A southern Colorado city could lose its newly clean reputation




PUEBLO, Colo. - Cecil Ross remembers when his city was known as "Pew Town." The wheat farmer says pollution from the state's largest steel mill once filled the city's air with foul-smelling odors and chemicals. Today, standing on his ranch three miles from Pueblo, Ross proudly points out the haze-free view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.


Pueblo's air has cleared since Rocky Mountain Steel cut production by a third during the '80s. The city has worked to restore its historic downtown area and replace manufacturing jobs lost through lay-offs with retail and service jobs, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The efforts proved successful when the national group Partners for Livable Communities chose Pueblo as one of the nation's top four places to live in the year 2000, citing its conversion from an industrial to retail-based economy.


But industrial pollution may find its way back to some of the city's approximately 130,000 residents. The Rio Grande Portland Cement Corp., a U.S. subsidiary of the Mexican-owned Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, plans to build a new cement manufacturing plant less than one mile from Cecil Ross's property line on state-owned land. Along with its coal-fired cement plant, the company plans to strip-mine the property for limestone, the main ingredient in cement. Rio Grande would be the first major industrial plant built in Pueblo since the 1950s. With Colorado booming, cement is in demand for new roads.


Ross and his wife, Leona, along with 18 neighboring families along the St. Charles River, are digging in their heels and mobilizing support. Thanks to the nonprofit group Citizens for Clean Air and Water, 600 people packed a public hearing on July 20 to oppose the plant. They said increased sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and particulate emissions from the coal-burning cement plant would dirty the air and water they've worked to restore.


"We like to keep our windows open all the time, and we think we have the right to keep the windows open," Leona Ross says. If the plant moves in next door, for health reasons she and Cecil may have to move from the place they've called home for 47 years.


Supply and demand

While protesters continue to fight for clean air, Colorado continues to grow and need cement. Ron Hedrick, vice president of operations for Rio Grande, says that while Colorado consumed 2.8 million tons of cement last year, it produced only 1.9 million tons. With only three cement plants in the state, cement has to travel long distances to construction sites. The farther it moves, the more it costs.


The state stands to gain more than just cement from the new plant. Rio Grande will pay the State Land Board $400,000 in mineral royalties for limestone mined on the 3,900 acres, and that money is earmarked for public schools. The land board is mandated to capitalize on its holdings for the education system, and Rio Grande's mineral lease is more profitable than past agricultural land uses, says Kate Jones of the State Land Board.


"I have not seen or read any documents that would make me opposed to the plant," says Corinne Koehler, head of the Pueblo City Council. She says the $150 million construction project will greatly increase tax revenue for the county and will create approximately 100 jobs. While Pueblo's unemployment rate has decreased substantially since 1980, as of 1998 it was still 3.8 percent higher than the average for the state, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.


Environmental injustice

"This town has been working to improve itself ... to move away from the large industrial polluters," says Margaret Barber, president of Citizens for Clean Air and Water, the group founded last spring to fight Rio Grande. "This (cement plant) is a throwback to the smokestack industries."


Even though hundreds of public comments against the plant were heard at the July 20 meeting, city council members and representatives from Rio Grande are confident the state will approve the air-emissions permit sometime in September. They say the plant's emissions will fall well within the federal Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines, and compliance with these rules is the determining factor.


City council member Al Gurule says the protesters are hypocritical. "I have a problem with groups who say, "Let them pollute somewhere else, (in) Third World countries, (and) we'll use the product here,' " he says. "(People say), 'I don't want a cement plant in my community, but I'll go home and park on my cement slab.' "


Members of the citizens' group willingly admit they don't want the plant in their neighborhood: They say they've suffered the effects of major industrial polluters long enough. "It's a type of racism that's going on here, a type of discrimination against this vulnerable community," says Alvin Rivera, vice president of the group. He explains that the low-income, high-minority community is often dumped on by polluting industries because they have a reputation for sitting back and letting it happen.


The Rosses, however, aren't just waiting to lose a way of life they've known for nearly 50 years. The couple is preparing to take legal action if the state air-emissions permit is approved. "Have you ever heard of Erin Brockovich?" Leona says. "If this thing goes through, that's going to be me. I'm going to have to get a short skirt, though at 66 years old, it might not be as effective."


Kayley Mendenhall is an HCN intern.




YOU CAN CONTACT ...


  • Margaret Barber, P.O. Box 11584, Pueblo, CO 81001 (719/545-3284).