This page is optimized for a taller screen. Please rotate your device or increase the size of your browser window.

Abt Conversations: Health, Climate & Equity – New Mexico

December 7, 2021

Good health and safe environments are important to everyone. Increasingly, federal, state, and local partners are seeking ways to improve health for all people, no matter where they live, who they are, or how much they earn. In this podcast miniseries, Abt staff sit down with health leaders from Massachusetts, Minnesota, and the Pueblo de San Ildefonso to discuss ideas on health equity, including challenges, innovative approaches, and next steps for their respective programs and communities. In this episode, Abt's Kaylene Ritter talks with Raymond Martinez, Director, Department of Environmental & Cultural Preservation and Lieutenant Governor, Pueblo de San Ildefonso.

Read the Transcript

Kaylene Ritter: Hi Raymond.

Raymond Martinez: Hello, Kaylene.

Kaylene: So, thank you, Raymond, for joining me. You're the lieutenant governor, and you are also the director of the Department of Environmental and Cultural Preservation. The pueblo is situated in northern New Mexico, and faces some particular challenges: climate impacts, extreme fire, temperature drought, extreme storm events. These are all affecting the pueblo's resources. And in addition to that, the pueblo is adjacent to the Los Alamos National Lab, and so there's a history there of contaminant issues that are also of concern. And so what we see happening is an intertwining, in fact, of these different environmental concerns. So, both contaminant and health and climate and health, sort of all intertwined and issues and challenges that Raymond and his team need to deal with. And we have been working with you for a number of years now on climate and health issues. And I really appreciate your taking the time to just talk about this a little together today.

Raymond: Sure. Thank you. Happy to be here.

Kaylene: People across the country are affected by climate, but there are, I think some issues that disproportionately affect tribes. And when we think about, for example, tribes are often place-based cultures and fixed in place by reservation boundaries that have been established through sort of the history of this country and the federal government. Just wondering if you might have any thoughts to share in terms of your perspectives on some of the unique aspects of climate change and impacts on Native American communities and the Pueblo in particular?

Raymond: Here at the Pueblo, I've grown up here all my life. Just went away for college and some outside work, but really been here all my life. And one of the things that I've learned growing up is that how we're tied to the natural resources within our reservation and how we use those natural resources in traditional and cultural ways. And growing up here throughout the years, we see a lot of different changes that have been attributed to climate change. And from that, we see plant material that we used to gather that is no longer available. Resources such as different animal species that are no longer present here on our land due to vegetation loss, due to habitat loss, due to water loss. We have learned how to adapt and, even though they are a part of our native lives here, we still continue to use those resources. But, we find ourselves having to look elsewhere besides our pueblo reservation to be able to collect those resources and use those resources in order to keep practicing our culture and traditional activities.

Within the next 50 years, we're not going to have evergreen forests around in our reservation anymore. They're slowly migrating to higher elevations because of needing cooler temperatures. So, those changes: we've been hit by wildfires, we've been hit by drought, we've been hit by bug infestations that have really decimated our resources. So, those are some of the things that we see. And the work that we've been conducting is, how do we bring those back or how do we keep what we have right now? And also getting to think at that point, if these resources do go away, what does the pueblo have to do in order to keep its identity tied to certain activities that we do?

Kaylene: Thanks, Raymond. Just as you were talking, it made me think. So, there's this notion of the resources and sort of being a place-based culture tied to the land, and what do you do when those resources disappear from where you live, which you've just addressed very eloquently.

It also made me think about other stressors that you are facing simultaneously, which may not be directly climate related, but definitely feed into climate and it just sort of all piles on, right? So, I'm thinking about COVID-19 and just the impacts to the pueblo of COVID not just in terms of health, but just some of the impacts of the isolation. And so we have a culture that is very much founded in family and group activities. And I know that when COVID hit and part of what happened was the lockdown and folks being isolated, that took a real toll on individuals. And perhaps that was a toll that might be even greater for pueblo members where so much of the cultural and spiritual health is intertwined with group activities.

Raymond: Sure, sure. And yes, it has hit our pueblo hard within this area, I believe, before the whole COVID really took a hold, we were the last pueblo out of the 19 pueblos that were actually able to hold a feast day. And after that, everything stopped. We use that also as a teaching tool for our young youth, so they've actually missed out on a whole, almost two years now of learning, right? And a big thing for us is keeping our traditional language alive. And that is a place being able to gather with your elders, with your uncles, with your aunts, with your grandmas, grandpas, that's the place where we teach a lot of these activities and our youth have actually lost out on that within the last two years.

And actually, being able to go visit family members, we actually have discouraged going to visit your elders because of the vulnerability of that. So, it's like my kids have lost that time. Other youth have lost that time with their uncles, grandpas, aunts, grandmas. That time has been lost. So, there's a whole two years of learning that has gone by, that people haven't been in able to pick up.

Kaylene: Thank you for sharing, Raymond. I think some of the things that really struck me--we know, for example, that while COVID is not directly a result of climate change, we definitely see the effects, the combined effects of COVID and health. We know that, for example, folks who've been exposed to wildfire smoke have worse outcomes if they are then exposed to COVID. And wildfire is one of the big concerns for the pueblo in terms of climate impacts with major fires and air quality being a big concern. So, definitely, while it's not directly a climate issue, it definitely is tied to impacts intertwined when it comes to sort of the health of the community.

So, we've talked about some of the disproportionate effects in terms of cultural impacts, and we talked a little bit about COVID. Another issue that the Pueblo de San Ildefonso faces in terms of environmental issues is a legacy of contamination associated with the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which is just adjacent to the pueblo. And in fact, the laboratory facility is actually completely within the ancestral domain of the pueblo. So, these are the traditional grounds of the pueblo, where we now have the LANL facility. And environmental practices and control measures have improved over the years. But this is a site where, in the 1940s, with the development of the atom bomb, there were very few environmental controls and pretty substantial levels of legacy contamination resulting from that time in terms of radionuclides, plutonium, uranium, americium, cesium, and also metals and other contaminants.

And so we have this sort of double whopper of issues of climate change, as well as contamination, and then the potential impacts of climate change on exposure to contaminants. And then also what happens when you have both climate and contaminant health stressors on the poor human body at once. These are all issues that the pueblo is facing in terms of climate and contaminants.

Raymond: Sure. Yeah. That is correct. All of Los Alamos National Lab sits within the ancestral domain of the Pueblo de San Ildefonso. And we are bordered with forest service and the national parks, along, with the Los Alamos county and White Rock community. But yes, that is a big issue that we've had to deal with over the past, with the contamination that the work up at the hill has brought. Right now, we're dealing with chromium plume in our groundwater. And there's an interim measures in place for that. And we are tracking that, monitoring that with monitoring wells that are located on the lab side, and also on the pueblo side. Again, there's other plumes that are out there that we are monitoring too. Vapor plumes, there's some other RDX stuff that's going on.

So, and just all around what we do now because of the activities at the lab, we have a whip route that runs through our pueblo. Where they're taking waste off the hill and taking it down to the waste isolation pilot plant in Carlsbad to store. So, we have that that goes right through the main portion of our pueblo, crosses a major waterway, the Rio Grande River. But, there's always that potential. And I've learned working in the environmental department over the years that yes, the true packs that they pack them in are probably safe, but not everyone in our community knows that. And there's always the potential for accident because over 80 percent of their workforce works off the hill. And you never know when an accident may occur or something like that on the major highways that we have here. Something may occur and we’ve got to be ready to be able to jump into action for that.

But also, you're correct that we've had climate... We've been hit with two major wildfires in the area, and right after that, drought. So, we didn't have a lot of vegetation being able to come back in and stabilize the soil. And for the rain that we did get right after the fires, it came in very intense storms and washed a lot of that sediment and contaminated soil off of the property of the lab on the pueblo and past the pueblo. And we know that, by studies that have been conducted, they're finding radionuclides in the Cochiti reservoir. So, obviously they had to have passed through the canyon systems that come through the lab, through the pueblo onto the Rio Grande, and they deposited into Cochiti reservoir. And we still have pockets of that. We can see that.

Our department, a few years back, conducted a plutonium study in ash. And we were able to identify the ash layers from the different fires in 2000 and 2003 or 2005, Las Conchas and Cerro Grande. We were able to identify the ash layers and pick out that and send them off for sampling for plutonium. And we were finding evidence of plutonium in those ash layers. So, we know those deposits are within those canyon systems that run through the pueblo.

Again, with drought and then with the intense... When we do have storms, the intensity that they're coming in drops a lot of rain real quick, and that turns into flash floods that redeposit a lot of these sediments throughout the canyon systems and moving down onto our property. And that's a major concern that we have here at the pueblo because of our use with what natural resources we do have available to us. That's been one of the major things that we've been looking at here at the department is tribal risk assessment and how that is incorporated into the climate work that we're doing right now, with your team, Kaylene. That all ties into a lot of the work that we've been conducting, looking at sediment movements and species diversity now because of climate.

So, a lot of that ties in, and again, the whole stressors, like you're saying, is that not only are you stressed because there's COVID issues, there's climate issues, and now you have to worry about, and that's always been there, contamination issues. And that is a lot on the human body, the human mind, because I think, from some of the workshops you conducted, you saw one of the responses from our youth was we see how irritable our elders get when it's too hot or how irritable they get when it's too cold, those kind of things. And this is coming from youth and they understand that, right? And it is true, you see your temperament will change on the weather. And with those other stressors that are combined, it's like, "Man, it's hot and I got to wear a mask?"

With these different situations that you've brought up, the air quality, you can really see that here with all the smoke. We might not have a fire here in New Mexico itself, but we see the effects from all the surrounding states with that smoke. It really settles in here and it's been bad. And that has created concerns over what do we do for our HVAC systems, filters putting on our HVAC systems. In combination with the heat, a lot of our elders, they live in old adobe homes or older homes that the ventilation isn't as great or they don't have cooling units, AC units. So, they put in swamp coolers. They put in these kind of things, but are they always changing out their filters? Are they cleaning them? So, those issues come up because then they're bringing in the outside air where the smoke is. And then with the dryer temperatures, we get a lot of dust storms. So, now you're bringing in dust.

You’ve got to make sure that you have those filters in place and they're properly installed because not only do you... There's a whole thing out there floating around that you could be sucking in with a swamp cooler. You're opening your windows because it's hot and you're putting fans there. And that has really got the pueblo thinking, do we have to go out and look for funds to be able to outfit our elders with AC units, with the proper HVAC, HEPA filters, and UV disinfectant lightings, and those kind of things. Are those things that we should be looking at nowadays now to combat not only the smoke, COVID, and anything else that might be out there?

So, I'm going back and forth between my environmental hat and my lieutenant hat. But yet, those are things that still tie in because, from the environmental side, I got to look, well, yes, this is a concern because you should have these proper HEPA filters on your HVAC systems and things like that and possibly some disinfectants, the blue lighting and things like that, if you can afford it. Those should be put on there. But then again, I jump back to my lieutenant hat, well, I need to go look out for that kind of funding to be able to provide this services to my community.

Kaylene: Yeah. As you went through the whole progression of years of study in terms of understanding these problems and issues, I think we actually... I think it's almost been 10 years now that we've been working with you on various environmental concerns from sort of the contaminant issues, to climate, to health, tribal health risk assessment. And sometimes, as you said, it can be overwhelming. There's just so many problems. And we've been working on characterizing and investigating over the years, with you and our team here at Abt, so many of these environmental concerns, health concerns, climate.

But at this point, one thing that makes me kind of feel good is that we're starting to, as you described, we're starting to look at, "Okay, what can we do about this now?” Right? And starting to think about adaptation of, in particular, climate and sort of intertwined health issues, how can we address these problems? We've identified the issues. We've worked with the community to identify community vision, what's important to the community. So, we know what's prioritized, what we need to do to sustain and protect that community vision and way of life. And so I think we're sort of now at that point where we've done so much investigation and planning, and now we're actually starting to, as you said, look for funding to implement, right? To actually implement the solutions. Where do we get the funding to actually install those filtration systems in elders’ homes? And what are the other measures that we need to take and how can we make them happen? Which feels good to be doing that as well.

But it does also raise, I think, another issue that is that challenge, you said, the funding challenge, the money challenge, right? The financial issue. And I think that's also a concern that perhaps disproportionately affects Native American communities. We can understand the problems, but perhaps, there's always the challenge of the funding. And sometimes, that's an even bigger challenge for Native American communities. To find the funding, to actually sort of implement the solutions. It can be frustrating when you know here's the problem and here's something we can do, but we need the funds to be able to actually do it.

Raymond: Sure. Yeah. And that's very important as far as capacity building. We want to be able to provide that service to our staff, to be able to build their capacity, to be able to deal with these kind of situations. But, we don't always have the funding available through general funds or grant funds. They're limited. In some ways, they're tied to different scopes. The work that we have done between DECP and Abt is that has got us to thinking that when we do go for capital outlay projects, when we look at other revenue sources or even building projects, do we think about, now, should they be green? Should they make sure and take on this other renewable energy kind of source aspect of it?

We want to build capacity within. That way, our people or our staff can take those on and be able to maintain those kind of systems that we have and also, provide the studies that we're doing and be able to carry out the work that we're conducting. And then implementing the changes that will come from it. One of the big things that we're looking at right now, again, with your help of course, is the climate and then the water resources.

Kaylene: Is there anything else that you wanted to touch on?

Raymond: I think we've covered the gist of what we have going on right now. And I want to thank you and your team for all the work that you've helped us with out here at the pueblo. I look forward to our continued work. We still have a lot of work to get done. And the thing is, though, is it's fun. It's fun doing this kind of work. And you look forward to coming to work to do this because, in a way, I know we're making a difference.

Kaylene: Great. Well, we definitely find our work for the pueblo incredibly rewarding and meaningful. And again, just are excited for this new phase that just this past year or so that we've entered into where we're really looking at, "Okay, let's start doing things. Let's start implementing. Let's start putting adaptation into action." So, I agree. It's a fun, exciting time to be a part of that.

Work With Us
Ready to change people's lives? We want to hear from you.
We do more than solve the challenges our clients have today. We collaborate to solve the challenges of tomorrow.