A ‘good, safe spot’
Triassic Park exists only on paper.
The hazardous waste facility, first permitted by the state in 2002 and now up for renewal, was never built. If it had been, it would be located on 480 barren acres nearly indistinguishable from any stretch along U.S. Highway 380 in southeastern New Mexico.
Pass a few cows grazing along the roadside and you’ll eventually find mile marker 196, 36 miles from Tatum and 43 miles from Roswell. The ground in this area is pockmarked with grass, tall weeds and errant debris — a beer can here, a broken comb there — likely thrown from the window of a passing car. Walking stick cactuses dot the landscape and tumbleweeds skip across the road. A small mesa rises in the distance, but for the most part, this part of Chaves County is flat and desolate, with only the occasional rumble of a semi-truck to break the silence.
“We were trying to find the sorriest piece of ground we could,” said Larry Gandy, whose father, Dale, conceived of the project along with a family of local ranchers, the Marleys. “It turned out they had a spot that grazes few cows, and it is a spot that actually sits below the water table. So we found a good safe spot with nothing we could contaminate, and that’s how we come to that site.”
The plan was to turn the site into a landfill that could accept up to 10,000 cubic yards of industrial waste each month. The company, Gandy Marley Inc., would be required to monitor the site for contamination for 30 years in exchange for taking in dangerous substances such as lead, mercury, benzene and PCBs, as well as soil from remediation sites and other debris. The original plan also included two evaporation ponds and four tanks that, combined, could hold upwards of 5 million gallons of waste.
In Chaves County — ground zero for UFO devotees and home to 2009 Kentucky Derby champion Mine that Bird — there are about 11 people for every square mile. Southeastern New Mexico is known as “Little Texas” to some — thanks to similar terrain and economies — and the “nuclear corridor” to others, a nod to a uranium enrichment plant and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which stores radioactive waste.
Most county residents identified as Hispanic according to recent Census Bureau estimates. More than a third speak a language other than English at home and 21 percent of people live below the poverty level.
“From an environmental point of view, you have to understand the racism of putting [these facilities] in an area where people can’t defend themselves,” said Noel Marquez, an activist and artist in Artesia.
The early 1990s brought changes in EPA rules that left many clients of the Gandys’ oil field services company scrambling to figure out how to properly dispose of their hazardous waste. They applied for an NMED permit for Triassic Park in 1993, but the public review process didn’t begin until 2001.
Over those eight years, opposition began to percolate.
Victor Blair and Deborah Petrone had read Roswell Daily Record articles about Triassic Park. Petrone owned a postage-stamp-size plot of land about seven miles away, and the two began researching the facility, traveling to the Roswell Public Library to examine the permit. It was hundreds of pages long; Blair was astonished at the scale of the project.
“They were permitted to take scores of tons of each of these different chemicals,” Blair said. “And so it was just like, ‘Oh, man.’ That’s when we made the decision to fight.”
They connected with other activists who earlier had raised objections. Blair called Jaime Chavez, then an environmental justice organizer with the Water Information Network in Albuquerque.
Chavez explained their plight.
“He said, ‘If you two are the only ones involved in the resistance, that’s laughable,’ ” Blair recalled. “’You’re gonna have to be undercover and raise a stink. That’s all you can do right now. And when the stink raises a profile, it’ll attract other people who don’t like the smell. Then, maybe you can get enough people around you to make some noise.’ ”
Blair became the de facto man-on-the-ground, taking advice from Chavez during regular phone calls.
“You had to mobilize the community,” said Chavez, now an organizer with the Rural Coalition, a farmworker advocacy group. “The plan was to go door to door, getting these commitments, talking with your neighbor, spreading the word and delivering folks to these hearings, which we did.”
NMED sensed heightened public interest in the project and insisted that Gandy Marley hold public meetings, said Steve Pullen, who helped draft the permit for Triassic Park and is now compliance manager for NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau. Meetings were set for Roswell, Santa Fe, Tatum and Hagerman.
On July 19, 2001, Deacon Jesus Herrera of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Dexter walked into the Hagerman Elementary School auditorium with 15 or 20 other people from his parish. They’d come to him with concerns about Triassic Park. This, Herrera said, was supposed to be their meeting — a chance to ask questions and get responses in Spanish.
Things didn’t go as planned.
As the meeting progressed in English, Herrera rose and asked if the presentation also would be made in Spanish.
It wouldn’t, he was told. An interpreter was on hand but would only translate attendees’ questions into English. Some activists remember officials telling Herrera to “sit down and shut up.” The activists said they were incensed and embarrassed.