South Valley neighborhood asking for air quality rule

Jul. 23—Residents of a South Valley neighborhood, frustrated at being used as a "sacrifice zone" for industry, are asking for a harder look at the impact of pollution before air quality permits are approved. Mountain View is a Bernalillo County community sandwiched between the Rio Grande and Interstate 25. The area is host to several industrial facilities, including a water treatment plant, several asphalt plants and the Rio Bravo generating station. As early as 2004, the New Mexico Environment Department labeled the neighborhood, whose inhabitants are predominantly Hispanic and low-income, as an "overburdened area." Residents of the community, as part of the Mountain View Coalition, proposed a rule asking that the cumulative impacts of industrial pollution on health, environment and equity be taken into account before air quality permits for new projects are approved. If the regulation is accepted by the City of Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board, permit applicants will need to gather and disclose adult and child asthma rates, the percentage of adults over 65 and children under 18, admission rates to emergency rooms, rates of cancer, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases and the overall mortality rate in the area they seek to build. If a neighborhood meets the definition of an "overburdened community" — already disproportionately impacted by pollution — then the AQCB should deny the permit, per the regulation, and set up shop in another area. The regulation would apply to a broad range of businesses that require air quality permits. Facilities that use strong chemicals — like dry cleaners, auto body paint shops and concrete plants — require air quality permits. Other facilities, which include schools and hospitals alongside gravel facilities, that use machinery including emergency generators, boilers and rock crushers may also need to obtain permits. Debate Dozens of speakers signed up for a public input meeting on Wednesday to discuss the proposed regulation. The meeting is the first of two. The second will occur before Aug. 28. Supporters, which included residents of Mountain View and the greater South Valley, conservationists and medical professionals, said that low-income and minority residents of the city and county were shouldering an unfair amount of pollution. Some cited the American Lung Association's 2023 State of the Air Report, which gave Bernalillo County an F grade for ozone pollution and a D grade for particle pollution. Several members of the business community, however, expressed their opposition to the proposal, saying it would make it difficult for any business to secure an air quality permit going forward and pinch job growth and economic development. "We need jobs, we need economic opportunity," said Rhiannon Samuel, executive director of real estate group NAIOP. "This would kill that for us." But some supporters said fears about the proposal were overblown, and that the regulation would encourage "clean" businesses to set up shop in overburdened neighborhoods. "No amount of money in the world is going to buy back the health, and the diseases that are allowed to propagate in the community," said South Valley resident Adrian Angulo at the meeting. Process from here The AQCB — a joint county and city agency made up of seven appointed members — is planning an October hearing to decide whether it will adopt the measure. By then, the rule could look different due to amendments, and at that point, the board will have its own opportunity to further tweak the proposal. The regulation has received a fractured response on the city level. At a May City Council meeting, five councilors voted to approve a resolution that declared the petition "could be harmful to the welfare of the City," citing "potentially broad impacts on the availability of air quality permits based on unclear standards." Bill sponsor Dan Lewis and Councilors Brook Bassan, Renee Grout, Trudy Jones and Louis Sanchez were in favor. Councilors Pat Davis, Tammy Fiebelkorn and Isaac Benton voted against. The AQCB is independent of the City Council, and has full authority to adopt a rule like the one proposed by the Mountain View Coalition. In December, the Environmental Health Department, which works closely with the board, issued a response to the citizen-led proposal. The response said certain language in the proposal was "unclear" and "ambiguous," and it was uncertain how the proposed rule would fit in with existing permitting regulations at the Joint Air Quality Program. The regulation is based in part on a similar New Jersey rule that passed in 2020. Of the 9.2 million people living in New Jersey, 4.9 million live in one of the over 3,000 areas which have been designated as overburdened. In Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, a higher proportion of people might live in overburdened areas. New Jersey's population is richer and whiter than New Mexico's. According to U.S. Census data, 10.2% of New Jersey residents live in poverty, compared with 18.4% of New Mexicans. Where over half of New Jersey's residents are white and not Hispanic or Latino, 35.9% of New Mexico's are. A similar rule was proposed to the AQCB in 2014. At the time, the board declined to hold a hearing on the rule. In response, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed an administrative complaint against the AQCB, alleging that the board was discriminating against some residents by not considering cumulative impacts when approving permits and refusing to hold a hearing about the rule. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Civil Rights accepted and investigated the complaint. Currently, the EPA is in negotiations with EHD and the board to resolve it. Since then, the board has seen a full turnover.