Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

Beata Tsosie Peña of Tewa Women United

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) has announced the winners of its Annual Environmental Justice Awards for 2021. Four awards were given out this year including the yearly presentation of a tongue-in-cheek environmental injustice “award”— a mock “invoice” to the Toxic Polluter of the year for harming the environment and the health of those who call the Land of Enchantment home.

Environmental injustice can be fueled by discrimination, market dynamics, lack of citizen power, industrialization and capitalism. Environmental justice upholds the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction. The key to receiving that justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

“The NMELC Environmental Justice Awards are our way of recognizing the powerful work of community advocates who work tirelessly in defending and upholding environmental justice across the state of New Mexico,” Dr. Virginia Necochea, Executive Director of NMELC, said.

Karl Souder Award (for water protection)

Rich Abitz

Abitz is a geochemist who was awarded for his work with Native American communities to protect their groundwater, including with Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining since 1995 on the Hydro Resources Inc. case. “Dr. Abitz’s analysis and testimony helped lay bare the lie perpetuated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the mining industry that groundwater can be restored after ISL (in-situ leach) uranium mine operations,” NMELC said.

Dr. Abitz serves the Navajo Nation as a technical expert and has evaluated the geochemistry of proposed in situ uranium mining in the Church Rock and Crownpoint areas of New Mexico, and he supported the Navajo EPA in their evaluation of water quality at the United Nuclear Corporation superfund site in Church Rock.

“I feel humbled by the receipt of the Karl Souder Water Protection Award because I realize that Karl Souder was more than a hydrologist and businessman. Karl was also a compassionate human being dedicated to protecting New Mexico’s most important resource—water! I am truly honored to receive this prestigious award. Let me close with the wisdom of the Navajo Diné – to ei iina – water is life!” Abitz said.

Jeanne Gauna Community Environmental Advocacy Award

Beata Tsosie Peña

Tsosie Peña is from the Santa Clara Pueblo and is the coordinator of Tewa Women United’s Health and Environmental Justice program for over thirteen years, and an advocate for environmental justice, reproductive justice, food sovereignty, and community health.

Since the 1940s, the United States government has occupied an important part of the Tewa people’s sacred land, located near the Rio Grande to conduct nuclear, biological, chemical and weapons research, and produce plutonium pits to maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile.

Peña has fought, and collaborated with coalitions including Communities for Clean Water and Frack Off! Greater Chaco, against environmental justice exploitation and contamination from the national labs, mining operations, and other sources.

“Keep showing up for our Mother Earth, for our waters, our land, for our future generations. Let’s keep honoring everything that our ancestors worked to give us today to pass on to us–these life-sustaining ways of existing here and being. This isn’t solitary work, we’re all in it together,” Beata Tsosie-Peña said upon receiving the award.

Youth Earth Protector Award for 2021

Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA)

The youth organization challenges systems that perpetuate climate crisis and widespread environmental injustice through grassroots organizing; political pressure; and local, regional, national, and global climate actions.  They are based in Northern New Mexico and are part of Earth Care. YUCCA is led by passionate and dedicated youth community organizers from across New Mexico. They generated broad awareness and participation in the General Climate Strike and 7 Days of Resistance in September.

“We are made up of young BIPOC peoples (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) from all around New Mexico. In our work, we recognize the reciprocal relationship that we have with Mother Earth. She’s provided for us and cared for us and it’s our duty to do the same for her,” Seneca Johnson, cofounder of YUCCA said on behalf of the organization.

This is the first year the Law Center will be giving out this award, which goes out to a youth (age 20 or younger) who has demonstrated great leadership and vision in protecting New Mexico’s air, water and/or land for current and future generations. Individuals or organizations can be nominated.

Toxic Polluter Award for 2021

Hilcorp Energy

According to a 2021 report, Hilcorp operations emit more methane than any other oil and gas company in the nation, and it is the second-highest emitter of other greenhouse gases nationwide, even though it’s only the 19th largest fossil fuel producer in the country. Hilcorp is the largest gas and oil producer in the San Juan Basin, where it operates over 15,500 wells across 2 million acres. 

“Hilcorp Energy earned this dubious distinction by doing what it does best:  being a profit-mongering bad neighbor. Of the entire oil and gas industry, Hilcorp is the nation’s top methane emitter, and much of the methane and other asthma- and cancer-causing chemicals Hilcorp spews into the air pollutes the communities of thousands of New Mexicans, who are forced to breathe Hilcorp’s toxic fumes day in and day out.  Not only does Hilcorp cavalierly poison communities, but it also flagrantly violates environmental regulations, in New Mexico and beyond.” NMELC stated. In its short time in NM, regulatory agencies have cited Hilcorp for violations multiple times, including levying a $1.62 million penalty for failing to clean up pollution on six sites as ordered by state regulators.