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Albuquerque residents seek Environmental Justice with proposed HEEI air regulation
Decades of pollution have left the cities poorest neighborhoods sick, forgotten, and desperate for change
On Wednesday, July 19th, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board had their first of many public hearings for the proposed Health, Equity, and Environmental Impacts regulation - otherwise known as HEEI or Cumulative Impacts. The meeting was an opportunity for the community to come together, virtually and in person, and voice their opinions on the proposed regulation.
Among those in favor of the regulation were the Los Jardines Institute, Isleta Pueblo, State Sen. Linda Lopez, the Mountain View Neighborhood Association, and more. Today’s post is an analysis of the HEEI regulation language, opposing viewpoints, and why the Abq-BernCo Air Quality Control Board should adopt the regulation.
What would the HEEI regulation do?
The proposed Cumulative Impacts regulation would create a more stringent permitting process within Bernalillo County that evaluates the cumulative or disparate impacts of air emissions. This would allow the County to develop a more complete understanding of current and future effects of permitting actions on public health, welfare and property in Bernalillo County and City of Albuquerque.
If passed, HEEI would change the permitting process by adding a “Disparate Impacts Screening” to determine whether the proposed operation would impact an overburdened community. The definition of “overburdened community” as defined by the draft regulation is as follows:
Overburdened community means a census tract and all contiguous census tracts where the combined permitted emissions from all sources are 10 tons per year of Hazardous Air Pollutants [pursuant to 40 C.F.R. Part 63] or 25 tons per year of combined criteria pollutants and Hazardous Air Pollutants.
If the proposed operation would cause the total hazardous air pollutant emissions to exceed 10 tons per year, thus making the community overburdened, their permit may be denied by the Department. If the applicant can demonstrate that their proposed facility meets the guidelines, their permit may be approved.
Opposition to the regulation say the 10-ton-per-year limit recommended by the World Health Organization is too low and would stymie economic growth. Those that want the HEEI regulation note the inequities that exist in permitting practices today as the most highly polluting industries operate in Albuquerque’s poorest neighborhoods. Before we get to why the opposition is wrong, let’s touch on why the supporters of HEEI are right.
Health concerns in Mountain View
The Mountain View neighborhood was highlighted several times during last week’s public comment hearing because of the rampant local pollution that is causing cancer, asthma, and other health burdens in their community. Mountain View borders I-25 to the East, the Rio Grande to the West, Woodward Street manufacturing businesses to the North, and the Isleta Pueblo to the South. Large portions of the neighborhood are zoned for manufacturing (Pink and Purple), while the rest is essentially agricultural-residential (light green), or purely residential (yellow):
The purple areas on the map contain some of the most polluting industries in Albuquerque, including but not limited to, cement plants, water treatment plants, recycling facilities, junk yards, hazardous waste facilities, and multiple Superfund cites (areas contaminated by chemical spills). Of course cities need areas dedicated to dealing with waste and manufacturing goods (and apparently a place to spill chemicals), but the problem is the permits are disproportionately granted near low income, Native, and Hispanic communities like Mountain View and Isleta. For context, here’s a typical neighborhood in the Northeast Heights:
The complete lack of manufacturing in the wealthier parts of Albuquerque is no coincidence, it’s a sign that the permitting process only accounts for the health and safety of wealthy, typically white, neighborhoods.
To learn more about polluters in Albuquerque and where they are, view New Mexico's and Albuquerque’s interactive maps that show polluters and spills, the Albuquerque zoning map, and this slideshow put together by Lauro Silva from the Mountain View Neighborhood Association.
Since the first public hearing last Wednesday, I got to catch up with Xavier Barraza, the Environmental and Economic Justice Coordinator for Los Jardines Institute, a local non-profit organization that promotes sustainability and social justice. Barraza pointed to the many illnesses and premature deaths the Mountain View community has experienced due to decades of pollution in their neighborhood - a cause that has been known for decades. He says the HEEI regulation would be a net-positive for the economy as the health, ecological, and social impacts of pollution will be lifted from over-burdened communities.
The Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Department agree that these inequities have been imposed on neighborhoods like Mountain View, but they don’t think we should risk dampening economic growth to make it right.
While regulations can lead to lower economic activity in many circumstances, they don’t always. It depends on the situation and what your end goals are with the regulation. Many regulations help solidify and mature industries in a changing economy, and I believe this is one of those industry-confirming regulations.
Linking our economy with our ecosystem
Pollution, like particulate matter, carbon dioxide, ozone, and others, create external costs for the community such as medical bills, crop or water damage, and overworked AC units. These costs are not paid by the polluting industry, but by the innocent bystanders nearby and abroad. In other words, the profits gained by the economic activity in Mountain View are privatized while the costs to human health and the environment are socialized. One class reaps the rewards while another pays the costs.
This is a classic example of an externality that could be remedied by “putting the environment on the balance sheet.” I recently wrote about the benefits of tethering our economy to our ecosystem in order to make a more climate and EJ-friendly economy. There are two general ways we can link the environment and the economy - carrots and sticks, aka incentives and disincentives. Some climate policy experts like Jessica Green recommend using carrots before sticks for both economic and political reasons, but we definitely need both.
Putting that in terms of recently enacted policies, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is the carrot that should be followed by a regulation like HEEI and, eventually, carbon pricing.
You see, the IRA is the biggest climate bill the world has ever seen and it was almost completely comprised of incentives for clean industry with no sticks for dirty industry. Between IRA, BIL, the CHIPS Act, and a plethora of other things going right in the markets right now, the economy is actually looking pretty good. For example, if you look at new industrial building construction since 2008, you can see the unprecedented growth of manufacturing happening in the US right now, largely driven by the CHIPS Act and IRA:
This is all to say our economy is ready for a more measured and EJ-friendly approach to manufacturing growth in Albuquerque. Our carrots are working, now implement the sticks.
The HEEI regulation is a type of stick that instructs industry to account for potential externalities imposed on a community. The emerging green industry is running about as good as you could want it to, and I expect yesterday’s industry will have to adapt to compete or be replaced.
Despite the doom and despair that the Chamber of Commerce and EDD seem to be expecting, our economy looks like it’s ready for HEEI, the climate economy needs some sticks in place, and relieving poor communities of economic hardships is only good for the economy, too.
Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good’
Public comments by those that oppose the HEEI regulation all start in similar fashion. They say saying something to the effect of, “we agree with the spirit of this regulation, but we think it’s too much too soon and needs further refining.” In other words, they agree that industry has imposed cumulative impacts on EJ communities, but they think the proposed regulation is too big a step to take and we should go back to the drawing board.
Yes, HEEI would be one of the biggest steps Bernalillo County has taken to address climate and EJ issues, but it’s nowhere close to the only regulation we need to get the economy on track to meet our climate goals. The longer we wait to start this process, the more drastic the policies will have to be in the future. And those more drastic policies will face more intense opposition from polluting industries and political interests. So, even if HEEI isn’t ‘perfect,’ that’s okay, because our enemy is not perfection, our enemy is time ticking by.
In summary, the Air Quality Control Board should pass the proposed HEEI regulation because:
People are suffering - Mountain View, and communities like them, are bearing the negative consequences while industry profits.
The climate is changing - unprecedented heat waves are only the beginning. We need to put our environment and health on the balance sheet.
Our economy is ready - the manufacturing industry is growing at unprecedented rates due to Biden’s climate and tech investments and the economy will continue to be fine post-HEEI.
For Mountain View, HEEI is a lifeline to a healthier life, but for Albuquerque and BernCo, HEEI could be a lifeline to the booming, green economy.
The next public comment opportunity for HEEI is on August 22nd and the final Rulemaking hearing will be on the week of October 23rd. Attend via zoom or in person to voice your opinion and technical testimony, or provide your comment in writing to email@example.com.
You can find more information about the regulation and upcoming meetings here.