• July 24th, 2024
  • Wednesday, 09:34:39 PM

Mountain View Residents Allege City of Albuquerque Has Violated Their Civil Rights


Several residents attended the an Albuquerque City Council meeting on June 3rd and announced that they had filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on May 31. (Photo: NM Political Report)

 

By Hannah Grover

Posted June 13, 2024

 

Residents of the Mountain View neighborhood in the South Valley of Albuquerque have filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding environmental justice and air pollution in minority and low-income communities. The South Valley of Albuquerque is in an unincorporated area of Bernalillo County, but abuts the city and is heavily impacted by city decisions.

 

The South Valley residents are asking the EPA to investigate whether the city of Albuquerque and its city council are violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against people due to their race, national origin or color. Additionally, they requested that the EPA hold Albuquerque responsible for violations of civil rights. The residents are represented by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. Friends of the Valle del Oro Wildlife Refuge joined the Mountain View residents in filing the complaint.

 

The Los Jardines Institute along with the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a separate complaint with similar allegations.

 

Several residents attended the crowded City Council meeting on June 3rd  and announced that they had filed the complaint on May 31.

 

Marla Painter, the president of Mountain View Community Action, outlined the steps that the residents have taken, including filing a petition with the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board proposing what she described as a remedy for the discrimination against the low-income and minority communities in the South Valley.

 

This remedy was the Health and Environmental Equity Impacts rulemaking. The board ultimately adopted a variation of that rule that was more limited in scope. The vote occurred in defiance of the Albuquerque city council.

 

If our communities can’t get protection from local government, including the Environmental Health Department, we have no other recourse but to call on the federal government to intervene and require compliance with Title VI to protect our health and environment.”
Sofia Martínez, Los Jardines Institute

 

One of the things the rule requires is that the city and county Environmental Health Department creates a map of areas that are “overburdened” to determine to what extent a new air permit or modification will impact the surrounding community.

 

Painter spoke about how when the air quality control board granted the petitioners a hearing on the HEEI rule, Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis brought a resolution to the city council “to abolish the (air quality control board) and postpone any further meetings until the board could be reassembled with industry friendly members.”

 

While Mayor Tim Keller vetoed that resolution, the city council was able to override Keller’s veto.

 

Forrest Graber, president of the Friends of the Valle del Oro Wildlife Refuge, said the City Council took those actions to prevent the Air Quality Control Board from adopting any regulations that would “address systemic, ongoing discrimination” that the City of Albuquerque has allowed for decades.

 

“Allowing these actions to continue results in intentional and inequitable discrimination by the local government against its low-income communities and people of color,” he said.

 

Lewis’ actions led to an ethics complaint due to his involvement in the paving and asphalt industry, which Air Quality Control Board decisions could directly impact. He reached a settlement with the State Ethics Commission in May in which he agreed to recuse himself from any decisions regarding the Air Quality Control Board.

 

“Let me just tell you that you have violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Painter told the council on Monday. “Consider yourselves served.”

 

Lauro Silva, a board member of the Mountain View Neighborhood Association, said his community has been a “dumping ground” and a place that policy makers can exploit in an effort to make a name for themselves.

 

He told the city council that the Mountain View neighborhood has faced “environmental contamination from hazardous, toxic and carcinogenic pollution” due to the city’s policies dating back to the 1970s.

 

There are several oil terminals, scrap yards, chemical storage facilities, a municipal wastewater treatment plant and two Superfund sites within the Mountain View community and the larger South Valley area. Additionally, the community is downwind of the Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia National Laboratories and the Albuquerque International Sunport.

 

“The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Environmental Health Department has allowed in a great number of these hazardous, toxic, and carcinogenic polluting industries by granting Special Use Permits despite opposition by community residents and the Neighborhood Association,” Silva said in a press release. “The community’s most recent attempt to establish a regulation by the Air Quality Control Board has resulted in extreme environmental racism against the approximately 80 percent Mexican American/Chicano community by the Albuquerque City Council, which is why we filed our Civil Rights Complaint to the EPA.”

 

In the complaint, the residents state that for decades both industries and local governments have “intentionally designated communities of color and low-income communities in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, New México, as sacrificial zones for pollution through their permitting practices and policy decisions, with more industrial sites located in and adjacent to these neighborhoods than in predominantly white, more affluent communities.”

 

They say that communities of color and low-income populations in Albuquerque are exposed to higher levels of toxic pollutants and, because of that, have higher rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness and other health conditions.

 

In its complaint, Los Jardines Institute states that the Albuquerque City Council is actively opposing efforts by the Air Quality Control Board to make the city and county’s Environmental Health Department comply with the regulation that the board adopted in December.

 

The HEEI rule has been challenged in court, including by the Environmental Health Department.

 

Los Jardines Institute outlines how racial segregation in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County—including covenants preventing property sales to people of color—led to minority communities being concentrated in certain parts of the city and county.

 

The complaint states that air permitting data shows that polluting facilities are concentrated in predominantly Latino neighborhoods and 36 percent of the permitted facilities are located “in the four zip codes covering San Jose, Mountain View, Greater Gardner, Martineztown, and the International District despite those zip codes accounting for only 21 percent of the county’s population.”

 

“For too long, environmental justice communities in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County have been exposed to dangerous levels of industrial pollution while local officials failed to act and even fought efforts to reduce that disproportionate pollution burden,” Sofia Martínez, co-coordinator of Los Jardines Institute, said in a press release. “If our communities can’t get protection from local government, including the Environmental Health Department, we have no other recourse but to call on the federal government to intervene and require compliance with Title VI to protect our health and environment.”

 

This is not the first time that Albuquerque has faced allegations of civil rights violations due to air pollution and industry locations. In 2014, the Southwest Organizing Project filed a similar Title VI complaint, which the EPA accepted in 2016. Los Jardines Institute states in its complaint that advocates who sent in public records requests uncovered a 2022 draft informal resolution.

 

But Los Jardines Institute and NRDC state in their complaint that the 2014 complaint does not preclude the EPA from acting on the current allegations.

 

“Harmful and disproportionate air pollution has existed for a long time in Bernalillo County. It started with acts of intentional discrimination in housing,” the complaint states. “It continues to this day, with pollution and attendant health harms not improving, and by some measures deteriorating since 2014. Ten years is long enough for these communities to wait. If it would be duplicative or unhelpful to consider our complaint separately from the 2014 Complaint, EPA may consolidate them and resolve them together.”

 

 

Hannah Grover is an Environment Reporter with New Mexico Political Report. This article was originally published by New Mexico Political Report.