Before a company starts sending pollutants into the air in your neighborhood, you should know about it.
That’s the idea behind the Albuquerque Air Quality Division’s proposed regulations. The question is, do the new rules do enough to keep neighbors informed?
The regulations on the books about public notice haven’t been updated for at least two decades. The Air Quality Division began brainstorming about updating them in 2005. They could go into effect in January.
Environmental Engineering Manager Isreal Tavarez says the new rules would increase awareness of facilities in the area and bring more public input into the permitting process.
As things stand, residents can voice their issues to the company and the division by requesting a hearing. Once the permit application is submitted, the public has 30 days to ask for a hearing.
New pre-application requirements (listed to the right) would keep people better-informed, according to Tavarez. “It’s an effective way to help the public be aware of projects and to help them understand them,” he says.
Patty Grice, president of the South Valley Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, isn’t satisfied. She says the division should notify people who are farther from the facility. “A quarter mile really isn’t very far,” Grice says of the proposed acceptable distance. “It really should be within at least a mile.”
Every neighborhood association or coalition in the county should be notified about a permit application, she adds, regardless of where the facility is. “The Air Quality Division has very poor community outreach,” Grice says. “What they seem to think is good community outreach is really not good at all.”
Let’s make sure protection is offered equally across the spectrum so people aren’t risking their lives because they can’t afford to live in a more prestigious neighborhood.
Before the regulations are finalized, they have to get the OK from the Air Quality Control Board, a quasi-judicial council charged with making sure city and county rules comply with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The board put together a task force earlier this year. One of the group’s missions was to come up with ways to improve air quality for all citizens. The task force made several recommendations. Some of them, Tavarez says, are addressed by the new rules—and some are not.
The division should include significantly more of the task force’s suggestions, Grice says. “The whole purpose of the task force was to get the city to incorporate environmental justice regulations into their permitting process,” she says. “Why did we do the task force if they weren’t going to do that?”
Task force member Lora Lucero says one of the most important recommendations has to do with “cumulative impact.” Rather than just looking at how much one facility in a neighborhood is polluting, she says, the city should look at what other pollutants are already being emitted. “You have to look at the big picture,” Lucero says. “One smokestack doesn’t look too bad—until you find out it’s located near the majority of smokestacks in the community, and the residents are the ones bearing the burden.”
Task force member Kitty Richards says studies have shown that industry tends to be concentrated in low-income communities. “What we’re saying is, let’s make sure protection is offered equally across the spectrum so people aren’t risking their lives because they can’t afford to live in a more prestigious neighborhood.”
Tavarez says the city has 10 monitoring stations throughout Albuquerque that detect multiple pollutants in different areas. There's disagreement between neighborhood activists and the Air Quality Division over how well those monitors can detect pollution in specific neighborhoods.
Measuring cumulative impact is tough, he adds. The division doesn't set the standards that polluters have to meet; it just enforces them. “There’s no set criteria to really look at cumulative impacts,” Tavarez says. “Setting those standards is done at the federal level, not by the Air Quality Division.” Right now, he says, the Environmental Protection Agency has no standard for measuring the economic status of a neighborhood.
Another focus of the proposed rules is an option for speeding up the application review process. A consultant under contract with the city could review a company’s permit request. Theoretically, this would be faster because the consulting firm wouldn't be as jammed with applications as the Air Quality Division. After the permit application was analyzed and verified by the consultant, the division would still be the authority deciding whether to grant the permit.
Grice and Richards both expressed concern about the sped-up review process because there’s no mention of public notice or comment requirements. “That needs to go out the door,” Grice says.
Tavarez says the public notice requirements would be the same under the accelerated review as the standard process. A company with the cash to pay an independent contractor couldn’t tiptoe past those rules. Neighbors could still request a public hearing to discuss the permit application and would have 30 days to do so.