Two weekends ago, on one of those glittery bright, hot mornings that New Mexico is known for, I drove up to Los Alamos to have breakfast with a friend. The most notable event on the horizon was a plume of smoke from the Pacheco fire on the opposite side of the valley, by afternoon nearly obliterating the view of the east-side Sangre de Christo mountains. By the end of next day, a second plume had arisen on the west side Jemez mountains, and the hills were on fire in what has become the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history.
More notably, the Las Conchas fire – named for its original flash point in a pretty little canyon in the highlands that I remember as the place where a friend once made a comical attempt at teaching me how to rock climb – butted dangerously close to the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and its legacy of Cold War-era waste and cast-offs. An all-out effort to protect the lab and the town ensued, with over 2,000 personnel on site at the height of the effort last week. The fire was diverted from lab property and, at least insofar as data that has been released goes, the cloud of smoke and ash that has periodically descended over Santa Fe and the Espanola valley in the two weeks since does not hold any more health threats than any other cloud of smoke and ash might.
Not so lucky were the pueblo lands surrounding the lab – the homelands of people who go by names like Cochiti, Pojoaque, Jemez, Santa Claran. An undercurrent of rage from some quarters in the pueblos has contrasted sharply to the feel-good community effort Santa Fe put out to house and host refugees from the evacuation of Los Alamos, one of the wealthiest and most well-educated communities in the United States. The lab was protected while the pueblos burned, it is argued, the wealthy homes on the mesa were taken care of while the native lands were consumed in flame; you can debate the intent, but resulting disparities are hard to miss.
But this is a far from simple circumstance of resource distribution to the wealthy and poor, and the race lines that accompany those delineations. The blaze had to be stopped at the LANL boundary; no one, in any community, would have seen any good from the vaporization of some tens of thousands of surface-level barrels of solvent- and plutomium-laced legacy waste being housed on LANL land. Moreover, Los Alamos benefitted from a very unwitting benefactor: the remarkable burn scar of the Cerro Grande fire, which denuded the hillside above town over ten years ago, burning so hot that the usual post-conflagration flourishing of flora and fauna never took hold. Cerro Grande – which burned into both LANL and the town of Los Alamos in the year 2000 – is a large part of what protected Los Alamos this time around.
That is not by any means to say that a travesty of environmental justice was not committed. It was, but it did not start in this week with this fire. It started centuries ago with the colonization of pueblo land, of course, but for useful purposes the metaphorical accelerant hit the flame in the 1940s when the Manhattan Project to build the first nuclear bomb was situated on the pretty little mesa that is the home of the first atomic bombs and a now legacy stockpile that would make New Mexico one of the world’s top nuclear powers were it to secede from the rest of the United States. In this article, a woman from the Santa Clara pueblo describes the shattering of a native belief system after LANL arrived: how can one maintain the spiritual relationship to such things like rain and fire if you know those things may now carry the silent killer of radioactive and chemical waste – especially from the days when phrases like “environmental protection” had not yet begun to exist. The future of LANL is even further complicated by the construction of a new plutonium processing facility on the lab site, essentially a brand new bomb-building factory, to the tune of $6 billion in taxpayer money – a rankly anomalous development under a federal regime that has made a loud public show of nuclear arms control as a goal.
Yet few people in New Mexico really want to see LANL go altogether; in a region that that barters back and forth with a couple of states in the deep south for the bottom rung of every marker of poverty and mal-development, Los Alamos is an oasis of education and income that spills over to the surrounding neighbors and influences the per capita indices of wealth inexorably upwards. There are no easy answers here.
It was less than 4 months ago that an earthquake and tsumani put Japan’s nuclear industry on notice that even with the best of intentions and the most technically proficient means, human efforts cannot predict or control the stochastic vagaries of natural and unnatural disasters. Los Alamos skated a hair’s breadth from those same lessons these last two weeks; though we escaped unscathed this time, let us learn them anyway: the health of people and the move to good stewardship will not start with the renewal of the dream of the Manhattan Project. There are too many variables; there are fires in the night, there are earthquakes at dawn, there are decades of broken trust behind the gated curtains that ring the LANL property. This is no place to be making nuclear bombs. Nowhere is any place to be making nuclear bombs.
Los Alamos sits on the edge of an ancient super-volcano known as the Valles Caldera; on a recent night, driving through the Espanola valley at dusk, the flame-out from one finger of the Las Conchas fire burned so bright that traffic stopped along the highway to gawk at what appeared from miles away to be flow of molten lava down the slope linking Los Alamos to the rest of the world. In a way, it was an unearthly beauty: a thing you do not forget. For today, the wind blows north again and the skies are clear over the valley, while the fire rages elsewhere: too easy to forget, while still it burns. Let us remember though, and take these days forward, and make amends, and try to leave the fire the next time to burn clean, not with the hazy legacy of a half-century’s worth of bitter waste.