“Community Organizer”

Arturo Uribe of Mesquite, N.M. didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be a community organizer.

But the man who thought of himself as “just a college student, father and husband” effectively became one after he began to suspect that emissions from the Helena Chemical Co. plant next to his family’s longtime home were making his young children sick

Uribe, 38, first noticed that his daughter, Giavanni, 12, began suffering from respiratory problems and uncontrollable nosebleeds shortly after the Uribe family moved to Mesquite in 2003.

The family had been living in Silver City but moved to Mesquite, settling in the house Uribe’s grandfather built decades ago. That Uribe family home sits 50 yards away from the Helena plant, which is believed to manufacture and blend agricultural fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. The company is an American subsidiary of the giant Japanese company Marubeni and exact accounts of what chemicals are actually handled there and what is done with them have been hard to document, Uribe said.

Then, in 2004, Uribe’s son Mariano was born at a Las Cruces hospital. The newborn suffered respiratory arrest days after he was brought home from the hospital. Now 4, he continues to have serious respiratory problems.

“When my son was born he was fine,” said Uribe. “It wasn’t until I brought him home that he went into respiratory arrest and I had to take him back to the hospital. That’s when I really began looking at our environment and finding out that other families with newborns and young children had respiratory issues. I remember calling the New Mexico Environment Department and being real upset.”

Other children in the community had suffered odd ailments, too, said Uribe. One neighbor boy was born with six fingers on one hand and six toes on each foot.

“Their doctor asked them if the husband worked in a chemical plant,” Uribe said.

In a grassroots effort, Uribe and others in the town pressed for a New Mexico Environment Department investigation into the plant. Their efforts led to a $238,000 fine for Helena in Nov. of 2004 for failure to obtain an air quality permit and a $36,000 fine in Oct. of 2006 for failing to report a chemical spill.

But the biggest violations were uncovered in Dec. of 2007, when Helena Chemical was cited for 15 air-quality violations and fined $279,000.

The company’s repeated pattern of violations shows a marked resistance to improvement, said Uribe.

“The state Environment Department needs to do more. I don’t think they (Helena) are taking them seriously. We need new regulations so we can have the quality of life that we want.”

Uribe, who has a degree in social work from NMSU and is now executive director of the Mesquite Community Action Committee, doesn’t attribute his activism to any particular political ideology. He’s says he’s just trying to stand up for what’s right for the people of his community.

Uribe plans to continue calling for more scrutiny of the Helena plant and says his group hopes the company will choose to relocate to a more remote area that is not home to so many vulnerable children and elderly people.

“That kind of plant has outlived its existence in this kind of rural community,” he said.

Other battles Uribe’s grassroots group has helped wage to improve lives in Mesquite include fighting to get a skate park built in town, working to get a better day-care center built and campaigning to spread the tax burden of paying for construction of the nearby Spaceport America to the entire state of New Mexico, not just the three counties surrounding it.

All the activism in tiny Mesquite has attracted the attention of PBS, which will be visiting Mesquite before the election and interviewing people for a special on rural Latino voters and the issues that matter to them, Uribe said.

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