By

Gwynne Ann Unruh is a former award winning reporter at the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

100% of reader revenue goes to the local. independent journalists bringing you the news.

Like many states, New Mexico’s air quality is worsening. The American Lung Association reported in 2020 that vehicle emissions, drought and oil-producing ozone pollution are major contributors. Living in a minority-majority state, many New Mexicans are familiar with environmental racism, which is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. From the San Juan Basin to the Permian Basin and everywhere in between, low-income communities and primarily communities of color have had to go to the back of the bus when it comes to pollution vs. dollars, health vs. illness. Racial discrimination defines and contributes to how citizens are affected by environmental policies, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the targeting of minority communities for hazardous waste dumping sites and official sanctioning of dangerous pollutants in these minority communities.

Several of these communities are forming coalitions across the state to demand their rights and liberties with regard to state health hazards. At issue are policies and practices that force these communities to live in proximity to sources of toxic waste such as sewage works, mines, landfills, power stations, oil and natural gas operations, major roads and emitters of airborne particulate matter. The burden of air pollution is not evenly shared, according to the American Lung Association­. “Poorer people and some racial and ethnic groups are among those who often face higher exposure to pollutants and who may experience greater responses to such pollution,” said the organization in a 2020 report on “Disparities in the Impact of Air Pollutants.”

Collectively, these groups are a force to be reckoned with—particularly when backed by environmental organizations with the know-how and staff to support environmental justice. When Associated Asphalt and Materials LLC’s (AAM) applied to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Air Quality Bureau for an Air Quality Permit to combine two asphalt sites and operate both 24/7 on an industrial/commercial site located next to some of the most densely populated areas of Santa Fe, Southside residents joined together. Earth Care is working with the Southside residents, and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) has also joined the coalition.

Edmund Gorman, a fifth-grade elementary school teacher in Santa Fe, says his students and their families are worried about the plant. “Families and staff at El Camino Real Academy are quite concerned about the possibility of the new asphalt plant being built so close to our school and neighborhood. We feel like there could be a much better placement for the plant—not near a school or neighborhood. We are glad the plant will provide jobs for Santa Fe during this time of struggle for many, but feel like there must be other options in more isolated areas that will not present possible health risks to a large community.”

Asphalt is obtained either as a residue from the distillation of petroleum or from natural deposits. Petroleum-based asphalt is a high-VOC (volatile organic compound) substance. As the product is converted to asphalt, significant quantities of harmful gases are released into the atmosphere. When the asphalt is heated and vented at the plant operations, the smell radiates out into the atmosphere and becomes the only thing people smell. Even if an asphalt plant meets all state and federal air pollution standards, people living nearby are still exposed to cancer-causing substances that can cause long-term damage. Pre-existing conditions like asthma leave people of all ages at greater risk during the pandemic. 

According to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, asphalt fumes are known toxins. The federal Environmental Protection Agency states, “Asphalt processing and asphalt roofing manufacturing facilities are major sources of hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde, hexane, phenol, polycyclic organic matter and toluene. Exposure to these air toxics may cause cancer, central nervous system problems, liver damage, respiratory problems and skin irritation.”

A Yale research study observed that common road and roofing asphalts produce complex mixtures of organic compounds, including hazardous pollutants, in a range of typical temperature and solar conditions. The results of their work, from the lab of Drew Gentner, associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering, appeared in the Journal Science Advances.

“This area has rapidly taken on the characteristics of a sacrifice zone,” says Earth Care co-director Miguel Acosta. “The neighborhoods were annexed in the last 10 years by the City of Santa Fe after being neglected by the county for many decades. The city and county’s collective neglect has now turned more deadly as children and families that are the last to be tested, last to be vaccinated, most likely to be exposed to COVID-19 and least likely to have health insurance are the most likely to suffer from the cumulative impacts on their health.” 

A growing number of asphalt-producing businesses are seeking to operate in Santa Fe County north of Airport Road and just west of 599. Earth Care says this is where many lower-income neighborhoods exist, and it is the most densely populated area of Santa Fe. Residents had no idea they were moving into an area with significant and growing amounts of environmental pollution.

The NMELC has filed a Statement of Intent to Present Technical Testimony on behalf of Earth Care N.M. and individual residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the existing and proposed AAM operations. The Statement of Intent and accompanying testimony explains that the proposed AAM operation creates health risks to nearby residents that the NMED should not be willing to impose on them.

“Our technical witnesses make this point in many ways,” said NMELC attorney Maslyn Locke, explaining that, “The proposed AAM plant will likely increase fine particulate pollution in the area, which is known to cause many adverse health impacts.” Mike Schneider, who worked in the New Mexico Environment Department’s Air Quality Bureau for 23 years, is the coalition’s designated expert. Schneider, Locke and NMELC attorney Eric Jantz are working pro bono with the coalition Southside Santa Fe residents.

New Mexico Environment Dept. is holding a public hearing on March 22 about the proposed asphalt expansions. To participate, contact EarthCare by emailing communityhealthsantafe@gmail.com. Submit written comments to Pamela.Jones@state.nm.us.

Like this story? Hate it? Share it and add your comments.