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Do Albuquerque's Air Pollution Policies Violate Civil Rights?

Ed Williams
A vendor pushes his cart past the Western Refining asphalt plant on Second St SW in Albuquerque.

Under the Civil Rights Act, local governments that receive federal money are prohibited from discriminating against low-income people of color. But people in some parts of Albuquerque say that’s exactly what the city is doing by putting polluting businesses in poor Hispanic neighborhoods.

Now a federal investigation is underway to see if those claims are true.

“I have behind me at least 25 feet of road mill, and my backyard is another gravel pit,” said Rachel Riboni. She’s lived in a small house in this South Valley neighborhood since it was farmland many decades ago. But now the farms are gone.

That “road mill” she’s talking about is a mountainous pile of crushed pavement that towers over her and her neighbors. This is one of dozens of industrial businesses nearby with air pollution permits from the city.

She points to a thin white film on the leaves of her garden plants, that she says blows in from the pile next door.

“It’s like a fine powder dust,” she said. “They can’t breathe. We can’t breathe either.”

Riboni is one of many people in the Mountain View and San Jose neighborhoods who say air pollution like this is making them sick, and that the city and county air quality board isn’t taking their concerns seriously.

It’s an old story here, people have been complaining about the number of air permits stacking up in these low-income Hispanic neighborhoods for years. But now, those complaints are at the center of an EPA-led civil rights investigation.

“These environmental rights, the rights to clean air, clean water—those are civil rights,” said Eric Jantz, an attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center who filed the civil rights complaint with the EPA. “The air quality control board and the environmental health department have a fairly long history of suppressing public input and public activism around this issue.”

Case in point, Jantz said, a few years ago the community came to the city with a petition to have the air quality board consider the total emissions from all the facilities in the area before granting or renewing individual permits to businesses. The board refused to consider the proposal.

Then, last month, the feds announced that they would investigate whether that refusal—along with the city’s permitting process in general—violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against low-income people of color.

“The Environmental Health Department wholly denies any sort of discrimination, I think that we’ve followed policy to a tee,” said Albuquerque Deputy Environmental Health Director Danny Nevarez.

“And no matter which way you slice the pie, all of the data demonstrates that we have good air quality here in the Albuquerque Bernalillo County area, including in San Jose and Mountain View," Navarez said. "We’ve had toxicologists look at that, and we’ve conducted air toxics studies as well.”

Nevarez says the community’s proposal to reform the air permitting process would have been so expensive, and so hard for companies to comply with, that it would have driven business out of town. That’s why the air quality board refused to hear it.

And he says the data the city has seen show that the South Valley’s health problems come from things like poverty and bad nutrition—not from air pollution.

That’s something people in these neighborhoods fiercely dispute.  They point tostudies that do show environmental health effects, and argue that there’s never been an epidemiological study on the cumulative impacts of air pollution here.

“Where in the city are you going to find three refineries but in low-income communities of color in Albuquerque?” asks Juan Reynosa of the Southwest Organizing Project, a community advocacy group that worked with the Environmental Law Center on the civil rights complaint to the EPA.

“These communities are being targeted because of their education status, their income levels. Environmental racism is a real thing that happens across the country, and that’s exactly why the Title VI Civil Rights complaint process was put into effect,” Reynosa said.

But whether the city’s air pollution policies actually violate residents’ civil rights is something we won’t know until the EPA finishes its investigation.


KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find out more at publichealthnm.org.

Ed Williams came to KUNM in 2014 by way of Carbondale, Colorado, where he worked as a public radio reporter covering environmental issues. Originally from Austin, Texas, Ed has reported on environmental, social justice, immigration and Native American issues in the U.S. and Latin America for the Austin American-Statesman, Z Magazine, NPR’s Latino USA and others. In his spare time, look for Ed riding his mountain bike in the Sandias or sparring on the jiu-jitsu mat.
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