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 V.18 No.2 | January 8 - 14, 2009 

Environment

Uneasy Breathing

Board members quit over a wheezy clean-air resolution

Two members of the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board say they resigned because the board isn’t doing enough to keep air clean.

Gwen Sun and Deborah Potter also cited other reasons for leaving—poor county representation and scheduling conflicts—but both say they’re frustrated by the board’s resistance to change.

Token Justice?

Sun and Potter were dismayed by an environmental justice resolution the board passed in December. Environmental justice involves making sure poor neighborhoods breath the same air as wealthier counterparts.

The resolution promotes environmental justice ideas but doesn't contain rules that would put those theories into action.

Sun and Potter say it lacks teeth. The resolution came out of an environmental justice task force formed a year ago by the board. The task force made several recommendations, but board members butted heads over how much authority they had to implement the suggestions [“Change Is in the Air,” Nov. 27-Dec. 3].

They’re so defensive, it’s offensive.”

Gwen Sun

"I think it [the resolution] is a shadow of what the task force put together," Sun says. "It's kind of a joke."

Board Chairperson Mike Minturn says the resolution goes as far as it can given the limited authority of the board. "It's an appropriate first step as a result of the task force’s good work at looking at the issue of environmental justice," Minturn says. "Missing steps need to be provided by the Environmental Protection Agency and state Legislature."

Minturn and Vice-Chairperson Jens Deichmann say the board must follow the rules created by the EPA and the Legislature, so the ball is in their court.

"A Puppet Board"

Potter and Sun say the board can and should do more than make suggestions to the state and federal government. They point to a decision by Attorney General Gary King's office that says the board has the authority to issue regulations that incorporate environmental justice principles.

"For me, it was too difficult to represent the interests of the county when the city has such a loud voice."

Deborah Potter

Sun says the board tends to let the city's Air Quality Division dictate its priorities. The division is in charge of handing out permits to businesses that emit pollution. But the board has the power to approve or deny rule changes or regulations. Sun says the board lets the division run the show. "It's a puppet board," Sun says. "The city has monopolized the whole process."

Sun and Potter say the city's Air Quality Division often resists changes or new rules. "They're so defensive, it's offensive," Sun says. "It's not proactive at all."

Potter says the division focuses on what it’s required to do instead of finding ways to regulate more effectively.

City vs. County

The board has three representatives from Bernalillo County and four from Albuquerque. Because more people live in the city, Albuquerque gets one more rep. Potter says the unbalanced split makes fighting for the county tough. "For me, it was too difficult to represent the interests of the county when the city has such a loud voice," Potter says.

According to Potter, the city's agenda gets a boost from Isreal Tavarez, who, as an environmental engineering manager for the Air Quality Division, regularly addresses the board. Potter says Tavarez presents the city's positions on issues, and there's no county equivalent to provide a counterpoint to Tavarez' view.

Deichmann, a county rep on the board, disagrees. He says board members' interests are often the same, regardless of who they represent. "I don't think it is a problem," Deichmann says. "I certainly never took the approach that I'm here to represent the county against the city. It's all one when you get right down to it."

But Potter says there are sometimes competing interests, since both the county and the city would like to have as few polluters as possible. "In some ways, you could consider them in conflict," Potter says. "If the pollution stays in the county, the county loses. If the pollution stays in the city, the city loses."

Cumulative Conflict

The Air Quality Division also clashed with the environmental justice task force over whether the effect of many polluters in one neighborhood should be measured. When the division considers awarding a permit, it only examines how much the applicant alone will pollute. It doesn’t take into account other businesses in the neighborhood that release pollution.

Tavarez says measuring cumulative impact is difficult. Tavarez asserts the EPA doesn’t have standards for measuring cumulative impacts in a single neighborhood.

Former Air Quality Control Board member Karen Wentworth says a lack of guidance from the EPA made it difficult to implement environmental justice principles. “The city tried very hard to think about ways to be as fair as possible,” Wentworth says. “It's frustrating because the federal government is not leading the way on this issue.”

Environmental justice task force member Margaret Menache says the best way to make the division and the board more hands-on is to get citizens involved. According to Menache, if more Albuquerque residents pay attention to air quality, government will make it a top priority. “People need to show up to public meetings,” Menache says. “I think the city would see this as part of its mandate if there were 100 people in the audience.”

 

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