‘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.

The rise of environmental justice can be traced through people like Richard Moore. Of Puerto Rican descent, he grew up in a low-income housing project in Pennsylvania. His parents picked fruit for Del Monte, and he did some picking in his spare time during high school. Moore came to Albuquerque in the 1960s, looking for a place to do meaningful work. He joined the Black Berets, a Chicano "social justice" group that worked with other low-income neighborhoods, establishing a free medical clinic, childcare centers and school breakfast programs and shutting down an unregulated sewer plant. Moore moved to Mountain View in 1979. Just a few months after his arrival, the connection between pollution and poor health was dramatically proven: A local baby turned blue and nearly died from drinking groundwater with 20 times the legal limit of nitrate. "That's when the shit hit the fan," says Moore, whose personality mixes idealism and a quick temper.

At the time, there really weren't any activist groups focused on environmental justice. So Moore and a fiery woman, Jeanne Gauna -- who said, "The environment, for us, is where we live" -- formed a new group called the SouthWest Organizing Project, or SWOP for short.

The small band of SWOP activists went door-to-door in Mountain View in the 1980s, alerting residents about the poisonous water in their wells and helping them organize the effort to hook up to city water. They worked to prevent the construction of garbage transfer stations and a private prison in Mountain View and organized in another neighborhood to shut down a poisonous medical waste incinerator. "We've never been about advocating on behalf of other people," Moore says. "We've been about people advocating on their own issues."

By 1990, Moore and other local organizers were networking with colleagues across the country -- particularly on Indian reservations and in Southern communities where poor black people live next to monstrous chemical plants -- under the new banner of environmental justice. The national environmental groups were booming; the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society had increased their memberships tenfold since the 1960s, for instance, with attendant increases in budgets and staff. Landmark environmental victories had been achieved in Congress. But the fledgling environmental justice groups were barely surviving.

So that year, Moore and Gauna composed a letter of accusation that became famous within the movement. They recruited environmental justice activists from California to New York to sign the letter, and then dropped it like a bomb on the leaders of 10 of the largest environmental groups. They charged that the Big 10 were merely nature-lovers who worked against the interests of people of color -- activities such as livestock grazing and firewood gathering. They cited "the lack of people of color in decision-making positions in your organizations" and said "racism is the root cause of your inaction around addressing environmental problems in our communities." The letter rocked the Big 10 and caused them to make some changes.

Shortly after that blast, Moore left SWOP and formed the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, a coalition of small groups in the Southwest U.S. and Northern Mexico. SWOP and SNEEJ, both headquartered in Albuquerque, kept up the heat. They were instrumental in pressuring Democratic President Bill Clinton to issue a 1994 executive order that elevated environmental justice, at least in theory; it ordered federal agencies to study how their decisions impact environmental health in disadvantaged communities.

Moore, who also served as top environmental justice adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency, lived in Mountain View and ran SNEEJ until last year; his stepdaughter, Bianca Encinias, is currently a top SNEEJ leader.

Eight years of Republican President George W. Bush did little to advance the cause at the federal level, activists say, but environmental justice gained some ground through the proliferation of hyper-local groups such as the LA Bus Riders Union, which has pressured Los Angeles to convert its buses to cleaner fuels to reduce air pollution in poor Hispanic and black neighborhoods.

New Mexico has characteristics that generated many environmental justice campaigns. It has the highest Hispanic population of any state (nearly 50 percent in 2008) and is second in Native Americans (nearly 10 percent). The state is also among the lowest in average household income, and many of its poorest neighborhoods are impacted by industry.

Robby Rodriguez, whose mother was a migrant picker of cotton, lettuce and onions, earned a bachelor's degree in sociology at Cornell and went to work for SWOP 13 years ago; he's run the organization since 2005. During his tenure, the annual budget grew from $300,000 to $1 million, and staff increased from five to 13 full-timers, plus four part-timers. SWOP has received grants from some major foundations recently and now has about 600 members statewide; SNEEJ is about a fourth that size.

Often working with even smaller groups, SWOP and SNEEJ have achieved landmark victories -- and suffered losses -- in New Mexico. They couldn't stop the city from punching a commuter highway through Petroglyph National Monument, but they've led successful voter registration drives, mentored young people to be future leaders, and gotten a few of their members elected to local and even state offices. "That work is beginning to change the face of New Mexico politics," Rodriguez says.

With the New Mexico Environment Department, they conducted environmental justice "listening sessions" around the state in 2004, and then advised the department on addressing the concerns. They staged an annual "Environmental Justice Awareness Day" at the state Capitol, where their members mingled with legislators and bureaucrats. They also lobbied successfully for a 2007 House resolution that instructed the department to "study how to effectively address the cumulative and social impacts of its decisions and … the quality of life of residents." The Environment Department now has a couple of staffers working on environmental justice.

Feeling the heat, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who grew up in Mexico City with a Mexican mother, issued a 2006 general executive order telling state agencies to consider "environmental quality and public health" when allowing industries into low-income communities and communities of color. But that proclamation and the state's other political actions have so far involved more sentiment than substance.

The most tangible result at the state level has been a court ruling that applies only to garbage dumps. In 2002, the Environment Department granted a permit to let Rhino Environmental Services Inc. open a dump in a southern New Mexico shantytown, or colonia, that already had three dumps. A coalition of activists and residents of colonias sued the company. In July 2005, in what became known as the Rhino decision, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that the Environment Department must consider the "impact on a community's quality of life" when issuing permits for landfills, including whether the landfill would be a "public nuisance or hazard to public health, welfare, or the environment."

In response, the state revised its landfill siting regulations in 2007 to require evaluation of "cumulative impacts" in "vulnerable" communities (disadvantaged communities that already have polluting industries). Landfill operators "must complete training programs on environmental justice every three years."

Though most of the Legislature's top leaders are Chicano, the Legislature as a whole remains sympathetic to industries' concerns about tougher regulations. Repeated attempts to pass a broad environmental justice law -- imposing new requirements on many industries, not just dumps -- have failed.

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.

In the big picture, there are many reasons for the difficulties.

The big environmental groups are pursuing their traditional vision of environmentalism. There is still no prominent national spokesperson or group for environmental justice.

Environmental justice also doesn't have effective overarching federal laws like the Endangered Species Act, which can be used to apply pressure anywhere. Consider how difficult it would be to restore wolves if the progress had to be made county commission by county commission.

A tenet of environmental justice is that it should remain decentralized, Rodriguez says, with the locals themselves stepping up to solve problems. But even Rodriguez sees the drawbacks. "Local groups are not good at reaching out to a national level and seeing the big picture" well enough to drive national policy, he says.

When the traditional groups do try to work on environmental justice, they often appear clumsy and territorial, Rodriguez says. "The mistake a lot of big environmental groups made was implementing their own environmental justice programs, instead of partnering with environmental justice groups that were already on the ground. It becomes a competition for resources (meaning funding)." It isn't as simple as hiring a designated team of Chicano or black or Native staffers, in his view. Painter agrees. "There's a big difference between hiring people of color and caring about communities of color," she says.

Foundations and donors face a similar dilemma. They can steer their money to a group to save all the wolves or millions of acres of wilderness, where success is relatively easy to document -- simply count the wolves or acres. Or they can fund a group working on behalf of a single neighborhood, where success often hinges on documenting and acting on chronic health problems. That can be extremely difficult, often impossible. "We have a lack of technical expertise in the communities," says Encinias, while "industry has its technical experts who get paid $300 to $500 an hour" for permit applications and battles over ordinances.

Environmental justice is often compared to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That's a hopeful view, implying that some kind of overall success will materialize soon, but it's also a stretch. Not only did civil rights have the support of strong federal laws, such as the Voting Rights Act, but the society as a whole was far more supportive of people on the lower rungs. Back then, unions and popular artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez got involved. Today, unions are almost gone and popular culture tends to be superficial and self-centered. Poor people have less political power than wolves.

"We have more paid community organizers than in the 1960s, but they're nowhere near as effective as the civil rights movement was," Encinias says. "Environmental justice is not the primary issue in people's lives in these communities. Their primary issues are survival, having enough money to pay the bills, and food, and health insurance. How can you be there trying to make all these technical connections (between pollution and health) when people are just trying to feed themselves? That's been the challenge for us."

The first black president, Barack Obama, indicates that he wants to help. He's filled high positions in his administration with people of color who claim to understand the problems in the nation's many Mountain Views, and he and his appointees have tried to revive dialogues that fell silent under Bush. His pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency -- Lisa Jackson, the first black person in that job -- has vowed to make environmental justice a priority. She has a top adviser on it and has held frequent meetings with leaders of environmental justice groups. She's also called on traditional environmental groups to do more, and told the Associated Press a few weeks ago that she wants to use the agency "to speak to people of color, to speak to the poor … (and) to hear … folks who don't feel heard … to make sure their issues are taken into account."

"With Obama, there is unprecedented access," Rodriguez says. "We get e-mails from (an EPA list-serve), open letters, opportunities to participate on policy-level discussions." Rodriguez remains uncertain what will come of it, though, because of what happened to Obama's highest-profile environmental justice appointee, Van Jones. Jones, a black activist from San Francisco, was slated to be in the White House advising Obama on bringing green jobs into poor communities of color and addressing climate change without higher energy costs in the communities. But when right-wing commentators and some congressional Republicans smeared Jones as a communist, Obama allowed him to withdraw. "His departure from the administration sends a frightening message," Rodriguez says. "With Obama's election, we think we're post-racial. This is a stark reminder that we're not."

Personal problems and other distractions have taken a toll in Mountain View.

Silva has had recent flare-ups of heart trouble and diabetes, which required surgery, and he has a daughter with cerebral palsy who needs his attention. Painter, now 60, has a host of medical problems requiring hospitalization and surgery.

Moore, who fired off the SWOP letter in 1990, is now a 63-year-old jail inmate, serving a six-month term for a drunken-driving accident that left a young Air Force recruit with brain injuries. His stepdaughter, Encinias, now 34, moved out of Mountain View and took time off to have a baby; she just returned to the SNEEJ office.

Even Dominguez needed to take a break from Mountain View; he earned an architecture degree and moved to a comfortable suburb three years ago. Now he's 26 and busy doing marketing for Chicano businesses. "We just get tired of fighting these companies," he says. Sometimes he fears it's a "waste of the community's time -- people have to meet three times a week for a year, neglecting families, then (the companies) get the permit anyway and we feel defeated. We're left to fend for ourselves, working against industry and the city and county (governments). That's what I saw in my nine years working on the issues in Mountain View. The city and county and industry are really good friends all the time and the only ones who care about the Mountain View community are the actual community members."

South Valley Partners for Environmental Justice -- which is backed by the county environmental health department, the University of New Mexico and the nonprofit Rio Grande Development Corp. -- is winding down; its federal grant ran out last August. Silva is doing "pro-bono work" to finish the project's reports, creating "a communications model" that shows how to use focus groups composed of activists, business owners, Spanish speakers and others to develop a strategy for working with agencies and experts.

Last October, at the latest annual meeting of the neighborhood association, not enough members showed up to have a normal board election, so the rules had to be suspended to allow an election anyway. "It was sad," Painter says. "It's an indication of how distraught and disenfranchised people feel over the sector plan being thrown out. It confirmed what people thought all along, their feelings of powerlessness -- they don't really count."

Grice, 50, who attended nearly every monthly meeting of the Air Quality Control Board for five years, is less assertive in running the neighborhood association than some would like. But she got a $20,000 EPA environmental justice grant in 2009 to help local residents learn how to be involved in permitting decisions. Some of the grant paid for another cleanup of illegal dumping, with people collecting enough discarded furniture, tires, mattresses, trash and yard waste to fill 10 rented Dumpsters. She finally got county approval to put up a marquee at the community center for spreading messages -- the culmination of a four-year battle. She got streetlights installed in one area of the neighborhood -- a 10-year battle. She also got state funding to install emergency lights and a crossing arm on an unmarked rail spur used by chlorine tanker rail cars -- a decades-long battle. "In Mountain View, we always have an issue," she says.

Infighting and racial tensions surface even among the Mountain View campaigners. Some are trying to start new environmental justice groups. Painter founded Mountain View Community Action about two years ago, as another project of the Rio Grande Development Corp., but it still has no members or staff; she has about 3,000 names on a mailing list, but no money to do a mass mailing. "Basically, it's just a shell waiting to be filled in," she says.

Silva, Dominguez and Encinias talk about starting Vecinos de Mountain View. Dominguez says he envisions Vecinos (neighbors) as a group that would "really represent the demographics of the area," with staff and an attorney "to stand up to industry." The Chicano activists believe Painter is still tainted by her "white privileged" background, as one puts it -- even though Painter's father was a mechanic and her mother was a hairdresser. Another says Grice is "in over her head."

One of the white activists responds that Silva is prejudiced against whites. He "is still fighting the old battles -- Chicano nationalism. He cares a lot about the environmental health issues, accepts that we have to work together, but he's living in the past." And Painter, who's also a board member of New Mexico Conservation Voters, laments, "I'm a leftist, a liberal Democrat, but the racial tone of everything (makes political work) so delicate, I just hate it. If I were to look back on (my) 30 years of doing this work, I would say at least 30 percent of that time has been (spent) fighting my own people who were supposed to be doing the same work."

"I think we lost the battle but the war is still going on," Dominguez says. "It might take another decade to see real progress. It won't come so much from passing laws to protect the community. Economics will help solve it" -- as Albuquerque keeps growing, he expects that Mountain View will attract nicer developments.

They still have dreams for their neighborhood. Affordable housing on some of the pollution-cleanup sites, for instance. And sidewalks. And a definitive study of the environmental health problems. And a strategy to recruit cleaner industries, such as manufacturers of solar-power equipment. Maybe the Vulcan cement company would donate the land across from the community center to become more public recreation facilities. Maybe they could raise several million dollars to buy 50 or 100 acres of an alfalfa field next to the river bosque; geese and cranes flock there, and it would make wonderful permanent open space.

The latest spill from a bulk terminal occurred in December: 35,000 gallons of aviation gas when a pipe froze. It was mostly contained by a clay-lined berm, but yet another study will determine whether it reached groundwater.

The land where they shut down the race track has been sold to a guy who's using it to recycle concrete slabs from an I-25 reconstruction. The slabs are piled several stories high; all the crushing and hauling creates more clouds of dust. And on the ag land that used to be a chicken-egg operation, another cement company wants to move into Mountain View.

This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.


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    High Country News is hiring an Indigenous Affairs Editor to help guide the magazine's journalism and produce stories that are important to Indigenous communities and...
    Staff Attorney The role of the Staff Attorney is to bring litigation on behalf of Western Watersheds Project, and at times our allies, in the...
    Northern Michigan University seeks an outstanding leader to serve as its next Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. With new NMU President Dr. Brock...
    The Clark Fork Coalition seeks an exceptional leader to serve as its Executive Director. This position provides strategic vision and operational management while leading a...
    Help uphold a groundbreaking legal agreement between a powerful mining corporation and the local communities impacted by the platinum and palladium mine in their backyard....
    The Feather River Land Trust (FRLT) is seeking a strategic and dynamic leader to advance our mission to "conserve the lands and waters of the...
    COLORADO DIRECTOR Western Watersheds Project seeks a Colorado Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Colorado,...
    Whitman College seeks applicants for a tenure-track position in Indigenous Histories of the North American West, beginning August 2024, at the rank of Assistant Professor....
    Dave and Me, by international racontuer and children's books author Rusty Austin, is a funny, profane and intense collection of short stories, essays, and poems...
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation is looking to hire a CFO. For more more information visit: https://www.rcac.org/careers/
    The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) seeks a new Executive Director. Founded in 2008, the ABWF is a respected nonprofit whose mission is to support...
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.