When an industrial operation begins in a New Mexico community, local governments work to make sure the operation is effective, that all of the proper permits are issued and that the wheels of commerce are well greased. Unfortunately, this often leaves the job of protecting the community’s quality of life to the people who live there. While regulators and elected officials debate policies that could protect people, community organizations concerned with environmental issues face the daily reality of dense industrial presence right in their backyards. This intersection of industrial impact and political inaction is often where strong community leaders emerge.
The Albuquerque-based SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) defines “the environment” as where a community lives, works and plays. Communities often don’t enjoy the same legal protection as natural habitats, and so, industrial operations often can have negative health impacts for entire neighborhoods. This can include cumulative impacts where multiple polluting entities are located in close proximity.
SWOP has been fortunate to work with community leaders over the past year and a half to do a citizen-based, data-collection campaign to evaluate air quality (www.breatheinnm.org). The participating communities include Mesquite, in southern New Mexico, the San José community in Albuquerque, and the area around the Navajo Mine in the Four Corners region. The data SWOP has collected allows the organization to push for policy and regulatory changes to improve air quality in impacted communities. Over a year of data collection, they have found strong, sustained levels of chlorobenzene in San José, as well as high levels of particulate crystalline silica in another community. Heightened exposure to these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is known to cause a host of medical problems.
San José is already home to two Superfund sites, which contaminated drinking water many years ago. Along with the neighboring Mountain View community, San José has the highest instances of heart disease, cancer and asthma in Bernalillo County. This data comes from a health-impact assessment done in 2011. Stark data like this provides added incentive for community members to change these statistics.
During the 2012 New Mexico Legislative Session, SWOP reintroduced the Consolidated Environmental Review Act, which sought to add an environmental assessment during the permitting process for industry. That policy was met with very strong industry opposition and was ultimately killed in committee. Undeterred, SWOP shifted its focus locally and introduced an air-quality ordinance to the Albuquerque Air Quality Control Board. Working with the NM Environmental Law Center, SWOP drafted a strong ordinance that aims to insert a cumulative-impact analysis into the air-permitting process for Albuquerque. If enacted, this ordinance will expose the potential pollution impacts of a proposed facility along with all other facilities nearby, and it will provide data on potential environmental impacts and community health. This data will provide advocates in San José—and Albuquerque as a whole—with another tool to push back on polluting industries that want to locate in their area.
This ordinance is just one piece of the puzzle. There is still a need for community organizing coordinated with policy work in order for communities to create the change they need to improve their quality of life. The work of these community leaders is a great example of how communities are working hard to protect themselves and the ones they love.
Juan Reynosa, a field organizer with SWOP, grew up in Hobbs, NM. Reynosa was the New Mexico Beyond Coal organizer for Sierra Club, an organizer with New Mexico Youth Organized, and a Green for All fellow. He has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from UNM. 505.247-8832, ext. 115, email@example.com