Areas with people of color, low-income residents and immigrants have historically been forced to endure environmental racism around the U.S., but New Mexico locals are fighting against it. Santa Fe’s Southside and Albuquerque’s South Valley continue in their efforts against unjust environmental decisions that disproportionately affect marginalized groups.
In Santa Fe’s Southside, Associated Asphalt and Materials received a permit from the New Mexico Environment Department last summer to consolidate its two plants — located on both sides of Highway 599, north of Airport Road — to only the west side of the highway. However, Miguel Acosta — who is the co-director of EarthCare, a nonprofit dedicated to ecological health and social justice — and Tierra Contenta resident Linda Marianiello started conversations against this consolidation in early 2020 after the permit was requested in December 2019.
Acosta and Marianiello are still at the forefront of the fight against these operations, and a virtual public meeting was held on Tuesday, April 19 to go over updates on past, current and future happenings.
Acosta and Marianiello started to organize a legal team in February and March 2020. The appeal against the asphalt consolidation permit was submitted in August 2021, and proceedings started in late February. The team just finished closing arguments on Monday, April 18 and doesn’t expect a decision until summer.
One of the group’s legal representatives, Maslyn Locke, New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney, explained the future timeline at the meeting: the appeal goes to a hearing officer first, who has 30 days to make a recommendation, and then to the Environmental Improvement Board, who will deliberate and decide what happens next. This is why they likely won’t get a decision back until July at the earliest.
“The department has issued a permit, despite the fact that Associated Asphalt Materials will be violating ambient air quality standards, and that the environment department really did a lot of gymnastics to explain away some issues that existed in the air dispersion modeling that were either contrary to law or can't be verified, really, by anybody,” Locke said.
This consolidation would impact Santa Fe’s Southside specifically, which is predominantly home to a population of low-income residents, immigrants, and people and families of color. Similarly, Albuquerque’s South Valley is made up of a majority of Hispanic individuals, and, in 2019, the median household income was nearly $10,000 lower than the overall New Mexico median household income.
Albuquerque’s South Valley community has been fighting for years against spreading industrialization in their home. Indeed, just last year, Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department issued another air pollution permit in the Mountain View neighborhood, adding to many other requests and permits that have taken place in the South Valley.
“Mountain View residents living in a historic residential and agricultural community next to the Rio Grande in the South Valley are fed up with being the dumping ground for decades of a dirty industry that no one else wants,” Gwynne Ann Unruh reported for The Paper.
In the meeting, Richard Moore, co-coordinator of the Los Jardines Institute, a volunteer-run justice organization, brought up the struggles that the Mountain View community in the South Valley has been facing, similar to that of the Southside of Santa Fe, and said this is a statewide issue. The institute is attempting to form a coalition to bring up these issues to the Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board, according to Moore.
“We'd like to be able to go statewide … We're going to need all of our sisters and brothers, not only in the Southside of Santa Fe, but the South Valley of Albuquerque and other communities, both rural and urban communities, throughout the state,” Moore said.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, EarthCare assistant Domenica Nieto emphasized that there’s not enough information or data on the virus’ negative impacts in relation to environmental concerns with the asphalt consolidation. Further, there are a variety of negative health effects found, including cancer, after repeated exposure to asphalt.
“The impacts of the community of the consolidated plan operation should be studied in the context of COVID-19 and cumulative air quality impacting the area,” Nieto said in a 2022 public comment video shown at the meeting. “We do not believe there was enough information or data for the NMED to approve the Associated Asphalt permit request.”
These aren’t the only issues local marginalized communities have been facing, however. In the first public hearing regarding Associated Asphalt’s air quality permit in March 2021, Santa Feans attended to comment against the consolidation but an individual who wanted to speak in Spanish was told to speak in English instead after the translator was not ready for a period of time, according to Acosta. Acosta said this discouraged other Spanish-speaking attendees from commenting at all.
Acosta said this broke Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which doesn’t allow the exclusion or discrimination against individuals in federally funded programs. Acosta said they’ve met with the Environmental Protection Agency, which is looking for a resolution to the issue. However, Source New Mexico reported that “the state countered by arguing that there were Spanish interpreters present at the hearings in person and on Zoom. It also dismissed the community’s concerns about civil rights violations by saying the board doesn’t have authority over them.”
In efforts against the injustice the Southside is facing, the Airport Road corridor will team with New Mexico MainStreet to help solve a number of issues the community faces while also revitalizing positive cultural mainstays. This application was submitted last year and recently approved, and meetings will start next month regarding the partnership, for which conversations about definitive work plans will be ongoing until September.
“There is a connection between air pollution, industrial contaminants, poverty, and higher rates of infection and spread, according to public health researchers worldwide. It's very likely that we have seen higher infection and death rates on the Southside because we live next to an industrial zone that is expanding,” Acosta said. “So keep your masks and get vaccinated. Wash your hands. In the words of Cesar Chavez, ‘Organize, organize, organize.’”
Megan Gleason is the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @fabflutist2716