lives within four miles of a chemical
dump or other potentially hazardous waste sites.” It adds that that those conclusive
studies of the links between exposure and disease at these sites have been few. The CDC
and the ATSDR are the agencies to recommend appropriate action. The book accuses
them of “virtual propaganda,” “public reassurance instead of real protection” and
“politically driven whitewashes.”
Further, the report contends that though the agency may “appear to be listening”
that actually makes the situation worse because then people then believe something will
be done. It adds that ATSDR’s public credibility is worsened by its ties to the EPA since
its budget is paid by EPA out of EPA’s Superfund budget. These ties weaken its
effectiveness, since one of EPA’s key concerns is containing costs at Superfund sites. In
reality, this often sets up a dynamic where people argue among themselves; therefore the
agency itself can avoid becoming the focus of the community’s ire.
The study contends that ATSDR itself admits it cannot actually assess health.
They can assess “hazards” or “exposure assessment” but not do an actual “health
assessment.” The agency reports that it is up to congress to do “health assessments.”
ATSDR admits that a real health assessment would cost too much and take too long.
Ultimately ATSDR can not identify health problems because their methods, according to
the report, are “destined to fail from the start.” This includes everything from highly
questionable and inappropriate scientific methods, to asking the wrong questions, to using
inappropriate comparison groups, to diluting exposed populations and worse.
Per usual, break time was when real conversations became possible. Cynics
(realists?) who had been battling the mine for decades told me what I did not hear: I was
being naïve, the ATSDR couldn’t really make a change, and that I was being duped. I
thought about how hard it was to hold paradoxical ideas together—like hope and
hopelessness. I thought about how stupid it was to be unprepared—to bring a portable
computer to take field and meeting notes, but not a hat or a bottle of water.
After a long, frustrating day of meetings, I drove the long highway home, glad I
didn’t have to live there. But the bad feelings wouldn’t go away. First my skin began to
crawl. Then I had the first migraine of my entire life. It helped me to feel the plight of
people with chronic illnesses, no matter what the cause. I told my kids I thought I was
getting sick. I had left them on their own all day in order to attend the meeting. Such
compromises are not good, I thought. After all, it wasn’t my problem. I told them to bring
me a couple of aspirin and call me in the morning.
As it turned out, the skeptics were right. When the revised ATSDR report was
revealed months later, nothing really new was stated. The only recommendation with any
teeth at all was that the Village of Questa replace the tailings in which the community
water pipes were laid as a “precautionary safety measure.” Primarily, the report offered
such advice as “Avoid drinking from polluted wells.” It admitted that while there may
have been problems in the past, they could find no real evidence of present health
dangers. In other words, there was no clear evidence of health risk but neither could such
danger be ruled out, either. It was inconclusive by design. I was left to wonder about the
countless hours spent by community residents and activists and the tens of thousands of
dollars spent by the EPA to reach such an equivocal conclusion. More studies were
needed, and those conclusions are still out, past their deadline.
The divergent foci of the three activists groups, the Red River Watershed, Amigos
Bravos, and the Rio Colorado Reclamation Committee, demonstrate the tangible impact
of narratives. Each activist group tells a different story about the struggle between Questa
and the Molycorp mine. Amigos Bravos tells a story emphasizing the cultural and
economic impacts, the Red River Watershed highlights the human health toll whereas the
Rio Colorado Reclamation Committee spins a tale in which there are no enemies.
The politics of diversity that combines both cultural and ecological reality is the
really subversive alternative of our times.
Scientist and environmental justice advocate Vandana Shiva writes that
combining cultural and ecological realities is the “really subversive alternative” in our
time; William Cronon, environmental historian, writes that embedding culture within the
context of nature is a prime value. Thus, this project has concerned itself with
environmental history and literary theory, both with a regionalist American studies
emphasis. Thus, it may inform environmental justice issues, but it has other applications
as well. It is not, per se, an environmental justice case study.
This project has explored the conjunction between cultural, environmental, and
economic forces as it examines the impact that a huge molybdenum mine has had on a
watershed and a community’s health and welfare; its aim has been to “read” the deeper
narratives of this history more holistically.
The present study diverged from the traditional case study in two key aspects.
First, it challenged the inherent assumption of quantitative research that one can break
down complex issues into discrete data points in an objective, non biased manner in order
to reach the “truth”. Instead, it is built upon the work of environmental historian William
Cronon who argues that a biased or story telling element is inherently present in all
attempts to analyze or to make meaning of discrete facts. The same facts can be woven
together to create fundamentally different stories.
The basic premise of the project was to avoid the illusion of objectivity and, from
a position of self-disclosure, create three “separate” narrative research genres from my
own particular set of experiences. This use of narrative analysis is a second way that my
work has diverged from a classic environmental justice case study. The project explored
the conflict in Questa as a collection of stories instead of an examination of the facts.
Therefore, I reviewed three narratives: The personal narratives of people who
have lived along the Red River for many years, the public narrative of The Taos News as
it has told the story for over forty years, and lastly the story as told by three environmental
Narrative Review and Analysis
Questa, New Mexico, a northern New Mexican village of just under 2000 people,
provided the back drop for this project, on one level an environmental history, and on
another, the story about the story, as told in Chapter 1. The main emplotment involved a
mine, the Molycorp molybdenum mine; a watershed, the Red River basin; and the town
of Questa. By listening to the divergent voices in this drama, this study hoped to amplify
narratives that are at risk of being unheard and to glean insights into how to create
dialectics with environmental, cultural, and economic forces, rather than polarizations.
In Chapter 2, I presented a case in which mining inherently confronts economic
and environmental issues. Given the nature of modern mining, groundwater
contamination is almost a given. Far from merely digging a hole with a pick and shovel
and finding a fistful of ore, mining now involves the most complex of technologies,
particularly in the extraction of the desired ore from its mineral context. The process of
“beneficiation” involves embedding the raw material within a context of water and
chemical reagents, designed to chemically extract the ore from rock. The dilemma then
becomes how to dispose of the residue or tailings slurry.
Many texts about mining are couched in technoscientific jargon which leaves
laypeople out. Further, the litany of contradictory studies reveals just how subjective the
objective data really are. The mine also employs greenspeak and metaphorical uses to
obscure the reality that there are major ecological costs to mining. The use of figurative
language might likewise help people understand mining on a deeper level, a metaphorical
one in which there are other unquantifiable costs involved in taking minerals or other
resources out of their natural context. It is this literary look at mining as metaphor that
allows a deeper version of the story to unfold. The narrative subject is a mine, but the
metaphorical aspects raise the story to a more universal one with global implications.
The oral histories in Chapter 3 are shaped on a more organic level in which
emotional, personal, and social values are expressed in idiosyncratic and vernacular
terms. The residents along the Red River talked about the profound changes in the river
during their lifetimes, reacting with anger, sadness, and longing, but rarely with hope.
They contrasted the much cleaner river of their childhoods to the relatively dead river of
present. Several questioned a cultural bias on the part of the mine and professed
skepticism toward regulators. The underlying belief was that the mine would not have
been allowed to pilfer the community’s health if the residents were not of a minority
population, Hispanic. Many talked about the central role of clean water and the vital role
of acequias in their local culture. When these debates become framed in objective terms,
there are basic human meanings which are at risk of becoming lost, drowned out by more
quantifiable approaches. Even if the narratives lack quantifiable value, they offer a
moving look at the reciprocal relationship of people to their place, one that is deeply
human and based on authentic experience. The people interviewed were, in essence,
“living proof,” rather than quantifiable proof.
As illustrated in a review of Taos News articles from 1965 to 2007 in Chapter 4,
the debate over the environmental impact of the residual rock and contaminated water
was fierce. The news articles revealed the legitimate nature of the dissension, namely
contradictory scientific studies, and the way that economic pressure acts as a means of
truncating the debate. After all, the degree to which the Molycorp mine was polluting the
groundwater was argued for decades, with each side quoting specific environmental
studies that either found significant pollution or argued the contrary. It wasn’t until nearly
2000 that the mine was willing to concede that it was polluting the river and groundwater.
The presence of miners in hard hats at community meetings and the mine’s pleas for
understanding during bust periods underscored the economic story.
Chapter 5 reviewed three environmental activists groups, Amigos Bravos, the Rio
Colorado Reclamation Committee, and the Red River Watershed Group, illustrating how
easy it was for environmental, cultural, and economic forces to become fragmented.
Amigos Bravos’ struggled to secure Superfund status for the mine, but the community
largely objected, believing it might jeopardize the economic viability of the mine and in
turn, hurt the community. Amigos Bravos tried to point to actual reclamation dollars, but
residents often saw cultural or class issues, framing environmental justice activists as
outsider elites who didn’t understand local culture.
Similarly, the Rio Colorado Reclamation Committee’s struggle with the Agency
for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s report over their initial report captured the
difficulty in proving connections between impaired health and suspected toxic exposure.
In an almost-unheard-of move, the report was retracted. The retraction provided false
hope that the agency could actually address health issues. Even the Toxic Tour, which
provided a heart-rending, up-close look at the damage didn’t do it. The next ATSDR
report made a few lame recommendations; a final report is still pending.
To put this project into the context of contemporary scholarship is to advocate for
broadening and deepening the ways we listen, and to expand the notions of what we
consider “text” or “narrative.” This perspective is not meant to replace or minimize
environmental justice case studies. Obviously I have drawn upon such environmental
justice case studies as those of Laura Pulido. In order to enlarge the parameters of
interdisciplinary environmental scholarship, it is important to see how environmental
narratives can hybridize, creating new relationships between human and other-than-
human worlds. Case studies normally put forth one’s own version of an argument. This
look at narrative allows for a greater sense of self-disclosure, honesty, and collaboration
in order to uncover causal relationships. Environmental case studies do have roles to play,
but they are limited and need to look more carefully at the inherent bias in data.
If arguments provide answers (or at least appear to do so), stories provide
meanings. They may only suggest possible meanings, such as the narrative described in
the introduction, that of the geologist who finds “comfort” in the “narrative” left by a
benthic worm in an ancient rock. The geologist does not presume to know its meaning. It
is mysterious and evocative.
This study was therefore, an attempt to listen. It was also an attempt to tell the
story of others, along with my own, thus aiming for self-reflection and integration. My
belief is that this hybridization allows for more holistic storytelling. Such complex
narratives cannot be broken down into fragmented parts, without meaning being lost, just
as mining cannot extricate parts from the whole with reckless abandon without causing
Narrative Analyses in Relation to Contemporary Scholarship
In comparison to other kinds of scholarship, working to combine a personal,
activist stance and locating oneself in the midst of narrative research is, by its nature,
complex and daunting. There were few maps to travel by. My aim was to illuminate the
innate complexity of such narratives, thereby encouraging inclusion rather than exclusion
and simplification. This way of writing is also one of self-inquiry and dialogue with
others aimed at finding the underlying meanings of important human experiences.
Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild (1991) has been one such text to use as
“map.” This valuable book offers “eclectic leanings,” too, including etymology, etiquette,
myth, personal story, and history. Snyder also offers a playful and serious sense of
aesthetics and spiritual values, the kinds of values which more quantitative methods leave
out. Methods of Qualitative Research, which identifies “bricollage” “jack-of-all-trades”,
or “choreography of text” as innovative methodological notions (Denzin and Lincoln
2003) illustrates these ideals. More traditional case studies in social science and science
are less flexible, allowing less room for creative tension. Therefore, the stories and voices
and experiences (seen as text) of this project are read together, across, and with other
divergent stories of community members, activists, regulatory agencies, and academia.
What was learned by positioning the narratives in this way and hearing them
relationally? First, the oral histories teach us that there are alternatives to depersonalized
and more quantifiable methods of many scientific and social science disciplines. The
heartfelt expression from people telling how the changes in the river have shaped their
lives is moving. They are “living proof” of the struggle instead of quantitative proof of
Secondly, The Taos News was a fascinating look at how the story unfolded
through various points in time, thus we can track the shift in public consciousness; we are
privy to the way that “the rough draft of history” is continually rewritten. We observe
how the story morphs over time, with social consciousness shifting, even comparing it to
the social trajectory of environmentalism, environmental justice advocacy, and a move
In terms of narrative, The Taos News reveals its very human paradoxical side
when it runs an editorial chiding the mine for its environmental sins while running stories
in the same issue which heralded the mine’s next boom in glowing economic terms. Its
story is one of attribution. It allows us a glimpse into the mind of regional communities,
showing what they care about and are interested in, and this is intriguing for what it says
and what it does not say. Reading The Taos News makes me feel as if I’m part of one big
dysfunctional family, and it’s true. On Thursdays, when the news hits the streets, it
reveals the mind of the community at work. The uneasy paradoxical mix of love/hate and
comic relief reminds us of the ways in which we are all part of the human community.
Unfortunately, this particular newspaper offers little in the way of integration or analysis.
Like so many other complicated relationships which reflect the world in black and white
terms, you learn to read between the lines to find your own perspectives, ones that are not
simple, but shades of gray.
Thirdly, in essence, the activist groups were all writing their own narratives. The
Red River watershed’s was one of collaboration, a narrative which sidestepped the
“elephant in the living room.” Watershed groups, with their emphasis on collaboration
and bioregionalism, are increasingly helping people to see past their “street addresses”
and political boundaries. Little by little, they are making positive changes, and avoiding
expensive and divisive litigation.
Amigos Bravos, in alliance with many others, (including the Western
Environmental Law Center) litigated, when other options failed. It educated in ways that
its constituents could understand, wielded language that was appropriate to its audience,
whether acequia parciantes or regulators. It spun the story as one of David-and-Goliath
and celebrated every victory that it could claim, and perhaps even a few that it couldn’t
quite claim, since so many efforts were collaborative. It told an integrated narrative of
environmental and social justice. Like the Red River Watershed Group, it worked
carefully to build alliances and its work, wherever it was effective, was also built upon a
bioregional and watershed philosophy. Yet Amigos Bravos also employed distinctly
political frameworks which worked at the state Roundhouse and it knew law (or how to
access it) in order to win at the Courthouse. It demonstrated an ability to celebrate,
eulogize, and strategize. It raised money and consciousness through art, literature, and
ritual. Both Amigos Bravos and The Red River Watershed Group used bioregional
philosophies and watershed frameworks as parts of their success.
The Rio Colorado Reclamation Group’s purpose was one of trying to hold
regulator’s feet to the fire, whether it was on the federal (ATSDR, CDC) or state
regulatory levels Ironically, the Rio Colorado Reclamation Committee, essentially a
Superfund group, highlighted the community’s health concerns in Questa without truly
framing issues in bioregional or watershed terms. In terms of health issues, it probably
was more effective to focus on political boundaries since their work involved state and
federal regulatory agencies. The RCRC is involved in a good deal of upheaval. As in any
group that feels the weight of justice upon its shoulders, it is easy for its members,
particularly board members, to burn out. The RCRC, supported in part by Technical
assistance Grants from the EPA, must match those contribution with in-kind
contributions. The membership has suffered the most egregious health effects from
“alleged” pollution m the mine which are maddeningly impossible to “prove.” They serve
as translators (another kind of storytelling) between the EPA and the community. They
are telling their narratives from the trenches, trying to stay in touch with regulators on a
first-name basis. Their narratives teach us much about why it is so incredibly difficult to
hold polluters accountable—particularly in terms of health issues.
Amigos Bravos continues to watchdog the mine but they have many other irons in
the fire; the overwhelming task of trying to get Los Alamos National Labs to clean up
radioactive material leaked to the watershed is only one of them. I predict that they will
continue to grow and become even more sophisticated, collaborative and combative with
each issue they take on. The other groups have only a few paid people who work for
them, and no office. Amigos Bravos is a non-profit now with two offices—one in Taos
and one in Albuquerque, thus they have full-time professional staff. Thus, I believe they
will continue to tell narratives that are true to their mission and will pace themselves and
gain strength as they go.
The nonexistent crystal ball of the future can not really portend, but it can pretend.
It does seem pretentious to predict the future, rather like realizing that there is not really
any climax, stasis, or stability, just as in the dynamic succession of the natural world.
Still, we can place our bets, and that is good storytelling, too.
My hope is that more narratives will disclose their biases, be highly integrative,
and take an activist stance. Doyle Klein’s personal, passionate, and carefully-researched
work, which I include in Chapter 1, is an early example of combining Environmentalist
philosophies with those of Environmental Justice. We are beginning to see more research
conducted in personal, eclectic, qualitative methodology, seeing text at every turn: in
landscape and in the tracks of a bear, disappearing into the brush. We are beginning to
become more attuned to linguistics (one of the last disciplines to take its “environmental”
Secondly, I believe we will better learn to listen to other-than-human stories,
whether the narratives are the ancient tracings of a benthic worm, long gone, or of biotic
life beneath a rock, or of a river. We are all a part of this dynamic chaotic swirl of life,
and we ignore these subtle “texts” at our own peril. We will all survive as long as we can,
but it is our day-to-day soul life which is becoming inanimate, our senses dulled. We are
only scratching the surface of this deepening story, yet it is an ancient one. Indigenous
people knew how to tell stories dependent upon other creatures—coyote, bear, salmon, or
raven, or even phenomena—thunder and lightning. The deeper story is one in which life
is animated and interconnected. The “environment” is not a problem to be solved or
something to put added into this year’s political agenda; nature is life’s essence.
There is much more work to be done. In terms of furthering this project, what I
would also do is this: First of all, to tell the stories more fully which did not appear on
these pages because they were difficult to account for. In other words, they were largely
gossip—a word whose meaning also include “holy story,” therefore they were mostly
excluded. Yet I remember the place and occasion of many conversations which do not
appear here because they were complicated, unattributable, or “off the record.” They are
stories of traditional medicines which healed someone after a mining accident, a daughter
who needed a liver transplant, presumably from polluted groundwater, or someone who
believed the land “told her to stay.” There are more stories of contradiction, irony, grief,
There is other work to be done, too. One angle I have little explored is the
narrative of miners. One unemployed miner told me that his grandfather was a miner, his
father and two uncles were all miners. “That’s who I am,” he said. It was how he self-
identified. When the work ran out in Questa, he headed for Latin America, not wanting to
uproot his four kids and his wife. “I never say my baby’s first steps,” he said, “I was
mining in Chile.”
Other areas in need of further exploration are the global dimensions of this story.
Though I completed much of this, I found that articulating it fully was beyond the scope
of this project. Also, though I am deeply appreciative of the goodwill, inspiration, and
kind and helpful feedback on my work that ASLE (Association for Study of Literature
and the Environment) and several English departments have given me over time, I have
chosen the path of American studies for its more interdisciplinary structures. Though
there is important work being done through this framework such as that of The
Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics and Pedagogy (Joni Adamson, Mei Mei
Evans, and Rachel Stein, eds. 2002), I hope that more cross-fertilization between
activism, teaching, and poetics will occur.
There are many more narratives to hear and to trace. One of them Jim Dodge tells,
and it is a story of hope. Jim Dodge’s (1990) comments on bioregionalism are true of
environmental narratives on the whole: “The chances of ...succeeding, like the chances of
survival itself, are beside the point. …This country has a twisted idea of success: it is
almost always a quantitative judgment” (qtd in Slovic 1999, 238).
There is no perfect formula for telling useful environmental histories and no exact
yardstick for measuring them. Our job is to keep telling, hearing, and living our deepest,
richest, most meaningful stories. Dodge believes that “we have a fighting chance to stop
environmental destruction within 50 years and to turn the culture around within 800-1000
years. ‘Fighting chance’ translates as long odds but good company….Since we won’t live
to see the results of this hoped-for transformation, we might as well live to start it right,
with the finest expressions of spirit and style we can muster, keeping in mind that there’s
only a functional difference between the flower and the root, that essentially they are part
of the same abiding faith” (qtd in Slovic 1999, 238).
Our stories must be told as water, like ripples, always moving outward. There are
as many questions as answers, my only edge the place where light and shadow meet, a
place that is always moving.
It is a Sunday morning in early fall, and this time, it is not confluence, but source I
look for. I will find out once and for all where the river comes from. Like the Pueblo
people, I will have a ceremony. Then I will leave the country and the story behind for
awhile. It is as if the river’s birth will hold some pure truth against which I can measure
all other ills.
At least it will be fresh perspective. I normally spend my winter weeks and
summer weekends on the mountain’s “other side” where I teach skiing each day and run
on summer weekends. It is eight years since I started thinking about this project, and as I
drive through Questa, I notice some changes. Today there’s a fall Art Tour—a sign of
willingness to join the many other fall tours in New Mexico’s northern villages. I buy
truly good coffee at a recently opened café on my way through town. Then I turn to
follow the Red River upstream.
I pass the entrance to the Molycorp Mining and Milling Plant, but today, it
appears eerily quiet. The sides of the mine’s slopes are black, with incredibly deep
arroyos. The banks of the river have grown steeper, too, but the river’s kinetic energy is
as turbulent and wild as ever, falling suddenly through the many ecozones.
Driving higher, the mountains turn to mixed conifers, with ponderosa pines
towering above, and aspens bursting into cold flame against a sapphire sky. It is just
another crazy-beautiful day along New Mexico’s “enchanted” circle. After driving
through the town of Red River, I follow the river itself into its upper reaches, through a
residential section with a few old cabins and newer second homes.
I park, grab my pack, and head up the watershed. The beavers have done their
work, diverting the river, and so have the ATV users, who have wrecked the landscape.
A middle-aged couple in wool hats and red faces stop to tell me of their cold and windy
night at Middle Fork Lake, and what the road was like before ATV’s. Jeeps, they say,
changed the environment too, but this technology means that the new toys can drive
straight uphill, creating new pathways which other ATVers and rainfall will then follow,
creating deeper ruts, and more sediment in the river.
I push on, hoping for a glimpse of a bear, which I would love to see, since they are
clever and human. Or are we like them? I love bear stories which tell me how eerily alike
we are. Our instincts, too, are theirs. I might learn from them when to fight, when to run,
and when to take a nap. Instead, there are Merriam’s turkeys, and grouse. I do not see
cows or sheep, which were certainly there when the land was a commonly grazed, not
“public.” There are other animals here I do not wish to see: mountain lions and bobcats. I
think they are sly and scary; I know not what they think of me. Perhaps they are angry,
having been displaced from 2,000 acres of habitat taken up by one large mine.
When I get to Middle Fork Lake, I am shocked at what the Forest Service had
once allowed. As Joannie Mitchell lamented: “Don’t it always seem to go/You don’t
know what you’ve got til its gone/They paved paradise/ and put up a parking lot.”
I could only imagine what it must have been like before the pavement. Four wheel
drives can no longer drive this dirt road, but the damage is done. Still, I tell myself, the
lake is lovely, ringed by a high cirque, the “back” of Wheeler Peak. I dream of what it
will be like to live in Buenos Aires and to travel in Patagonia, not yet imagining what it’s
like to cross the Andes on a dizzying bus ride, watching condors with 12-foot wing spans
catching Andean updrafts while I down Dramamine.
I am soon to discover that problems are much the same, even in that “other”
America, and that “diversity” is wonderful but “difference” doesn’t count for much. I will
hike to waterfalls in Patagonia, those of the indigenous Mapuche. They, too, are fighting
for control of their land, water, and culture. They have learned not to trust the stories that
multinational corporations tell. In Patagonia, huge companies are eroding indigenous
rights, buying up vast land holdings and corporatizing water.
In the Argentinean north, in Mendosa, I will find a green oases in the middle of
the pampas, as the milky water running off the high cordillera of the Andes flows through
a system of ditches. Here is green life, a metaphor of home. And where I will make a
home, in Buenos Aires, I will drink mate with the people of El Ceibo, the organization
named for a wildflower but organized by a poor woman on behalf of her similarly
disenfranchised neighbors. On a Friday night, I will find myself, in dazzling Buenos
Aires, picking up cans and bottles in a busy downtown intersection. Their carts laden with
small children and trash, El Ceibo recycling team had spilled their goods. In a summer
dress and high-heeled sandals, I am on my way to a dinner they can’t afford, but at least I
can stop to help pick up the pieces. As a waiter fills my glass with a nice Merlot, I will
think instead of that grimy faced child balanced precariously on top of the cart. As John
Nichols said: “We must all stand with the world’s poor.”
What does that mean? I wonder, thinking of the kerchiefed mothers of the
disparecedos who continued to march every Thursday afternoons, to protest nearly
40,000 people whose voices were silenced when they were tortured and killed. The
“mothers” are trying to keep what they know of their children’s stories alive. I think
sometimes that stories are all we have, since justice seems so out-of-reach. Stories are
what we can create, as they create us.
Meanwhile, by putting one foot in front of the other, I reach the lake. Small waves
lap the shore, a breeze blows. I peer into the water, which seems pure and clear, not a
toxic tailings pond being passed off as a real lake. No mines here, I think. But
appearances can be deceiving. There are signs left everywhere, if we are willing to look,
from the track of the bear or the flinty reflection of an ancient arrow, a sign of the
transhumanence of ancient people following mountain sheep. Really, mining claims are
everywhere. And an archeologist friend tells me of spearheads he has found at altitudes
higher then 13,000 feet.
There is food: butter yellow chanterelles; medicine: purple arnica; and the lovely
trumpet-like blossoms of scarlet gilia, whose “beneficial uses” I do not know. There are
also two Budweiser cans, bright red, and a pair of men’s Hanes boxer shorts, light blue.
If “the earth gives us a stride, and the lake, a dive,” as Snyder writes, I hope the dive
sobered him up a bit.
I know, of course, that I am making it all up, just as the stories and the land, water,
mountain, sky, and aspen trees holding hands under the ground are making me all up. I
am making up my story of discovering the river’s “real” source. There are many sources,
many stories. It is delicious delusion. My shoes squish in hypergreen grasses, dozens of
kinds, and I don’t pretend to know their names. There—I have found it. I kneel down in
long wet grasses, reaching into the earth. Here, mud oozes and water, primordially cold,
slides through my fingers.
Then I remember something Wallace Stegner wrote in The Sound of Mountain
Water. My sources have been many, from the literary to the literal. Such places as this
link the material and the metaphorical, helping me to still my own voice and listen more
carefully for others’. Stegner’s words:
…And listen again to its sounds: get far enough away so that the noise of falling
tons of water does not stun the ears, and hear how much is going on underneath—
a whole symphony of smaller sounds, hiss and splash and gurgle, the small talk of
side channels, the whisper of blown and scattered spray gathering itself and
beginning to flow again, secret and irresistible, among the wet rocks.
There are many ways to tell a story, and when I am weary of the struggle, it seems best to
let the river itself, speak. How lovely, I think, just to listen to a river.
LIST OF APPENDICES
APPENDIX A ARTICLE AND ADVERTISEMENT FOR TURQUOISE
APPENDIX B PHOTOGRAPH OF MOLYCORP MINE .............................159
APPENDIX C MAP OF RED RIVER WATERSHED ...................................161
APPENDIX D MOLYCORP TIME LINE .......................................................163
ARTICLE AND ADVERTISEMENT FOR TURQUOISE LAKE
PHOTOGRAPH OF MOLYCORP MINE
MAP OF RED RIVER WATERSHED
MOLYCORP TIME LINE
Molycorp Time Line10
1920 Molybdenum Corporation of America begins underground mining near
Questa. Miners and their families live on site.
1964-5 Molycorp spends $40 million on an open pit and new mill to process lower
grade material. The pit yields up to 10,000 tons of ore and 30,000 tons of
overburden waste rock per day. Slurry pipes leak in the Red River, killing
1968 Naming a tailings pond “Turquoise Lake,” Molycorp stocks it with 2,000
pounds of trout in order to open it as a public lake. Hundreds of dead fish have
to be scooped out on the morning of the July 4 dedication, after which the lake
is permanently closed.
1970 The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish reports 50 tailings pipeline
breaks in the previous five years.
1971 Molycorp lays off 251 employees, a third of its workforce.
1973 Molycorp lays of 100 more workers.
1975 The State of New Mexico fines Molycorp for unreported tailings spills, which
again flood a campground and pour into the Red River, killing nearly 300
1977 Union Oil of California (Unocal), the world’s ninth largest oil company, buys
Molycorp. The following month, 60 workers are laid off. By December, 340
workers strike, settling three months later.
1979-81 Winds stir up clouds of metal-laden dust from dried tailings ponds, causing
respiratory problems. A dust storm engulfs Questa High School, shutting
down a state championship baseball game. Students march on the mine in
1982 Molycorp proposes a controversial tailings disposal site on BLM-managed
Guadalupe Mountain near Questa based on claims generated under the 1882
General Mining Act. Mine employment peaks for the next three years,
between 600-900 workers.
In order to provide a chronology, this time line was assembled from my own archival material including
that of Amigos Bravos materials, High Country News, The Taos News, The Wall Street Journal online,
ATSDR media release material, and my own notes. It is not meant to serve as a comprehensive outline, but
as a map of what I see as a few key events.
1983 With the open pit no longer profitable, mining returns underground with a new
“block caving” technique. It produces up to 18,000 tons of ore per day.
1985 One ton of tailings spill into a Questa acequia. Two days later 1.7 tons spill
into the Red River.
Molycorp donates over $40,000 for a new village administration building.
Molycorp lays off 150 miners, 20 percent of the workforce.
1986-88 Molybdenum plummets from $30 to $4 a pound. A layoff puts 475 employees
out of work. A dispute rages over the proposed Guadalupe Mountain tailing
site; Molycorp threatens not to reopen until it is approved.
1989 The mine reopens, with a 28% wage cut for workers.
1990-91 Pipeline spills pour thousands of gallons of waste into acequias.
1993 New Mexico passes State Mining Act; a mine must now, under law, be
returned to a “self-sustaining ecosystem.”
1996 BLM retires Molycorp’s mining claim on the Guadalupe Mountains, putting a
decade-long dispute to rest.
1998 Amigos Bravos holds their 10th anniversary with a “Fish Fry” at Turquoise
2000 After mining over 100 million tons of ore, with approximately 70 million still
in the ground, the EPA puts Molycorp on its draft list as a Superfund site.
Molycorp agrees to post $129 million for groundwater clean up and $23
million for tailings restoration.
2002 Agency for Toxic and Disease Registry (ATSDR) releases report classifying
the Questa sit as “posing no apparent public health hazard” related to mining,
2003 Rio Colorado Reclamation Committee and others force ATSDR to withdraw
and rewrite their report.
2004 Rock Pile advisory board, assembled to examine potential rockslide danger,
2005 Chinese oil company CNOOJ attempts to buy Unocal; sale goes to Chevron
2007 Molycorp tries to buy water rights from private owners. This would prevent
further lawsuits over alleged illness or pollution of wells.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.
Amigos Bravos Oral History Project Transcripts:
--- Ganapathy, Sandhya. Summer 1998.
--- Humphrey, Eirian. Summer, 1998.
--- Sotelo, Ernesto. Summer, 1997.
Amigos Bravos. A Framework for Assessing the Economic Benefits of Mine Reclamation.
Published with Ecology and Law Institute, 2001.
--- Bulletin. August/September 1997.
--- Newsletter. February–March 1997.
--- Newsletter. April–May 1997.
--- Bulletin. Fall 1998.
--- Bulletin. August/September 1997.
--- Newsletter. April–May 1997.
--- A Three-Year Strategic Plan. December 1998.
--- <http://www.amigosbravos.org/index.html> (September 23, 2002).
--- Annual Report. 2005.
Boulding, Keith, Three Faces of Power, Thousand Oaks: Sage Press, 1989.
Cronon, William. “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative.” The Journal of
American History, March 1992.
DeBuys, William. Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New
Mexico Mountain Range. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985.
Daly and Cobb. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community,
The Environment, and a Sustainable Future: Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
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The Taos News
July 4, 1968. “Lake opening to public.”
May 5, 1976. “Moly failed curtailment in water.”
January 27, 1980. “Molydenum [sic] price drops.”
July 17, 1980. “Questa tired of dust.”
August 7, 1980. “Moly to get tailings dump.”
February 19,1981. “Dust stirs political arenas.”
April 9, 1981. “Molycorp seeks agreement.”
April 16, 1981. “QHS considers redesign to keep out dust.”
July 23, 1981. “Other agencies check water for pollution.”
July 30 1981. “Easement approval sparks conflict.”
September 17, 1981. “Molycorp picks Guadalupe tailings site.”
September 29, 1983. “Blast opens new mine.”
October, 1984. “Molycorp sees end of tunnel.”
April 25, 1985. “Spill floods ditch”
March 16, 1986. “We want to come back.”
January 30, 1986. “Mine awaits word on closing.”
November 12, 1987. “Aluminum in soil turns Red River bright blue
January 25, 1996. “Guadalupe Mountain closed to mineral entry.”
October 5, 2000 “Molycorp cooperating in cleanup.”
June 18, 2003. “Massive rock slide possible in Questa”
September 10, 2003. “River pollution levels elevated below mine.”
September 22, 2004. “CDC assessment says Molycorp contaminants could pose health
August 25, 2004. “Rock pile project phase one nearly done.”
June 29, 2005. “Proposal: Let nature reclaim Molycorp ‘glory holes.’”
June 29, 2005. “EPA study cites ‘potential pollutants’ near Molycorp, contaminants
leaking to Red River.”
July 6, 2005. “Goat Hill North likely stable, barely moving.”
March 29, 2007. “Spring Runoff, Good or Bad?”
Other News Media
December 28, 1991. Santa Fe Journal North. “Molycorp will let water fill closed mine.”
Wall Street Journal Online. <http://online.wsj.com> (July 18, 2005).