Madelyn Kumar

Yale Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic is mounting a legal fight against certain practices of the New Mexico Environment Department that it says unfairly discriminate against Spanish-speaking and other non-English-speaking communities.

The Environmental Justice Clinic’s work follows a 2002 complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency, which provides funding for New Mexico Environment Department, drafted by Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, along with three other environmental advocacy groups. In the complaint, the organization accused New Mexico Environment Department of racial and language-based discrimination when it approved the construction of the Triassic Park Hazardous Waste Facility in Chaves County, New Mexico, a facility the organization claims disproportionately affects non-English-speaking groups. The Yale clinic is now representing Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, a nonprofit political group focused on the environmental effects of radioactive waste dumping.

“It’s a movement to fight back against the New Mexico Environment Department’s negligence in upholding environmental justice standards,” said Lindsay Olsen FES ’19, a student who works in the Environmental Justice Clinic. “The [New Mexico Environment Department] conducted their permitting process in a way that was hostile toward people who didn’t speak English.”

Last month, New Mexico Environment Department released official policy changes seeking to address this alleged discrimination. But community groups are “outraged” by New Mexico Environment Department’s “failure to include community voices” — specifically non-English voices — in drafting the policy changes, according to a press release issued last week by the Environmental Justice Clinic and other activist groups.

New Mexico Environment Department did not offer a comment for this story after the News contacted the organization on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Noel Marquez, a Spanish-speaking New Mexico resident and community activist, told the News that the way New Mexico Environment Department operates makes it difficult for people who don’t speak English to understand the organization’s politics.

“All we’re saying is that we need to have an open honest debate so that people can be informed and be part of the process, especially when the waste dumping is right in these people’s backyards,” he said. “It’s going to affect generations.”

Marquez added that the “inept” New Mexican government has disregarded public opinion and that the EPA should hold the organizations it funds to a higher standard.

Nonetheless, the New Mexico Environment Department’s new policies — which were released in both Spanish and English — lay out new policies and reinforce its commitment to nondiscrimination.

“New Mexico Environment Department does not condone, tolerate, practice or engage in unlawful discrimination against any external party or parties, nor does it condone retaliation against or intimidation of those alleging discrimination by New Mexico Environment Department employees,” the department’s official new policy says. “New Mexico Environment Department shall provide [limited English proficiency] persons and populations meaningful access to New Mexico Environment Department’s actions and proceedings.”

The New Mexico Environment Department was founded in 1991.

Niki Anderson | niki.anderson@yale.edu