Jobs And Health Clash In South Valley Industrial Zone
When an industrial business like a concrete plant or a hazardous waste processor sets up shop in a residential neighborhood, arguments for economic growth and public health often clash.
Those tensions are especially high in the neighborhood of Mountain View, south of Albuquerque, where dozens of polluting businesses border neighborhoods, community centers and schools.
In a big, open lot next to the railroad tracks in the South Valley, Ruben Montoya is watching as a truck driver moves a load of bulk plastic from a railcar into his 18-wheeler using a giant vacuum tube that sucks up the little white beads. It’s a process called transloading, where workers transfer materials to and from trains.
Today, it’s plastic pellets. On another day, it could be anything coming through the rail lines.
New Mexico Transloading, or NMT, is one of many industrial businesses in Mountain View, a neighborhood south of Albuquerque’s city limits that is zoned for both heavy industry and residential use.
NMT has been renovating their property recently to be able to handle more capacity. Owner Jamin Hutchins is standing by, smiling at the construction.
"It can’t happen fast enough!" she laughs. "It gets prettier every time I come over here."
Hutchins sees this as not just a moneymaker for her own business, but as an opportunity for economic growth for the whole area. More transloading deals with rail companies mean more materials coming through, and more jobs for people handling those materials along the way.
"A lot of people are very excited about this, we’ve had calls and emails from customers," she said. "It’s very encouraging."
And over the years, the county has had that same attitude. They’ve characterized industrial development in the South Valley as an economic success story, and focused on this area as a foothold for development in the county.
The county government has zoned this area for heavy industry, giving companies handling hazardous materials a legal right to operate here. Problem is, there are people living here, some just across the street. There’s also an elementary school nearby. And people in the area have high rates of chronic diseases and other health problems that can be caused by industrial pollution, or at least made worse by it.
"The use is allowed, but there’s all these other questions about how is this going to impact?" said Enrico Gradi, who works at Bernalillo County’s Planning and Development Department. Those concerns about impacts to health and quality of life are real. But, so is a big need for jobs—unemployment in Mountain View is almost three times higher than the rest of the state.
"As this moves forward we’re probably going to see impacts. It’s going to have to be a dialogue," Gradi said.
And so far the neighborhood’s side of the dialogue hasn’t been too welcoming. People have been complaining about loud noise and bright lights. They worry about air pollution from train and truck exhaust. And they say if anything goes really wrong—say, an explosion or fire while NMT is transloading a crude oil tanker car—they’ll be at serious risk. And there’s no FEMA evacuation plan in place for the area.
But not everyone living nearby opposes the business. David Nieto is a South Valley native who works at NMT.
"I don’t want my kids being hurt, and if I thought this was going to put any kid in jeopardy I wouldn’t be for it," Nieto said, adding that there are all kinds of safety precautions in place to make sure no accidents happen.
"I don’t know, I don’t see nothing wrong with it," he said. "It got me a job. It’s beneficial to people that need a job."
And therein lies the conundrum. In an area with a population that’s 80 percent Hispanic or people of color, where opportunities for work are in short supply, how should the county be trying to improve things for people here?
One answer both the community and the county seem to agree on is to attract new, clean industrial businesses to the South Valley—things like Admiral Beverage or US Foods, two distribution companies that have gotten started nearby with the help of county subsidies. But right now, with over 25 polluting businesses in a 7.5 square mile stretch of Mountain View, there’s a long way to go before those kinds of companies eclipse dirtier ones.
Public Health New Mexico is funded by the Con Alma Health Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.