'The environment ... is where we live'

A New Mexico neighborhood offers a case study in the successes, and failures, of the environmental justice movement

  • The neighborhood of Mountain View, just south of Albuquerque. Residents thought they had won a victory when they got the county to shut down this former race track. But the concrete recycling facility that replaced it isn't any better.

    Jaelyn deMaria
  • Lauro Silva works on environmental issues from his Mountain View home.

    Jaelyn deMaria
  • A Mountain View home backs up against a car auction and a tank company.

    Jaelyn deMaria
  • Julio Dominguez used to pedal around Mountain View on his bike, taking Polaroids of the latest chemical spills.

    Jaelyn deMaria
  • SNEEJ Director Bianca Encinias, with her son, Abeslin Encinias-Gonzales, at the Mountain View Community Center.

    Jaelyn deMaria
  • Mountain View Neighborhood Association President Patty Grice in front of an air quality monitoring station.

    Jaelyn deMaria
  • 1 Abq. Liquid Waste; 2 Abq. Foreign Auto Parts; 3 Abq. Metal Recycling; 4 Abq. Auto Auction; 5 Abq. Refined Products; 6 American Pipe Division; 7 Approved Oil Service; 8 AT&SF (Superfund site); 9 Conoco Abq. Products; 10 Creamland Dairies Ice Cream; 11 Cutter Flying Service; 12 Delta Person Limited; 13 Discount Auto Parts; 14 DPC Industries Inc; 15 DPC Industries Inc.; 16 El Encanto Inc.; 17 Env. Transportation; 18 Ethicon Endo-Surgery; 19 Federal Express; 20 Fox Manufacturing; 21 Fox Manufacturing; 22 Furrow Bldg. Materials; 23 GE Aircraft engines; 24 Kinney Brick Co.; 25 Mesa Oil Inc; 26 Olgin's Auto Sales; 27 Premier Iation President Patty Grice in front of an air quality monitoring station.

    Sources: Google Maps; South Valley Partners For Environmental Justice Promoteores Project, Mountain View 2008
  • The General Electric jet-engine plant, a Superfund site, has contaminated the acequia system that fed the farms of Mountain View.

    Jaelyn deMaria
 

This story introduces our Green Justice Web page and continuing coverage.

Mountain View, New Mexico

Lauro Silva shifts his minivan into gear on a sunny autumn day and begins a tour of Mountain View, a loose unincorporated neighborhood on Albuquerque's southern fringe, beside the lush Rio Grande bosque. The streets have optimistic names like Prosperity Avenue and Community Lane, but they're mostly gravel or dusty pavement or just dirt.

We tool past manufactured houses, trailers, old adobes and other modest homes, some well-kept and some with broken or boarded-up windows. There are vast naked-dirt vacant lots where buildings have been torn down and not replaced. And warehouses, junkyards, cement plants, door-manufacturing and dog-food companies, enormous tanks filled with gasoline, diesel fuel and liquid nitrogen.

Silva, a stocky 65-year-old lawyer with graying hair, bushy eyebrows and dark eyes, has lived in this neighborhood for 12 years and is working hard to improve it. About 4,300 residents are scattered across 8,400 acres here, he says. Their homes are mingled with more than 25 junkyards, five gravel and concrete companies, seven petroleum bulk terminals, a brick company, the odiferous sewage treatment plant that serves all of Albuquerque, and dozens of other industries, many surrounded by razor wire.

Railroad tracks and a four-lane truck route slice through the neighborhood and the noise is inescapable. I-25 sits along one edge, visible from homes, and low-flying jets scream as they approach and take off from the nearby international airport and Kirtland Air Force Base. "It's like the Wild West out here," Silva says -- a modern version.

He recalls the time when so much billowing smoke darkened the sky that he thought a plane had crashed. It turned out to be fuel oil burning at the power plant. He points out some of the places where companies have spilled chemicals. The neighborhood hosts two Superfund sites, where a railroad and a General Electric jet-engine plant polluted the land and groundwater with solvents and creosote. He talks about pollution monitoring by state and federal agencies and describes cleanups done in the past. Other cleanups still need to be done: A huge plume of nitrates, for instance, is drifting through the groundwater, the result of fertilizer runoff from farm fields.

Many residents with private wells drank that water for decades. Government agencies knew of the nitrate problem but failed to address it until the 1980s. Most of the homes now have city water, but people still worry about health impacts from all the local industry. Environmental laws are not always strictly enforced here. Dust from a concrete-crushing operation hangs in the air, along with high levels of diesel smoke, and the area has high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. "When they crush (the concrete), all the dust flies into people's homes and (even) their ice cubes taste like concrete," Silva says. Sometimes the dust is so bad that "people actually have to go to the hospital ER for breathing difficulties." There also appear to be elevated rates for more than 10 varieties of cancer, including brain, kidney and thyroid.

"Seventy-eight percent of the people in Mountain View are Chicano/Mexicano." More than half speak Spanish as their primary language. And nearly 40 percent of the families with children are so poor, they'd have to triple their income to climb above the federal poverty line.

"Albuquerque prefers not to have these kinds of industrial facilities within city limits," so city officials use zoning to "push everything to Mountain View," Silva says. The county government allows it. "This is an institutional process put in place by policies for many generations, and that's hard to break through."

In other words, Mountain View is like other poor neighborhoods of color, both rural and urban, that disproportionately house dirtier industries. Their residents bear an unfair share of the nation's environmental problems.

Silva calls it "environmental racism" that can only be solved by "environmental justice." Tough terms, but thousands of people around the country describe the inequality in the same way. They make up a low-budget, neighborhood-based movement that confronts intrusive industries and unresponsive governments. They simply want their neighborhoods and their health to be treated with the same respect as everyone else's.

They're environmentalists, but not philosophical descendants of John Muir and Aldo Leopold. They often have a rough relationship with the relatively wealthy, white-skinned national groups that concentrate on issues such as pristine wilderness and grizzly bears.

Mountain View is a good place to explore the difficulties and tensions. People here were involved in the beginning of the nationwide rebellion several decades ago and a series of notable leaders have been rooted here. They've also spearheaded the criticism of the big national groups, which still aren't doing much for the neighborhood. Environmentalism here is all about the local people trying to stand up for themselves.

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