Why do we clam up on big business, big trouble?

When one mentions Intel, Molycorp, General Electric, many people in New Mexico get a shiver up their spines, the same sort of jolt that's associated with the kind of absolute power that comes with vast wealth and rigid secrecy.

Big corporations all over the world, are finding themselves increasingly in the role of scapegoat for virtually every wrong imaginable. And, indeed, dealing with the bureaucracies of a giant insurance company, a massive HMO, a monopolistic energy company, or a defense contractor has many of the qualities of dealing with the oldest scapegoat of all — government.

Scapegoating, of course, is never right. It stinks ethically, and it dulls intelligence. Big companies are no more inherently villainous than any agency in state or federal government. They may be as intractable and as autocratic as government can be, but that's the nature of size and power.

Still, in New Mexico, these days, big companies and big federal agencies seem to be taking more liberties than usual. And while not evil, per se, they often seem more arrogant, than cooperative when it comes to public service and public needs.

Let's take the Questa mining company Molycorp, for instance, long known as a stable employer and relentless polluter of the Red River. Within the last few weeks, it's become clear to state officials that the a huge mountain of tailings from the company's molybdenum mine near Goathill Gulch is perilously close to avalanching down on part of the town of Questa. The steep tailings mountain has been there since the mid l970s, Ben Neary of The New Mexican reports. Engineers working for the state fear that a good rain could cause millions of tons of rock to drop 2000 feet down the gulch, into Red River and even on the highway and Questa itself.

If that tailings pile has been there for thirty years, why did the state and Molycorp wait until now to get concerned? Too much regulatory licence? A sacrosanct big company and good employer having its way with public safety? Or what about the state's failing effort to get General Electric and many other companies to pay damages for polluting the groundwater in the South Valley?

The state sued the companies for some $4 billion dollars, possibly the largest suit of its kind in the state's history. But for some reason, none of the state's news outlets covered this historic story in anything more than the most casual way. I wonder why? Is it because the companies were defense contractors? Is it because the people of the South Valley are somehow less important than the big corporations?

Anyone who studies environmental issues in New Mexico knows the history of well closings from Mountain View to East San Jose in the South Valley, the groundwater being dangerously polluted with industrial solvents. The whole area is known as EPA Region 5. Bernalillo County has a map with some 36 pollution sites in that area, many defense related. It doesn't look as if the state's going to win its suit. I wonder if some public outcry would have helped.

And what about the 600 or so Corrales residents who've charged for years that Intel's smoke stack emissions are making them sick? The company has denied the charges vociferously, but won't tell anyone what kind of chemicals it emits, for so-called proprietary reasons. State regulators have sided with Intel, of course, all the while not quite closing the door on increasingly angry residents.

Anyone who drives through Corrales can smell the smells on bad day. And I know a number of friends who are literally incapacitated with head aches, pains, immunological disruptions that they never had before Intel arrived. And now an internal whistle blower in the company's environmental department has charged that plant management repeatedly blocked his attempts to see if emissions were harming residents. I wonder if the state will pay attention now. Intel, of course, denies the charges.

Why do some business get away with taking liberties with public health in our state? Is our material poverty so great that when it comes to pollution we'll just swallow what we have to?

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
June 10, 2003