August 7, 2023

By Drew Goretzka, Albuquerque Business First

New versions of a proposal to change air permitting processes in Bernalillo County are taking stage at ongoing stakeholder meetings.

The original proposal, filed in November 2022 by the Mountain View Coalition, a collection of neighborhood organizations based in South Valley, looks to limit permits being issued in communities deemed “overburdened.”

Business leaders, especially those with stakes in the South Valley, say the proposal would hinder business and development across the county.

The two proposals, submitted by the Mountain View Coalition and the City of AlbuquerqueEnvironmental Health Department (EHD), differ greatly in specificity and intent.

Mountain View’s amended proposal

Mountain View’s amended version keeps the same overall process as its original, but tweaks many of the criteria for permit denial.

Maslyn Locke, an attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said many of the changes were made to make measurements more quantitative compared to the more qualitative approach previously taken.

“A lot of feedback we were getting was that people didn’t know where the data would come from,” Locke said. “It’s a more consistent numerical standard to assess health impacts.”

Previously, an overburdened community was defined as a census tract, along with its contiguous census tracts, where pollutant levels are above 10 tons per year of hazardous air pollutants or 25 tons of combined HAPs and criteria pollutants.

In the amended version, the definition has shifted: A census block group and contiguous block groups where the air toxics hazard index, a measurement of concentration of hazardous particles in the air, or the air toxics cancer risk, a measure of cancer likelihood, is above the Bernalillo County average.

The two indexes measured are easier to access due to their use by the EnvironmentalProtection Agency and the census block groups are smaller areas that the previous census block tracts. Data finding difficulties were a concern in the first draft’s feedback, Locke said, and this change, along with many others, hopes to address it.

There are also differences within each step after an overburdened community has been identified.

The second step, a disparate impacts screening that previously measured things such as adult asthma rates, percentages of adults over the age of 65 and emergency department rates, now only takes three things into account: the air toxics cancer risk, the air toxics hazard index and criteria pollutants. If any are at the maximum level found in the county, the permit is denied.

The third step, a comprehensive report showing social factors in the area and details such as the applicant’s compliance history, has also been tweaked.

Previously, the permit would be denied following this report if:

The project would violate National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

More than 10 tons of HAPs would be released into the air per year in the community as a whole.

The applicant had been noncompliant with county permitting conditions or any environmental law in the U.S. within the last 10 years.

Now, the application will be denied if the report shows:

The project will increase the air toxics cancer risk score in the census block or any contiguous census block group above the County average.

The chance of a resident being diagnosed with cancer due to toxic air pollutants will rise above five in 1 million.

The air toxics hazard index score will be increased above the county average or will be raised by a value of one or more.

Diesel particulate matter concentration will increase by 5% over the census block’s average or above the county average.

The local concentration of fine particle matter will increase by 3 micrograms per meter-cubed or more.

The previous denial thresholds, such as if the applicant has previously broken environmental laws, can still be considered when ruling on areas of a project such as mitigation practices.

The Environmental Health Department weighs in

The EHD’s proposal is much less specific than Mountain View’s, and that’s on purpose. For one, it is not technically a legal proposal.

Angel Martinez Jr., director of environmental health at EHD, said it is a response to MountainView’s proposal formatted as a regulation in order to more comprehensively show how the department would go about maintaining environmental justice. Martinez repeatedly referred to it as EHD’s “perspective.”

The EHD proposal is meant to be much more vague so more specific guidelines can be developed by consensus from all sides.

“The entire goal is to be able to go through an analytical process to determine whether a specific decision is going to be discriminatory in nature,” Martinez said. “That’s the process that we tried to create in that perspective — or at least show the Air Board that this is the way we would do it.”

An example of this is the EHD’s definition of an overburdened community. In their proposal, such communities will be identified on maps the department will develop within 60 days of the new regulation passing.

Instead of developing a hard threshold that signifies a community is overburdened if it goes above it, EHD is rating communities on a one-to-10 scale based on county levels of factors like environmental stressors, saturation and cumulative effects. The lower the number, the less burdened the community is.

The EHD wanted to avoid using a strict standard because they feel that number should be determined alongside all stakeholders. Martinez likened that number to a needle in a haystack, but, in order to find it, you need to “identify the haystack first.”

“We essentially wanted to make sure that we did it together with the stakeholders, that we wouldn’t create any standard outside of having stakeholder meetings,” Martinez said. “That’s why we left it, I guess, somewhat nebulous in [the draft] … coming up with a basic standard at this point, we believe it’s a little premature.”

The EHD’s proposal also denotes “vulnerable” communities. The difference between overburdened and vulnerable communities, Martinez said, will be based on where a community falls on the scale used to determine a community’s burden — with the exact ranges being determined by all stakeholders.

Ongoing meetings

Stakeholder meetings surrounding the proposal have been ongoing since late July, with both advocates and opponents weighing in.

The lack of these meetings were a major complaint from business leaders when the proposal was first introduced, with some accusing the Mountain View Coalition and its partners of not considering how the new process would affect the county’s economy.

While early on in the process, the meetings are making progress, according to some involved.

Jim Garcia, executive director of Associated Contractors of New Mexico, said the meetings have led to more open communication, and, in turn, more questions.

“We’re understanding the foe that we’re dealing with,” Garcia said. “There’s a whole lot of people that are fighting this thing on many fronts.”

The timeline for the proposal’s day in front of the Air Quality Control Board is still up in the air. While a decision was previously set to be made in October, Garcia said those in opposition to Mountain View’s current proposal will continue to fight past that due date.

“We’re gonna fight it until we’re done, so we’re not done in October,” Garcia said.

The next public AQCB meeting will take place on Aug. 9 in the basement of the Plaza De SolBuilding at 5:30 p.m. Public commenters can participate in person or via Zoom.

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