August 9, 2016

EPA investigating alleged discrimination by air quality board

Members of the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) filed a complaint in 2014 against the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board and the Air Quality Division. The group said industrial businesses are allowed to overly pollute neighborhoods occupied predominantly people of color. The complaint also alleged the city board discriminated against community members who live in affected neighborhoods by denying them a public hearing.

Now, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the claims.

Juan Reynosa, a field organizer with SWOP, said his group tried to work with the board for years to lessen the effects of pollution from industrial businesses near residential neighborhoods.

The board and the Air Quality Division maintain they conducted sufficient studies., But SWOP says the studies don’t take into consideration surrounding facilities that add to the overall pollution.

Reynosa told NM Political Report when community members challenged the permitting process, board members pushed back and said there was not sufficient evidence on which to base their claims. SWOP had testing equipment from a previous environmental challenge against Intel in Rio Rancho, so they gathered their own data. Reynosa said SWOP found that when the pollution is measured cumulatively the results show higher amounts of pollution of the surrounding communities. The board did not accept the results.

“We took it upon ourselves to do their jobs for them,” Reynosa told NM Political Report. “Instead of congratulating community members, they retaliated against them and tried to strike down their efforts.”

The retaliation, SWOP said in its complaint, came when the board denied the group a chance to present their findings at public hearings.

Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, filed the complaint on behalf of SWOP. Jantz said he hopes community members and the Air Quality Control Board can agree to a method that measures combined pollution instead of permitting on a case-by-case basis.

“Each one of these permits is considered in a vacuum,” Jantz said of the current permitting process.

Danny Nevarez, the City of Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Deputy Director, told NM Political Report it’s likely the city cannot comply with SWOP’s requests.

“It’s a pretty tall order, what they were asking,” Nevarez said in reference to the cumulative testing methods SWOP requested.

The EPA confirmed, in a letter to SWOP and Jantz, that an open investigation is pending. The letter made it clear that the investigation did not imply probable cause or guilt by the city.

Nevarez said the community members and lawmakers need to come together on an agreement.

Reynosa, told this, let out a frustrated laugh.

“We’ve made that effort.”