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 V.15 No.33 | August 17 - 23, 2006 

The Real Side

Fighting to Breathe in Mountain View

On the frontlines of environmental justice

Overheard at a meeting of the Four Hills Neighborhood Association, held at the Four Hills Country Club: “We must do our part as our city grows. Industry must locate somewhere. I move we get an asphalt and concrete plant to build at the Ninth Hole.”

And this: “We humans are plenty tough. Who’s worried about a little dust? A bit of sneezing ... itchy skin ... red eyes. Heck, that’s nothing. And if one lung goes, remember God gave us a backup.”

The vote was called. The crowd broke into applause when the motion to recruit a concrete and asphalt plant to Four Hills passed unanimously.

OK, so that’s not even close to believable. Here’s what really happened: I’m at the Mountain View Community Center, below Rio Bravo off Second Street. This is one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of New Mexico. No golf course or country club here. But they do have 25 salvage yards, eight petroleum tank farms, two hazardous waste facilities (across the street from the elementary school), two Superfund sites, one sewage treatment plant and 90 percent of the industrial air emissions for the entire South Valley.

The question being asked at this meeting of the Mountain View Neighborhood Association is, “How many of your families are sick because of dirty air?” The question is repeated in Spanish. Most Mountain View households speak Spanish, many exclusively.

Hands go up. Stories pour out. In one family--mother, father and three childreneveryone has developed some respiratory problem, including asthma. A grandmother complains grandchildren no longer visit because after a day of playing outside their skin develops a painful rash. A middle-aged man says an ambulance took him to the hospital because he couldn’t breathe. His wife adds she can't breathe easily from time to time, especially when she’s been in the yard for a while.

Old folks wheezing. Children coughing. Parents scared and angry.

Some neighborhoods war over traffic humps. In Mountain View, they fight so kids can breathe.

Right now they’re fighting companies that want to operate concrete and asphalt plants next to their houses. Come on. Next to their houses? I really can’t believe that. So I go to see for myself if this is just another NIMBY (not in my backyard) whine fest. It isn’t.

The latest concrete and asphalt recycling plant is practically in these people’s front yards. It sits on the site of an old automobile racing track, once loathed for its noise and clouds of clay dust dumped on the neighborhood. Mountain View drove that nuisance out, only to see an open-air concrete and asphalt crusher appear on the site.

I locate the house of the guy hauled off in an ambulance because he couldn’t breathe. Directly across the narrow street is a small mountain of broken concrete and asphalt rising above the rim of the old racetrack. This unfortunate fellow told me that while the crushing was underway they had to give up on air conditioning because the filters constantly clogged with black soot.

A gritty wind blows in my face. Right there is the mountain of material to be pulverized. Right there is where people live. It’s not hard to understand what’s going on here.

The crushing has stopped while Mountain View appeals the application for an air quality permit. Nobody’s ever done that before. The bureaucrats are not exactly sure how to proceed. Experts say the decision is complicated, what with technical questions about point source versus cumulative levels of pollution, the portability of emission permits and so on.

The airborne waste from this operation will land on people. It will foul their property and their lungs. What’s complicated? There’s no property right in sending unhealthy dust and soot onto your neighbors’ houses and into their bodies. Thomas Paine nailed it more than two hundred years ago: “Your freedom ends where mine begins.”

The owner of the crusher says the neighbors must be “reasonable.” What is a reasonable amount of concrete and asphalt dust in the throats and lungs of children? How much harmful pollution would you accept in the throats and lungs of your children? To ask the question is to answer it.

This plant may eventually serve Mesa del Sol and Westland’s expansive, undeveloped holdings. Right now, those mesas are pretty unpopulated. But 4,300 people live in Mountain View. Despite the area’s poverty, it has the county’s highest rate of owner-occupied dwellings. These families are staying put. It should be the dirty industries that move to the empty spaces and out of harm’s way.

Unless, that is, Four Hills, or Tanoan, or High Desert, or other affluent neighborhoods offer to shoulder some of the unhealthy burdens of our city’s growth. Now that would be environmental justice.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jims@alibi.com.

 
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