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Regulatory board messily approves limited environmental justice air permit rule

Paseo Del Bosque Trail - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Simon Foot
Paseo Del Bosque Trail - Albuquerque, New Mexico

Racing against the clock, the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board approved a controversial environmental justice regulation to tighten the management of air pollution permits Tuesday.

This comes a week after the Albuquerque City Council decided to abolish and curb the power of the board until February.

On paper, members of the air quality control board will be completely replaced and the body has absolutely no regulation power.

But, according to Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s office, resolutions passed by the city council don’t go into effect until December 20th — leaving room for the board to continue hearing the highly contentious Health, Environment & Equity Impacts or HEEI regulation.

This race against time ultimately left the end of the hearing in a confusing tangle, with the board voting to accept a modified, limited rule as they were getting kicked out of their venue at the Albuquerque Convention Center — which closes at 8 p.m.

“It was messy and strange. I have never seen anything like it,” said Elaine Cimino, a party to the rule petitioners.

This rule would inherently overhaul how air quality permits are given out to businesses, taking extra steps to protect disproportionately “overburdened” communities and the environment.

Environmental advocates interpret that the rushed, limited rule would also require the New Mexico Environment Department to have the very best mitigation technology when attempting to get or modify a permit in one of these communities.

Marla Painter, a staunch advocate for the rule and a member of the Mountain View Coalition voiced her frustration.

“Last night, the Air Board performed a gross disservice to the petitioners and the public,” Painter said. “They walked out without finishing their job. The City would turn off the lights, but they could have continued the hearing.”

Though, the choice to continue the environmental justice hearing in the first place has been met with heated debate and criticism.

Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis, who sponsored the sweeping changes to the board, decided to take his shot at members in a public comment period last week.

“Any rule promulgated from this illegal hearing will be invalid,” Lewis said. “In the event this hearing continues in violation of the past resolution, the city council will be forced to pursue any legal remedies available to it.”

As other public commenters started to shout and police officers gathered at the back of the room, air board vice chair Kitty Richards snapped back at Lewis, recounting the fear she had after Lewis allegedly called her and other members “environmental extremists.”

“I am deeply deeply disturbed by how you’ve divided this community… I fear for my family, I fear for my own life, and it was absolutely unnecessary,” Richards said.

Bernalillo County commissioners have also weighed in.

In a statement, Commissioner Walt Benson said he is “disappointed” with the Air Quality Board continuing the hearing and is “calling on the air board to obey the law and respect the will of the people.”

Last Tuesday, the air regulation authority went a step further by filing a motion in 2nd Judicial District Court to delay both of Lewis’ bills from becoming a reality.

Currently, the air board is entirely composed of volunteers – four are city-appointed and three are appointed by the county.

Under one of the new council laws, city-appointed members must include a licensed engineer, physician, a university representative and a business polluter representative.

Large entities such as the Air Force, Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, Sandia National Laboratories, and the University of New Mexico claim the HEEI rule would hurt economic development.

Stewart Butzier is a lawyer who represents NTESS or National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia, the private company that runs Sandia National Laboratories.

“The proposed requirements are so vague and unclear, that they are simply impossible to be complied with to get permits for emissions,” Butzier said.

Businesses and companies have also said they are concerned air permits could become increasingly difficult to obtain in the Albuquerque area.

It remains unclear if the law the board passed still stands and if there will be legal challenges from the county and city.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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