Here in Mountain View, people have lived side-by-side with industry for centuries, ever since the only businesses were farms irrigated by hand-dug acequias. The modern invasion began in the 1970s, when the Bernalillo County government zoned much of the neighborhood for heavy industry and started handing out variances to let businesses occupy farmland as well. After the sick baby incident set off a burst of anti-industry activism, SWOP and SNEEJ shifted their focus to other needy neighborhoods and statewide and national advocacy. A new assortment of individuals became dedicated to pursuing environmental justice here.
Silva, a New Mexico native, studied chemistry and biology in college along with getting a law degree, and spent decades organizing against the nuclear and coal industries. In 1992, he hiked from northern New Mexico to Mexico City to celebrate his heritage. He moved to Mountain View in 1998 because, he says, "I like living close to the river, having my own garden, growing my own food -- this is the kind of community I wanted to live in. I didn't know how contaminated it was when I moved here. Now I can't afford to move." It's a common dynamic: Most people here own their homes, rather than rent. "They're poor homes, they need repair, but they're owner-occupied," Silva says.
Silva helped kick-start a project called the South Valley Partners for Environmental Justice, run on federal grants totaling about $900,000 since 2001. The project included training for 18 residents to be "promotores" -- promoters of community. They learned environmental terminology and translated for Spanish-speaking residents.
Julio Dominguez became a promotore when he was 18. He bicycled around Mountain View, using a Polaroid camera to document problems. He noticed "amazing tiny little spills all over, big trucks spilling chemicals on the ground." With others in the project, he studied how businesses disposed of harmful chemicals. Some business owners are locals running small operations, and some are big out-of-state corporations. Dominguez found that many of the smaller businesses couldn't afford to pay for proper disposal of chemicals and other wastes. Junkyards were especially bad, draining fluids from cars and storing barrels of oil and Freon, mercury, batteries and tires. One junkyard had 35 barrels sitting on the dirt and leaking. "I saw that all over," Dominguez says.
Marla Painter and Patty Grice ramped up another vehicle for change, the Mountain View Neighborhood Association. Painter has lived in an old adobe on one acre near the river since 1997. Her resume includes a stint organizing ranchers and Native Americans against nuclear missile projects, as director of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, based in Nevada and Washington, D.C. She's served on the neighborhood association's board since 2000, and her husband, Mark Rudd -- a famous Vietnam War protester who lived as a fugitive during the 1970s -- has served as the association's secretary. By moving to Mountain View, Painter says, she became a member of a disadvantaged community for the first time. "I became outraged (and) went back to organizing."
Grice, who's been president of the neighborhood association for several years, is a white working-class Republican who keeps two tiny dogs and a lot of birds in her doublewide. She moved to Mountain View in 1997 so her husband, a mortician, could take a job at a funeral home. Grice lacks a college degree but is a fast typist who makes a living by transcribing doctors' dictated records. She notes that the couple hundred kids who live here have no swimming pool and only one significant park -- about 20 acres -- with a basketball court and a few swings and slides. "That's our total for the neighborhood," she says. "It's ridiculous, OK?"
The association has fewer than a hundred dues-paying members, but its newsletter goes out to 1,400 homes. Silva and Dominguez have also served on the association's board. Working together, these four leaders and a few others have helped the association and South Valley Partners for Environmental Justice achieve some victories in Mountain View since 2000.
They pressured the county to apply a nuisance ordinance to shut down an extremely loud racetrack that spewed dust. They got agencies to do "sweeps" to find spills and other violations and then facilitated cleanups. They stopped auto recyclers from melting metal in a roofless shed.
They also gathered socioeconomic data showing that Mountain View has more than 90 percent of the metro area's heavy industry and presented it to local and state policymakers. They found a few allies in local government, including the county environmental health office, run by George Schroeder, who says, "Mountain View is a classic example of environmental injustice."
Trying to document health effects, Silva's project recruited people in several dozen homes to wear "badges" that detected benzene and other "volatile organic compounds" in concentrations that weren't illegal but were comparable to those of "major industrial cities like Detroit," Silva says. And with SNEEJ's help, they set up a "bucket brigade" -- training residents to use buckets of water and vacuum pumps to measure air pollution. And they found experts to document the elevated rates of asthma and other illnesses.
They discovered that the only official air-quality monitor in the neighborhood was ruined by dust and windblown debris, so they got the county to fix that. It became clear that the whole system for regulating air quality was inadequate: The Albuquerque air quality division, which gives businesses permits to emit pollution, is run by the city and protects city neighborhoods instead of Mountain View.
Several cement companies have applied for air-pollution permits in recent years, hoping to build new "batch plants" in Mountain View to supply developments around the metro area. The neighborhood didn't need more cement plants, or the heavy truck traffic, noise and dust that accompany them. So the environmental justice campaigners documented the potential pollution and health impacts, packed hearings and persuaded one cement company to back off. Then Alabama-based Vulcan Materials -- the nation's largest manufacturer of "construction aggregates" -- proposed a new 24-hour plant on the worst possible site: 10 acres across the street from the Mountain View community center and playground.
More than 130 residents testified against Vulcan's proposal in public hearings, arguing that the Air Quality Division should recognize cumulative impacts from all the other local cement plants and industries. But in December 2005, the city agency granted Vulcan a permit. The campaigners appealed to the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board -- seven volunteers appointed by the mayor and county commission, with the city holding a majority -- and lost at that level, too.
So the neighborhood association and some residents, including Dominguez, launched an appeal in state court. Painter says she had to raise $15,000 to pay a lawyer. They hoped that a court victory would set a statewide precedent, the way the Rhino decision had done for landfill siting. But instead, Vulcan abruptly withdrew its permit application, thanks in part to the housing and construction crash. "It was a relief," Painter says, "and a disappointment," because no precedent was set.
The campaigners continue to be frustrated with the Air Quality Control Board, charging that it's made only token gestures toward environmental justice -- a task force, workshops and so on. Citing the lack of progress, two board members representing the county areas quit in December 2008. The board majority is "just maintaining the status quo" and representing the city's interests, says Deborah Potter, one of those who quit. Potter, who has a Ph.D. in biology and decades of experience working for the federal and state government, believes the board has "discretionary authority" to take more aggressive action on environmental justice.
Even as they battled the cement companies, the campaigners tried to wrest control of the neighborhood away from all the industries by imposing new zoning in what's called a sector development plan. That battle stretched out for five years, dozens of meetings and several drafts of the plan. The final draft required any new businesses to be at least 1,000 feet from residences, the community center and school. It also called for some landowners to shift to cleaner industry over time. "We wanted to stop the heavy industry, the concrete plants, from coming in, OK?" Grice says.
The plan aroused tremendous opposition. Existing businesses, commercial landowners and real estate agents saw it as a "takings" -- an unconstitutional grab of their right to develop property as they wish. They formed the Mountain View Commercial Property Association with a budget of more than $100,000. They also backed a candidate, Art De La Cruz, who challenged an incumbent county commissioner, Teresa Cordova, a university planning professor who supported the plan. De La Cruz, a longtime local bureaucrat, received heavy financial support from concrete, real estate, construction and other businesses. He beat Cordova in the Democratic primary, won the commission seat in the November 2008 general election, and killed the plan, calling it a "fundamentally unfair" takings.
Dominguez points out that industries depress residential property values, a worse form of takings: "No one will buy a house next to a concrete plant," he says. "Who compensates the community for the impact on people's property values?"
The businesses want all residential use and the community center moved to the west half of the neighborhood to give them a clear playing field, and they oppose tougher zoning or environmental regulations. They also made a move within the neighborhood association, packing an annual meeting in October 2008 with pro-business people and electing their candidates for open board seats. Painter kept her seat, but the realigned board voted her out as president in January 2009 and made Patty Grice president again, because she is somewhat more willing to compromise. "The businesses out-organized us," Painter says.