New Mexico residents raise concerns about environmental justice

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — On the southern edge of New Mexico’s largest city is a Hispanic neighborhood that used to be a patchwork of family farms and quiet streets, but industrial development has slowed over the decades and brought with it pollution.

Neighbors point to regular plumes of smoke and the smell of chemicals wafting through the neighborhood at night and say the contamination has disproportionately affected the area compared to more affluent neighborhoods in the Albuquerque area.

Now, residents have made a proposal while fighting for environmental justice, and members of the Mountain View Neighborhood Association, supporters of the nearby Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and others rallied Monday afternoon to introduce it, calling on Albuquerque and Bernalillo county regulators hold a hearing to consider the measure.

Modeled after regulations in New Jersey and Minnesota, the proposal requires the region’s air quality agency to consider a number of health, environmental and equity indicators before approving new permits. It would also provide a path for regular reviews to ensure compliance for businesses granted permits in already congested areas.

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Eric Jantz, attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said the fight has been going on for generations.

“This ordinance represents a significant shift, a fundamental shift in the way we look at environmental health in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County,” he said, noting that in New Mexico and elsewhere there is increasing pressure on regulators to recognize human health as a critical factor consider whether industry is allowed to do business in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Mountain View is already home to junkyards and Albuquerque’s sewage treatment plant. Local residents have also campaigned against plans for a new asphalt plant.

The issue of environmental justice has resonated at the state and federal levels as some politicians push for stricter regulations. President Joe Biden took office with an ambitious plan to help disadvantaged communities, but activists have been frustrated by the pace of progress.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has introduced stricter emissions standards for oil and gas exploration, and the state Department of the Environment just announced the creation of an Environmental Crimes Task Force.

The governor has just returned from a trip to Egypt for the United Nations climate conference, where she announced her environmental policy. Still, some environmentalists say the Democrat-led legislature needs to do more to protect communities that have been swamped by industrial development.

Jantz said the proposal, put forward by Mountain View residents, could make New Mexico’s population center a hub for innovation, as companies need to find creative ways to do business without harming public health or the environment.

The City of Albuquerque Environmental Health Department said in a statement Tuesday that its air quality program is committed to environmental justice and that officials look forward to reviewing the measure and working with the community.

Mountain View resident Magdalena Avila has been collecting data on known contamination cases in her neighborhood and elsewhere in Albuquerque’s South Valley.

“There’s a long, long story,” she said. “And it’s just important that we develop community-based policy initiatives, and that’s it — it’s coming from the community in terms of what we need.”

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