Environmental contamination in New Mexico has long had disproportionate effects on low-income and minority communities. Fallout from nuclear weapons testing and uranium mining continues to harm the state’s indigenous population. A recent University of New Mexico study showed a quarter of Navajo women tested had elevated levels of uranium in their blood.
Groundwater pollution from industrial sites in Albuquerque’s South Valley was so prevalent that the Environmental Protection Agency labeled it a Superfund site in need of federal cleanup.
Albuquerque non-profit worker and indigenous Alaskan Jacqueline Shirley wants to ensure all New Mexicans have access to clean water and air and healthy land.
She is one of eight new members appointed to the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
“We need to ensure that when people say ‘not in my backyard,’ that whatever toxic activity is not being dumped somewhere else that could harm these disenfranchised communities, which may not feel like they have a voice,” she said.
The environmental justice movement was started in the late 1960s by activists of color who saw inequity in how industry polluted air and water in their communities.
The council, established in 1993, supports “low-income, minority, indigenous, and disadvantaged communities that are more likely to live near or be disproportionately impacted by contaminated lands.”
Shirley was raised in Alaska and first came to New Mexico in the 1980s to study environmental science at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. After that, she worked in Farmington at a Navajo-owned environmental remediation law firm and attended classes at Fort Lewis College in Durango.
The former army medic and member of the national guard was an intern at Kirtland Air Force Base with the Department of Energy, where she consulted with tribes about the transport of spent fuel on tribal lands.
“People should be notified that these shipments are passing through their lands,” Shirley said. “We want the economic growth that can come from manufacturing, agriculture and our major laboratories, but it can’t be at the expense of harming communities.”
Shirley currently works at the Rural Community Assistance Corp. in Albuquerque, which focuses on small municipal water systems and developing rural economies. She said she is eager to commit her time and energy to protect natural resources for her fellow New Mexicans.
“This place has always been my second home,” Shirley said. “I love New Mexico, and I will fight for New Mexico.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.