Lilian S. Dorka, acting director of EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, announced the investigation in a letter mailed recently to the SouthWest Organizing Project, an organization that says it is dedicated to social and economic justice, and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, the two entities that filed a complaint with EPA two years ago.
The complaint alleges that the Albuquerque Air Quality Division and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by not considering cumulative impacts when granting permits to air-polluting facilities in such low-income, heavily industrial communities as San Jose and Mountain View, both located south of Downtown Albuquerque.
Danny Nevarez, deputy director for the Albuquerque Environmental Health Department and the man who oversees air quality, said the city and county have the highest designation of air quality granted by EPA.
“We have 20 years of air-quality monitoring and have hired people to review the data,” Nevarez said. “Essentially, no matter which way you slice the pie, Albuquerque, including the areas of concern, has good air quality. We have a monitoring station right next to the Mountain View Community Center.”
The areas of concern – San Jose and Mountain View – are communities pierced by railroad tracks and occupied by gravel and concrete companies, oil refineries and tanks filled with gasoline and other petrochemicals. Many of the people who live there are Hispanic and many of them are poor.
“Eighty percent (of Albuquerque’s) heavy industry is in these areas,” said George Luján, SWOP communications organizer. “Everybody has a permit and is only putting out so much pollution. But since you have all these plants right next to each other and a school right there, the kids are getting the cumulative impact. San Jose Elementary has a higher-than-average rate of asthma. There is respiratory illness and cancer in those neighborhoods.”
The complaint also charged that the city and county violated the Civil Rights Act by denying a request for a hearing aimed at adopting a requirement for considering cumulative impacts of pollutants during the permitting process.
“Sometimes it takes the state or the feds coming down,” Luján said. “Hopefully, this will push the Air Quality Control Board to protect the environmental justice community, people of color or low income dealing with an inordinate amount of pollution and impacts on health.”
Nevarez points out that the EPA letter, also received by the city, states that the decision to investigate “is not a decision on the merits” and that EPA’s Office of Civil Rights will act as a neutral fact-finder as it gathers information.
“It certainly doesn’t mean any of the allegations are founded,” Nevarez said. “It simply means the Office (of Civil Rights) will look into it.”