Thomas De Pree (MA ’15) on his PhD Research on the Politics of Contaminant Baselining in the American Southwest

Thomas A. De Pree is an ASERT-IRACDA postdoctoral fellow in the School of Medicine at University of New Mexico (2020-2023), where he holds a research appointment with the UNM Metal Exposure and Toxicity Assessment on Tribal Lands in the Southwest (METALS) Superfund Research Program Center, and a teaching appointment in environmental sciences at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI). His disciplinary background is in sociocultural anthropology and archaeology with training in ethnographic methods and cultural resource management. He also has interdisciplinary experience in political ecology, science and technology studies (STS), and Native American and Indigenous studies (NAIS). His dissertation entitled, The Life of the By-Product in the ‘Grants Uranium District’ of Northwestern New Mexico (August 2019), examines the entanglement of sciences, technologies, and politics invested in cleaning up so-called ecological “sacrifice zones.”

So you have a background in Anthropology, but you left Teachers College and got your PhD in another field – can you tell us about that?

Yes, that’s right. It’s interdisciplinary science and technology study, so the department was interdisciplinary. My advisor was Kim Fortun — She’s a cultural anthropologist. I still situate much of my work in anthropology and I still have held on to that disciplinary identity to some extent. But you’re absolutely right. I did only do the Masters in Anthropology at Teachers College. During my two years there, I sat in on the PhD colloquium, which was a huge help for the kind of work that I’ve been doing since. That experience where you’re just dealing with nuts and bolts ethnography. And in a really critical way where we’re dealing with the kind of emic anthropology of Professor Comitas, where we really want to characterize things in the terms and language of our interlocutors. So that kind of emic anthropological training, the training in ethnography, the way that Teachers College Anthro were identified as the qualitative methods people within TC, at least at the time I was there. It has been huge for my career since.

Let’s rewind a little bit. Even before coming to T.C., you had your B.A. in anthropology. Can you tell us about what led you to anthropology?

I did my B.A. in both anthropology and psychology at University of New Mexico. So, frankly, it’s always been about people. I had relationships with and faculty who in a way gave me an invitation to join the field of anthropology. I had a few really neat experiences as an undergrad, taking courses with the anthropologist Steven Feld, who’s also an ethnomusicologist. At the time, I was really passionate about music and I was touring around with a band. Steve Feld really was the person who pulled me from music into anthropology, and eventually was the one who encouraged me to pursue graduate studies.

My way of entering anthropology has much more to do with people I met and relationships I built than topics and interests. I just was lucky enough to meet scholars who were inspiring that ended up bringing me into the field. The University of New Mexico was very much a cultural anthropology program — they called it an ethnology program. It’s a four-field program, so archeology tends to dominate. And I did have some experience in archaeology doing culture resource management at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. That work in cultural resource management also greatly contributed to my identity as an anthropologist and inspired me to pursue graduate studies.

When you were graduating, what made you choose Teachers College for your masters?

The applied dimension was a big deal for me, even though in the program that I was coming from, “applied” was a bad word. But I really wanted to get into the field, and continue to think through the possibilities of policy and engaged anthropology in new meaningful ways. Mentorship at TC from people like Dr. Bond who identify as “dirty anthropologists” who do get their hands dirty really appealed to me.

There were other aspects of the program that I didn’t know about initially, but ended up being really impactful. In applying to grad school, some students have already have it figured it out — they know who they want to work with and they just apply, get in, and they excel. But mine was a little bit more haphazard. I applied to schools in New York and California. It was kind of a geographical orientation. It was a way that I could end up in these cosmopolitan places where my career could grow. That was definitely part of the equation.

But I do have to say that when I entered a program at Teachers College, the colloquium struck me as an incredible asset for any graduate program, and I have not seen that in programs I explored afterwards. I haven’t seen that kind of rigor in anthropology and ethnography. I’m so thankful for that experience, and I’d say that’s a huge asset for the program and the department.

Even though you were a MA student, did you engage in the fieldwork between the first and second year along with the other students in the colloquium course?

Yes, the first semester was with Dr Bond studying the canon, so we were just going through Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Latour, Jean Lave. And actually, the juxtaposition between Bruno Latour and Jean Lave was brilliant. Even now when I think about it, putting those two readings in conversation really pushed my thinking, and clearly still has a lasting impact on my anthropological understanding.

By the second semester of first year, we were watching the cohort above us defend the work that they had done over the summer. That gave me such a dynamic understanding of the possibilities for what I could do that summer. For my fieldwork between the first and second year, I went back to New Mexico and I started what became my master’s thesis studying the politics of cleaning up the Grant Uranium Mining district in northwestern New Mexico, which eventually became my dissertation years later. By the time I started my PhD program at Rensselaer Polytechnic, they were blown away by how well developed that master’s thesis was. Especially in this regard, Teachers College put me way ahead of the curve in terms of the development of my research topic, and really helped with momentum towards my dissertation.

While you were finishing up your masters, what was the process like deciding to go for your PhD? Or did you go into your masters knowing you wanted to get a PhD?

No, that was really challenging period for me. I was torn between a few programs that I had been accepted into, and one was Teachers College. I was torn between pursuing a PhD in Anthro at Teachers College, a PhD in anthro at C.U. Boulder and then a PhD in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer. I had to choose between having this full disciplinary identity in anthropology or moving into an interdisciplinary field, and even until this day, this issue is still unresolved. I have a lot of regret for letting go of the kind of anthropological identity you can develop in a program like Teachers College, especially if you’re working with folks from across the street. I was spending a lot of time doing coursework with Paige West and Audra Simpson. They were responsible for cultivating this identity as an environmental anthropologist focused on Native American and indigenous studies with a really critical perspective on settler colonialism. I don’t think I would have gotten that anywhere else, and that is a huge part of my identity as an anthropologist.

Having said that, the pursuit of an interdisciplinary science and technology studies is a big reason why I think I landed the Postdoc that I have now. It opened space for me to be a little less cynical and actually engage and intervene in different ways that were concrete. For example, I’m working on a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences project, and all of that research is intervention oriented. In most traditional anthropology programs, you don’t get an intervention perspective or training. It’s much more about being descriptive and observing rather than acting. So it’s nice to balance being critical with a plan to actually do something with the community. Developing a critical mindset that we can use to analyze research is pivotal to our training in places like Teachers College and Columbia University. Because of that time at TC/CU, I’m able to critique things in a way that many of my other colleagues in the interdisciplinary departments have not been trained to. But having said that, sometimes you have to shift into a generous read of someone’s work and try to think in different genres, so to speak.

Going back to your applied leanings, it’s great that you want to do something about the problem, and now you have a great academic field where you can do something really productive and really consequential.

Right. That specifically has a lot to do with the demands of my field site. We’re talking about a place that has been deemed a national sacrifice zone. This is an area that overlaps both white settler population and Nuevomexicano (Hispano) populations. Because of this overlap, the burden of the environmental health hazard waste is carried strongly among indigenous communities. The Navajo Nation, Dinétah, Laguna and Acoma Pueblos — they have bore the brunt of the legacy of uranium mining in this area. It didn’t seem rational to me to just sit by and document. It didn’t seem like portraying indigenous peoples as victims was the appropriate narrative, because, in fact, what we’re seeing are a tremendous amount of responses in the field. Right around the beginning of the 21st century, we see the emergence of NGO and grassroots groups who are responding to this legacy of health hazard. So that response, those interventions, the way people are shifting policy towards better clean up of the waste — that became the most interesting thing to me.

Yeah, I can see that from the article you sent me, it at first seemed like a geological sciences paper, but once I looked at the methodology, it was apparent that your research is deeply rooted in ethnography. Can you give us a summary of your dissertation and what your field research is about?

Yeah, so the dissertation was entitled “The Life of the Byproduct in the Grant Uranium District of Northwestern New Mexico” and it was really focused on the deposits of both uranium mining waste and the mill tailings pile, which are huge — they can be a mile in diameter and can be 100 feet high. These are large scale piles. They look like mesas (see below). And each one of them is draining into the groundwater aquifers below, creating plumes of radium, vanadium, molybdenum, heavy metals, but also arsenic and acid — a cocktail of very lethal substances just leaking into the water. The mines themselves are an issue. Some of the mines have been draining and leaking. Much of the wet mines (the mines below the water table) had been pumped in order to mine the ore and get discharged onto the surface, and now that has saturated back into the groundwater. To cut the story short, this area has been contaminated in a high degree and much of that contamination is not contained.

My work was really focused on the responses. Who are the different stakeholders in this situation? I use the term stakeholders because that’s what my colleagues were using to identify each other. It does kind of play off of R. E. Freeman‘s stakeholder theory, where we’re talking about the relationship between the corporation, the state and the community. I frame the setting in those terms, but I really try to complicate those categories. There are people who straddle certain categories or people who move beyond those categories. But by and large, the stakeholder model will be useful to understand some of the different standpoints.

There’s a lot in the dissertation, and I don’t want to reduce it too much, but the thesis is the politics of baselining. That’s a term that I introduced to describe the relationship between all of these different stakeholders who are engaged in this environmental cleanup process and also the environmental monitoring. The idea is that people are searching for the natural baseline. What was this environment like prior to uranium mining? Of course, there’s naturally occurring uranium in the area. How was that naturally occurring uranium affecting groundwater sources prior to mining? The problem is that there is scarce environmental data that exists prior to uranium mining, and much of what does exist is usually quickly discredited by the mining corporation. So what we see are stakeholders challenging each other’s environmental models. So they’re putting together these speculative models that look back towards the past to say this was naturally occurring level of uranium. If you can prove that uranium was quite high in the area, you can actually go beyond what the EPA calls maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) and you can achieve something called Alternative Concentration/Contamination Limits. There are a few different family of terms associated with this. But the idea is that you can change the level to which you clean up the site. The corporation says that the naturally occurring concentration was .44 milligrams per liter, not .03 mg/l which is the MCL for the EPA, then they don’t have to clean up the site as rigorously.

Bluewater Uranium Mill Tailings Pile
Homestake Uranium Mill Tailings Pile

Absolutely, what struck me about that conflict of finding a baseline is this search for truth about something that no one can ever know. And everyone has a stake in asserting their truths, but they’re all using the same scientific instruments for measuring the contaminants.

Yeah, and that’s a really fascinating way to look at it in terms of truth. Especially Science Technology Studies scholars take true as a point of critique, especially the kind of  epistemological framing that they do in their work. I don’t frame the research in terms of truth, I frame it in terms of nature because really it is about what is natural and what is nature. If you’ve heard of Nathan Sayre, he wrote a neat piece called The Politics of the Anthropogenic, and that piece kept coming to mind as I was thinking about my field site because people are fundamentally contesting what is nature. I’m not sure if you follow the literature on the Anthropocene – I know some of it is just wildly overdone and a lot of scholars are questioning the value of that kind of work, especially in anthropology. But I’m someone who thinks there’s still a lot of analytic value left in the Anthropocene, especially for questioning sites where you have manmade uranium tailings piles that are as large as they are.

You used a lot of traditional anthropological methods; participant observation, interviews, archive work. Even though your field is interdisciplinary, do you consider yourself still doing anthropological research?

Yeah, I frame it as ethnographic through-and-through. Participant observation was bigger for me than interviewing. I did do a lot of interviews, largely unstructured. I favor the unstructured, which I would also argue is the anthropological technique more so than say, sociology which generally prefers a semi structured interview or a structured interview. I was also applying anthropological methods to the archives — I did archival work in the Geologic Information Center at New Mexico Tech in addition to a few other archives that I surveyed. Ann Stoler‘s work encouraging anthropologists to stop taking the perspective that the archive is just a background, only historical fact, from where the ethnography begins. Instead, we should really critique the texts that we’re seeing, and examine the social life of the texts within the archives. In this sense, it is an investigation of settler colonial power and state archives, and I tried to work to understanding how these archives came to be. You can also think about it along the lines of Beth Povinelli‘s work regarding how archives control and construct ontologies. She’s done really great work thinking with Derrida about the archives. Both Ann Stoler and Beth Povinelli have been hugely influential in my anthropological work at the Geologic Information Center. But I also learned a ton from Kim Fortun. She teaches experimental collaborative ethnography and she runs a platform, PECE (Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography). Her methods class nuanced my methodology. With that said, the core of what I learned about ethnography came from Teachers College.

Returning to the previous point about interviewing versus participant observation. I was largely sitting in on these public meetings where all of the stakeholders would come together and deliberate about the possibilities of cleaning up. Those interactional moments were the most interesting moments in my fieldwork. I was just sitting there with my notebook writing down everything that was happening. I could literally not write fast enough during those meetings because that’s where those thick interactive moments came about. I don’t necessarily frame it as ethnomethodological, but I benefited a lot from Herve Varenne’s ethnomethodological approach, and also Ray McDermott there at Teachers College. Their thinking in that way really pushed me to focus on the complex interactions rather than just isolated interviews with different stakeholders.

It seems like those meetings are such unique moments where the State, the corporations and the people converge. Most anthropologists would love to be able to study those moments of explicit contestation and dialogue between these entities.

Absolutely. These were all public meetings, so it’s a public forum. Things discussed there are things that end up in the news and published elsewhere. However, there is a lot of secret information at my field site. Secret both in terms of the private enterprise of corporations and of the organizing of the Pueblos. The secrecy on the Pueblo side was generally because there is particular cultural knowledge that is so important to them that outsiders could not be privy to it. Because of these dynamics, these public meetings became a safe space for me to make observations. And I think that was an important part of my work because there’s constantly this back and forth about the politics of representation, what you can say and can’t say, and you’re always wondering if you’re going to get sued if you say certain things. For example, Homestake is the name of one of the corporations, but they were acquired by Barrick Gold, the largest gold mining corporation in the world. And they’re spending a lot of money on corporate social responsibility at the site in an attempt to shape the way the site looks to the public. It gets very complicated when entities like this are involved.

This is a very anthropological project, but your postdoc is in the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. How do those two fields converge around this topic?

I’ve actually experienced a real embrace of the social and behavioral research side of things, the embrace of anthropology, the embrace of ethnography as a method. That’s the way I pitched my work to them – I didn’t pretend that I was a technician because I’m not. I make it clear to my colleagues that I’m not here to look at RNA and DNA necessarily. I’m more interested in conceptions of immunity and how those translate across different cultures and generations within and between pueblos, and even the general public.

It’s an ASERT (Advanced Science Education, Research and Training) postdoc, which is an NIH-funded mechanism. The research appointment is at the UNM METALS (Metal Exposure and Toxicity Assessment on Tribal Lands in the Southwest) center. They embrace the notion of ethnographic principles as something that I would bring to the group. They could see how I was going to bring a more critical stakeholder analysis into their purview. And in short, they saw me as the “perspectives” person. They frame everything I do in terms of the perspectives. As cliché as it may sound, anthropologists are some of the most necessary researchers to bring the perspectives of communities into the lab, and this project is a great example of that.

It seems like it’s essential to have an ethnographer on staff in order for that kind of lab to even fulfil its most basic objectives.

That’s right, and I should add that this group that I’m working with has been doing community based participatory research in really creative and innovative ways for a long time. They already have really great community relations and partnerships. It’s a challenge for me to even keep up with them because they’re leading the way in many ways.

I saw in your bio that you teach at SIPI (Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute), which is a really interesting academic system. Can you tell us about your work there?

So it’s associated with this postdoc appointment. It’s 75 percent research with UNM METALS group, and then 25 percent teaching, which is with SIPI. SIPI has been impacted by COVID 19, and the forced transition to online learning. So I have not started my teaching appointment at SIPI because there continues to be a lot of logistical and administrative challenges. In the meantime, I’m revising their Natural Resource Program description, looking for what they term more “cultural appropriateness.” So I’m essentially trying to deliver the information about environmental science in a way that’s more appropriate to primarily indigenous students from the Pueblos in New Mexico. I’m also looking for better coherence with the state higher ed matrix. So that’s all underway right now. This work is important, too, but I’m really looking forward to when I can begin teaching at SIPI.

Outside of that, I’m actually teaching right now at New Mexico Tech. In late September, a professor passed away who’s teaching a course, Atomic America the history of nuclear technology course. They were aware of the work that I was doing, so they called me to step in and teach the course. The syllabus is based around two case studies, one looking at the Grants Uranium Districts, so I’m basically teaching my dissertation. The second is looking at Chupadera Mesa, which is downwind from the first Trinity test. The downwind area of the Trinity test contains a large amount of unfissioned plutonium, and it’s also a major grazing area, so we’re gonna be looking into cattle pathways, exposure pathways and how people are exposed to unfissioned plutonium through consumption. The idea behind these case studies is that they’re bookending the cradle to grave lifetime of uranium. We’re looking at the mining side, which is always left out of the histories of Atomic America, all the way to the fallout downwind from weapons testing.

Do you have any tips for current master’s or PhD students for things they can do to get prepared to enter academia?

One, while you’re enrolled at Columbia University, even though you’re not on campus right now, every second counts and networking is huge. The people who I met there ended up writing letters for my PhD applications, but also provided invaluable advice,  and they were essential for me to get my career rolling. Even though we’re online at the moment, attend conferences, virtually present, publish. You know, I can’t say that enough, and I can’t do that enough. I’m at a point right now where I’m having to just salvage parts of the dissertation for publication, but also thinking about possible book contracts. All of these things that I’m bringing up and I’m working on now should have been done much sooner. Obviously you can’t publish until you’ve done the fieldwork to collect the data. But once you have the fieldwork done, really get those publications out there. High-impact journals are one part of it, but I think the impact factor is not as important to a number of people in the humanities. So journals like Cultural Anthropology, American Anthropologist and Culture and Technology have a very low impact factor, but I think are still important to publish in.

Honestly though, I think what has kept me on track is by spending time with the people who inspire me the most. I was really fortunate to work with someone like Paige West at Columbia University, and I’m really fortunate to work with someone like Kim Fortun, who’s now at UC Irvine. These are scholars whose work I was passionate about and really struck me as a young scholar, so I think by staying in association with the scholars that inspire you the most, it helps keep the faith, particularly during dire moments in academia. The job market is tough – and that’s not to make us feel too anxious, but it shows how important this professional networking is, while also staying inspired and motivated. You have to keep yourself intrigued by the work that you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s simply overwhelming. If you aren’t really driven by your work, the academic job market will be that much harder, and it reads in the interviews. When you can talk passionately about the work that you’re doing and pass on that excitement, it makes a world of difference.

Check out Thomas’s published August 2020 article in the Journal of Environmental Management, “The politics of baselining in the Grants uranium mining district of northwestern New Mexico.” Find the link here and the abstract below.

Abstract: During the second half of the twentieth century, northwestern New Mexico served as the primary production site for one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. From 1948 to 1970 the “Grants uranium district” provided almost half of the total uranium ore accumulated by the United States federal government for the production of nuclear weapons, in addition to becoming a national source for commercial nuclear energy from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. By the twenty-first century, after a prolonged period of economic decline that began in the late 1970s, all uranium mining and milling in New Mexico had ceased, leaving a legacy of environmental health impacts. What was once referred to as “The Uranium Capital of the World” now encompasses over a thousand abandoned uranium mines and seven massive uranium mill tailings piles, which are associated with airborne and soil contamination as well as groundwater plumes of uranium and other contaminants of concern, in a landscape that has been fractured by underground mine workings and punctured by thousands of exploratory boreholes. This article presents an ethnographic study of the diverse forms of expertise involved in monitoring and managing the mine waste and mill tailings. Drawing from over two years of ethnographic research, I describe the relationship between different stakeholders from local communities, government agencies, and transnational mining corporations as they deliberate about the possibility of cleaning up the former mining district. My thesis is that the possibility of cleaning up the Grants district hinges on the “politics of baselining”—a term I introduce to describe the relationship between stakeholders and their competing environmental models and hydrogeological theories; each accounts for a different geological past prior to mining that can be deemed “natural,” as the background against which to measure the anthropogenic impacts from mining.

Interview conducted by: Lizz Melville

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