There are two Superfund sites and a high concentration of heavy industry in the area where Esther Abeyta’s family has lived for three generations. Her home is on land her grandmother bought for $90 and two chickens. And as the San Jose Neighborhood Association president, she’s determined to stay ahead of health and environmental issues.
Her workload is intense. She often has to enlist the help and support of her husband and association vice president, Steven. Lately they’ve been getting literate in petrochemical engineering terms. They’re trying to understand the planned operations of a company taking over an old fuel storage station. Florida-based Vecenergy applied for a city permit to release more air pollutants, telling residents that they plan to increase the amount of fuel and traffic in and out of the aging facility.
Further troubling the association are plans for westward expansion of Sunport Boulevard. Esther was informed of three proposed routes for the new road, one of which would disrupt the Superfund wells that were dug to monitor the progress of groundwater cleanup. Bernalillo County has informed the EPA that roadway plans won’t interfere with remedying the contamination, but Esther says it worries her that San Jose’s association was not included in the process.
“We didn’t participate in this project, but yet we’re going to be impacted,” says Esther. “We’ll be impacted by the traffic, by the construction, but most of all, they want to move the wells that were put here to protect this community and collect data on what’s been happening over the years with contamination.”
“Sometimes you have to learn everything about an industry that you know nothing about in three weeks, and then you've got to put up good enough opposition to it.”
The Abeytas say they anxiously await response to letters they've submitted to local and federal agencies asking for more analysis of how the road expansion could affect the neighborhood.
It wasn’t long ago that San Jose—historically low-income and predominantly Hispanic—was politically active and organized, Esther says. In the ’80s and ’90s, the community was galvanized in response to gang violence and the discovery of severe groundwater contamination.
After the much-lauded San Jose Community Awareness Coalition called it quits under a cloud of scrutiny about mismanagement of funds, residents felt disillusioned, she says. “A lot of the people who used to be advocates, and who fought hard, will not get involved today no matter what I do.”
The Abeytas collaborate to voice association concerns in letters to officials when existing businesses apply for permits that could impact air quality or further endanger the area’s contaminated water. They also try to familiarize themselves with the technical intricacies of new industrial projects.
Steven says they have to stay vigilant about the narrow window when the public is allowed to submit comment on development in their area. "If you don't submit within the timeline, it just gets approved.” There are no rules regarding how much warning neighbors should receive about zoning changes or site plans. Instead, a company simply has to prove to the government that it made an effort to alert residents to relevant meetings or hearings.
Last year, California waste management company NMRT, LLC wanted to build an indoor waste management facility and was seeking development permits from Bernalillo County. The San Jose Neighborhood Association coordinated with other concerned groups and lobbied against it, fearing that the intensification of truck and railroad traffic through San Jose would worsen air quality. The project eventually fell through.
“NMRT taught us a lot,” says Esther. “It taught us how to be able to defend ourselves and this community, how to understand the zoning, and to look at things more closely—like the impact of special use permits.”
It’s challenging for ordinary citizens to fully understand what’s at stake, says Steven, who admits he would much rather read poetry than environmental impact analyses. But they feel pressure to stay as informed as possible, even though the learning curve has been steep.
“Sometimes you have to learn everything about an industry that you know nothing about in three weeks,” he says, “and then you've got to put up good enough opposition to it.”