I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Chemical company riles neighbors in Mesquite
The list of violations for the Tennessee-based fertilizer plant is long. In 2007, the state Environment Department fined the company $279,000 for 11 serious air quality violations. In 2006, Helena paid $36,000 for not reporting a chemical spill. In 2004, Helena paid $238,000 for failure to obtain a permit for the facility.
In addition, many residents in the tiny community allege that the plant has caused serious health problems in children there. Last November, a number of residents filed suit against the company. Weeks later, Helena responded with a countersuit targeting the leader of the group that’s speaking up the loudest.
It’s an ugly situation–and many think some of Helena’s latest actions are making it even worse.
According to the Environment Department, Helena is attempting to circumvent the fine process for the 2007 violation by attempting to make direct deals to “donate” money for projects for various groups in the community – and spinning it, in the words of a Helena spokesman, as “being a good neighbor and supporting the community.”
The idea that Helena is being a good neighbor by paying required fines for serious air quality violations is a bit much for anyone to swallow.
An editorial in today’s Las Cruces Sun News details the state’s frustration with Helena:
….after the 2007 violations, Helena sought to circumvent its fine through an unauthorized donation known as a supplemental environmental project, or SEP. The SEP process allows a violator to make a contribution to a local air-quality project in lieu of paying a fine to the general fund.
Environment Secretary Ron Curry explained that Helena was allowed to do an SEP after a violation several years ago, and that process only added to tensions in the community. It was made clear to Helena from the start that an SEP would not be acceptable this time, Curry said.”
The fact that Helena went outside the confidential process, sought an unauthorized agreement and then bragged about their community service shows the continued arrogance of the company and their ongoing disrespect for the community of Mesquite, the state department maintains.
“We will not allow Helena’s attempt to improve their public relations image to compromise our efforts to clean up this company and the air in southern Dona Ana County,” Marissa Stone Bardino, spokeswoman for the Environment Department, told the paper in a news story earlier this week.
In today’s editorial, the editors of the Sun News make it clear they agree they concur with the state’s view that Helena is way out of line:
Instead of paying its fine and cleaning up its act, Helena has decided to launch a public-relations campaign. Some elements of that campaign, such as an open house at its plant for Mesquite residents, have been helpful. But much of that campaign has not been constructive at all,” the editors wrote.
Helena paid for its own “independent” air-quality study, that purported to show the plant wasn’t contributing to local pollution at all. Then, based on that study, it argued that an air-quality permit wasn’t necessary. It filed a lawsuit against the Mesquite community activists who have worked the hardest to protect the community.
Last night I spoke again with Aturo Uribe, who is president of the Mesquite Community Action Committee – and the guy who’s being sued right now by Helena for speaking out the loudest and most effectively.
He’s quoted in one of the latest stories about the Helena settlements, and he agrees that the idea that Helena is being a good neighbor by paying its fines is insulting.
Uribe told me that a judge dismissed Uribe’s wife, his attorney and his attorney’s firm from the suit–but Helena has continued to appeal that decision.
In the suit, Helena sought all of Uribe’s children’s medical records and the hard drive of his computer, so they could extract any correspondence or documents relating to Helena.
“I’m giving it to them,” Uribe said. “There’s nothing that we have to hide. It’s just amazing, the idea that you can do this work and address these issues and then be harassed in this way. I’m willing to give them everything they need to make their case against me. Because I’m pretty confident that they don’t have a case.”