Albuquerque, NM – Yesterday, the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County under Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint, submitted by the non-profit New Mexico Environmental Law Center, asserts that local decision-makers “have demonstrated a record of marginalizing minority communities so that they are exposed to an unequal burden of air pollution and the concomitant adverse health effects.”
As documented in the complaint, adverse health impacts linked to pollutants in the San Jose and Greater Gardner neighborhoods include asthma and shorter life spans. Mountain View, which has an elevated concentration of “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs), has “higher than expected numbers of lung, bladder, brain and thyroid cancers, as well as higher than expected numbers of leukemia compared with the rest of Bernalillo County.”
“The insidious forms of institutional racism that some of our communities experience is truly shameful,” says Juan Reynosa, Environmental Justice Organizer with SWOP. “We’ve seen multiple generations poisoned in their own homes while a steady stream of regulatory bodies and elected officials appear unwilling to implement changes.”
The complaint asks the EPA to conduct an investigation into the discriminatory implementation of the Clean Air Act by the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Air Quality Board and Air Quality Division. It also asks the agency to direct the Board and/or Division to:
• Collect baseline air quality data and implement modeling calibrated against that data.
• Adopt a regulation that prohibits members of the Board or Division from being employed by companies that seek air quality permits.
• Better communicate with low-income communities and communities of color.
• Adopt a “cumulative impact” regulation that requires a permit-seeker to disclose and analyze how its proposed emissions would contribute to existing emissions in an area.
“While the average air quality in Bernalillo County is good and meets federal standards,” says Law Center Staff Attorney Eric Jantz, “polluting industrial activities are concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color, creating very dirty, very unhealthy air in those neighborhoods. For too long, decision-makers have kept piling polluting facilities into these communities despite the toll they’re taking on residents. It’s time do things better.”
The complaint lays out a pattern of discriminatory permitting and policy decisions by the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Air Quality Board and the Air Quality Division. Since 2000, decision-makers approved permits for facilities like an asphalt batch plant proposed for Mountain View (where 79.3% of residents are Latino) and the expansion of a cement bagging facility in Greater Gardner neighborhood (where 58% of residents are Latino.) The Board did deny the expansion of a Smith’s gas station in the Summit Park neighborhood (34.6% of residents are Latino/50.7 are non-Hispanic Caucasian), reasoning that more cars at the gas station would impact the quality of life for nearby residents.
“We applaud the decision that the Board made about the Smith’s gas station,” says Jantz. “But we can’t stand by as the Board repeatedly brushes off major concerns raised by residents from the South Valley and other vulnerable communities about the release of cancer-causing chemicals and other toxics in their neighborhoods.”
In March 2014, SWOP and the Law Center petitioned the Board to consider regulations to require applicants for air quality permits to disclose and analyze the environmental and public health impacts of their proposed operations when combined with emissions from existing and reasonably foreseeable operations in the area. The Board refused to even hold a hearing on SWOP’s petition. It was that refusal that triggered the filing of the complaint to the EPA.
In July, SWOP and the Law Center submitted a “shadow report” to the United Nation’s Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination for its quadrennial review of the U.S. under the International Convention on All Forms of Racial Discrimination (a treaty to which the U.S. is a party). The Committee called on the U.S. to be more aggressive in ensuring that communities of color are protected from environmental hazards.
“For too many years, residents in impacted communities have had to fight the City and County to do the right thing where air quality is concerned,” says Reynosa. “With every breath of this air, people literally are losing time off their lives. It’s time for the EPA to step in and get the Board on the right track.”
INTERVIEWS ARE AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST
SouthWest Organizing Project has spent the past 34 years working to empower disenfranchised communities in New Mexico to realize racial and gender equality, and social and economic justice. SWOP works in impacted communities to identify and promote grassroots solutions and leaders.The mission of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center is to protect New Mexico’s natural environment and achieve environmental justice for New Mexico’s communities through legal representation, policy advocacy and public education. Since it was founded in 1987, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center’s attorneys have represented New Mexicans in over 250 cases in their work to protect air and water quality, public health, government accountability and traditional ways of life. The NMELC charges few, if any, fees to its clients, many of whom are from Hispanic and Native American communities. The NMELC celebrates its 27th anniversary in September 2014.