An Albuquerque city councilor is seeking to replace a seven-member board tasked with preventing and abating air pollution in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. It’s a plan that isn’t sitting well with many residents of the South Valley, part of the city that is home to a disproportionate number of potentially polluting businesses.
Councilor Dan Lewis, who represents District 5 in the northwest part of Albuquerque, filed two pieces of legislation on Oct. 16. If passed, the proposed ordinance would dissolve the current board and replace it with an entirely new one and a companion resolution would place a moratorium on the board’s rulemaking authority until early next year.
The New Mexico Environmental Law Center along with The Mountain View Coalition—a group comprised of the Mountain View Neighborhood Association, Mountain View Community Action and Friends of Valle de Oro—assert that the proposed changes would undermine the board’s regulatory authority and put the health and well-being of residents in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County at further risk.
Currently, the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board is an independent and appointed group of citizens that enforces local and federal laws, ensuring that both the city and the county operate within the confines of the New Mexico Air Quality Control Act and the federal Clean Air Act.
Lewis’ proposed resolution would strip the board of its ability to adopt or amend rules related to industrial air pollution until Feb. 1.
His proposed ordinance, meanwhile, would abolish the current seven-member board and replace it with an entirely new seven-member board. Of those seven new members, four members would be appointed by Albuquerque’s mayor, with approval of the Albuquerque City Council, while the other three members would be appointed by the Bernalillo County Commission.
The proposed ordinance also details some very specific and hefty qualifications and professional backgrounds that “the majority” of prospective board members must have.
If Lewis gets his way, a qualified board would be comprised of at least one member who is a “registered professional licensed” engineer with at least five years of experience in the field of air pollution control, at least one member who is a physician with experience in the health effects of air contaminants, at least one member who works in higher education who is “involved in the conducting of training in air pollution evaluation and control” and at least one member from “city industry” with current full-time employment in “a private manufacturing concern” who has a college degree and eight years of combined technical training and experience in permit compliance or air pollution abatement.
Following the introduction of Lewis’ bills, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center shared sharp words in a news release about Lewis’ plan.
“The Mountain View Coalition … and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center unequivocally condemn this autocratic purge by Councilor Lewis,” the release stated.
Eric Jantz, the legal director for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, tells The Paper. that while his organization is speaking out in defense of South Valley residents, Lewis’ plan would have much more far-reaching impacts and that he’s overstepping his authority.
“Lewis’s bills are a definite threat to air quality across the county,” he says. “Further, in our view, Lewis’ bills are a tremendous overreach. They essentially aim to rewrite the Air Quality Control Act, which only the state legislature can do.”
Jantz also fears that Lewis’ proposals would impede the board’s rulemaking abilities by postponing, or even altogether preventing, a hearing on the Health, Environment and Equity Impacts rule, or HEEI, meant to address the concentration of polluting industries in low-income and working-class communities of color.
“Industrial interests and Councilor Lewis himself have the opportunity to present evidence to the board on economic, or any other impacts, the HEEI rule might have,” Jantz says. “Councilor Lewis’ effort is a pretty transparent effort to derail or delay the HEEI rulemaking before it can consider any evidence at all.”
Lewis was contacted for comment on this story and asked to address concerns that his proposal could delay a decision on the HEEI rule, but he declined to be interviewed, while also taking shots at the journalistic credibility of The Paper.
“Anyone who reads The Paper’s coverage of Council meetings would conclude that The Paper is a complete joke and not a news organization,” Lewis said in an email.
In an Oct. 13 news release, Lewis stated that the current board “does not operate within the laws of the state,” and defended his legislation by saying it would establish “necessary safeguards to hold the board accountable and ensure the board is comprised of diverse experts.”
Jantz of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center said that the current board is already comprised of diverse experts with decades of experience in toxicology, public health and atmospheric science who are positioned to make decisions that affect air quality in the city and county.
Jantz also demurred a portion of the proposed ordinance that would give the City Council the power to disapprove any regulatory change or emission control requirement proposed by the board.
“It doesn’t make sense, as Lewis’ bills propose, to have the City Council exercise veto power over air board decisions. With the exception of Councilor [Tammy] Fiebelkorn, no one on the current City Council has any experience whatsoever in public health or environmental issues,” Jantz said. “The board is not tied to a binary decision of giving the proposed rule the thumbs up or the thumbs down. It’s charged with using its expertise to sift through the evidence to craft the most reasonable rule they can with that evidence.”
The proposed legislation is slated for a vote during the Council’s regular Nov. 8 meeting.