November 2015

Op-Ed: How Zoning Codes Can Drastically Impact Environmental Justice Communities


Juan Reynosa


Imagine living in an area of your city that the government has long deemed suitable for heavy industrial production. Superfund sites that have polluted your water sources are being cleaned up to this day. Your friends and family are breathing in high concentrations of pollutants, leading to higher instances of cancer, asthma and heart disease, compared to the rest of the city. Yet you are also a member of a proud community, and you continue the fight for your right to the clean air and water that is enjoyed by many other residents.


Before industry was allowed to come in and exploit the area, families and workers supported our traditional agricultural system that had long inhabited the corridor along the rail lines. Since its inception in the 1970s, the industrial corridor along the railway in Albuquerque has created terrible living conditions for residents, many of whom have resided in the area for generations. Those most impacted are the San José, Mountain View and greater Gardner communities.


Per the city of Albuquerque Zone Code Overview: The M-1 and M-2 zones are standard manufacturing zone categories. The most intense industrial uses are found in the conditional-use portion of the M-2 zone. These uses include manufacturing of products such as explosives, glue and fiberglass, slaughtering of animals and fat-rendering.


Per Bernalillo County’s zoning category definitions: M-1 and M-2 zones permit heavy industry manufacturing of acetylene gas, asphalt, bricks and concrete, chemicals, petroleum byproducts, turpentine and tar products (to name just a few).
These two zoning designations allow for refineries, concrete plants, chemical facilities, asphalt refineries, salvage yards, etc., to be located within and surrounding actual neighborhoods. This means that people living in these communities are constantly dealing with pollution from these facilities and the associated health impacts. These residents have to deal with city and county governments that hide behind these zoning regulations to justify prioritizing industry growth over community health.


I’ve sat at Albuquerque Air Quality Board meetings, City Council meetings, County Commission meetings and zoning meetings with community members calling for zoning changes and air-permit denials, yet we are almost always told that the officials’ hands are tied because of the M-1 and M-2 zoning designations. It’s an unfortunate and unjust situation that needs to be changed as soon as possible.


In conversations with community members from San José I’ve learned that there has been a big community push from them and from Mountain View residents to change the zoning in the area and decrease the amount of polluting industry. Esther Abeyta from San José had this to say: “In order to protect the most vulnerable communities from being overburdened with polluting industries, cumulative impacts need to be included in the permitting process and stricter land use regulations put in place where heavy polluting industries are located in close proximity to low-income communities, residential homes, schools and parks.”


It makes no sense at all to have oil refineries operating within a couple of blocks of where people live and children play. There was no foresight in locating a chlorine manufacturing plant next to a huge salvage yard that has multiple fires every year. Or how about having two large concrete plants located right next to each other, spewing concrete dust all over the houses located behind them, day after day? There’s also the ongoing situation of cleaning up multiple Superfund sites that have contaminated multiple water sources in the area. This is what Esther Abeyta means when she talks about “cumulative impacts”—a high concentration of polluting industry in a relatively small area, which leads to intense health problems.


What I listed above is just a small example of the industry located in these communities and the impacts they have on the families who live there. There is no justice in forcing certain communities (with much of their population being low-income people of color) to live with a lower quality of life and lower life expectancy as a result of bad zoning laws and the desire to create industrial corridors right next to communities that have been chronically burdened by environmental injustices.
What needs to happen, and what community members have been demanding for years, is a change in the zoning codes. More affluent neighborhoods in Albuquerque never have to fight new fertilizer plants or asphalt refineries that are applying to locate in their area, and the industry burden shouldn’t be placed on environmental justice (EJ) communities. In fact, irresponsible zoning has played a major role in these communities being designated as EJ communities.


Elected officials from Bernalillo County and the city of Albuquerque need to step up and do the right thing and stop prioritizing industry growth over community health. There is no acceptable trade-off for a community member getting cancer or a child getting asthma in return for supposed economic development. The zoning in these areas has always given these officials an excuse and something to hide behind as they neglect the community and walk side by side with industry. Enough is enough. The time is now for a real change to give these communities the right to clean air and water and a good quality of life.



Juan Reynosa is an organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project, which focuses on environmental justice and air quality issues. He has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from UNM. His hometown is Hobbs, New Mexico.



Environmental Justice
Environmental justice (EJ) is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.


EJ is about people confronting local environmental and/or public health problems by working collaboratively with local government agencies, impacted community groups and the responsible state and federal agencies. EJ promotes environmental and public health protection within the context of sustainable development.




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