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A history of environmental activism

By Bob Kennemer

(Editor’s note: Each year, in March, the La Veta Public Library sponsors a community wide reading program called Two Peaks, One Book. This year the community is reading Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. The book is often credited with breathing new life into the environmental movement of the 1970s.  As part of the Two Peaks, One Book program, La Veta resident and local naturalist, Bob Kennemer provided a program on the history of environmental concerns and activism affecting the Spanish Peaks region. These articles are based on that presentation.)

    When I first visited La Veta in the late 1970s, I couldn’t help but notice that the town dump, located just outside of town to the northwest, burned everyday.  With the prevailing winds and weather coming out of the west/northwest, the town’s people were literally choking on their own waste!  I moved to La Veta in 1985 and the trash burning program continued.  With a background in environmental science, I knew that this was not only a health hazard, it was illegal.  I also knew that new EPA household waste regulations, called Subtitle D, were to soon go into effect.

    These new regulations were created because it was now known that normal household trash was far more toxic than once thought.  The new rules required municipal landfills to meet stricter EPA standards or close.  Not wanting to breathe polluted air, while living in an otherwise pristine place, I decided to take action.  I ran for La Veta town board on a campaign called, “the Greening of La Veta.”  My primary goal was to address our landfill issue(s) and to develop a recycling program.

    After getting on the board I was happy to find out that other town trustees and citizens supported recycling and understood the need to adhere to state regulations or face fines.  Our town dump was full, thus the need to burn our trash.  Several other illegal landfills existed through out the county.  They too would soon have to close.  The new EPA regulations required costly monitoring wells, a six foot parameter fence, and no burning!  The small town of La Veta could not afford to solve these problems alone so a regional approach was pursued.

    Although the EPA supported a regional approach, as it would be the most simple and least costly solution, that concept was not in the cards. Unfortunately, both Walsenburg and Trinidad chose to deal with this issue on their own.  Additionally, the Huerfano County Commissioners chose to not get involved.  La Veta was able to reduce waste by starting a successful recycling program, but each day the trash still burned and toxic black smoke wafted through the town.

    As a regional and united approach fizzled, and the closing of the town dump was imminent, a solution still evaded what had now become a small but vocal group of citizen activists.  Ultimately the La Veta town board decided to close the dump and allow trash haulers to set up operations in the area. Trinidad and Walsenburg chose to keep their landfills open and try to comply with the new regulations.

    Currently, both La Veta and Walsenburg have vibrant recycling programs.  Huerfano County now has a waste transfer station, which is affordable and takes the trash to a legal landfill.  Local activists would like to expand the recycling program to take plastics.  A regular (once or twice a year) household hazardous waste day at the transfer station would be wise.  And some kind of community composting and mulching programs could also reduce waste by turning it into useful garden material.  The Three Rs come to mind: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

    Next week: gambling, nuke dumps, and cell towers-  oh my!