Ten minutes before the meeting started, choleric murmurs rippled through the crowd.
A woman sitting in the second row of the hearing at the Albuquerque Convention Center quietly mocked the grammatical errors in a flyer. She scanned a leaflet by Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua. The company owns American Cement, a subsidiary with a transfer station situated in the North Valley (4702 Carlton NW).
GCC's pamphlet message: The company wants to be a good neighbor to the residents living near the transfer station. Judging from the woman's repeated scoffs, she didn't buy the friendly overtures.
More than a hundred people gathered on the evening of Tuesday, June 23, for a hearing set up by the city's Air Quality Division. It was the public's chance to voice concerns about a permit request made by American Cement. The permit would allow the company to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It would also grant the transfer station the ability to more than quadruple the amount of pollution it emits every year.
Before people had a chance to speak their piece, Grupo Cementos took the floor. GCC's president, Enrique Escalante, told the crowd he was a friend. "I’m convinced I'm here to tell you that we are not your adversaries," Escalante said. "We feel we are allies." Escalante's speech went on for about a half-hour. By the time four other Grupo Cementos representatives spoke, more than 90 minutes had ticked by.
The last person on the GCC side of the fence to speak was toxicologist Kathryn Kelly. She asserted the increased emissions posed no threat to residents' health. Her presentation was interrupted by a man defiantly shouting that GCC had been dominating the stage for too long. Occasional yells of "you're stonewalling" and "hurry up" permeated the rest of Kelly's speech, which concluded with her endorsement of American Cement's permit request. "It's certainly the cleanest terminal I've seen in 24 years of evaluating these facilities," Kelly said. "It's one I frankly think deserves your support."
“I’m convinced I'm here to tell you that we are not your adversaries. We feel we are allies.”
GCC President Enrique Escalante
Environmental and Process Manager Doug Roark said at the meeting that their company has backed up its friendly-neighbor mantra with concrete action. The company hired Jose Madera, an environmental specialist. Though he lives in Edgewood, Madera promised the audience he would be on-call 24 hours a day to listen to concerns. Grupo Cementos paved all the roads at its facility, Roark added, decreasing the amount of dust kicked up by trucks. And it vacuums the roads near the facility at least twice a week. The company also built a wall around the transfer station and planted trees alongside it. Roark said GCC plans to put together a community advisory board including members from the immediate neighborhood, who, he says, will meet with company representatives to iron out problems.
From an environmental standpoint, Kelly said the pollution allowed under the proposed permit would still be well bellow the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In an Alibi interview, Chris Catechis, president of the North Valley Coalition, says he doubts GCC won over any skeptical residents. "It was almost like they were wanting to run out the clock," he says. "It's not a new facility. People have been living there for years, and they know what's going on."
“You are telling me there's nothing to worry about. If my daughter gets silicosis in 10 years, I'm gonna sue every single one of you.”
Nasser Safaei, president of the Stronghurst Neighborhood Association
Much of the bad blood between American Cement and the neighborhood stems from a history of permit violations by the company. Before GCC bought American Cement in January 2008, the Air Quality Division recorded several infractions. Grupo Cementos was charged a $60,000 fine in November 2008 for a permit infraction at the transfer station. Speaking with the Alibi, Roark says that fine came as a result of a voluntary audit that GCC undertook to evaluate problems at the facility. He says the audit uncovered a past infraction that took place before Grupo Cementos bought American Cement.
American Cement Vice President Peter Cantrup wrote a letter to the Air Quality Division in 2004, speculating, "most of the neighbors seem to be either retired or on unemployment because they never leave the house, and the only thing that would make them really happy is if we were to move out entirely." Cantrup, who is still American Cement's vice president, did not return calls for comment.
Catechis says the community's faith in American Cement is going to have to be earned. "We're no longer going to go by 'just trust us' alone," he says. "It's going to be trust through verification."
The city shouldn't grant the permit request, he adds. If it does, Catechis asserts he'd like to see the company voluntarily set up air-monitoring devices along the perimeter of the transfer station. "If they really want to be good neighbors, this is not a lot to ask [coming] from a community that already has had a problem with that facility," he says.
At the meeting, the North Valley Coalition leader asked GCC representatives if they would be willing to set up monitoring devices. Escalante responded that he was open to the idea. "In principal, I would say ‘yes,’ ” Escalante said. "But we would need to know the details of that voluntary monitoring to give you a straight answer."
Nasser Safaei is the president of the Stronghurst Neighborhood Association. Stronghurst, too, is a nearby neighborhood affected by the facility. Safaei told GCC he didn't believe the company's assertion that there was no threat of silicosis—a lung disease—from an increase in pollution. "You are telling me there's nothing to worry about," Safaei said. "If my daughter gets silicosis in 10 years, I'm gonna sue every single one of you."
More than 40 people signed up to speak at the meeting, but after four hours only about half got their chance to be heard. The Air Quality Division staff at the meeting said there would be another hearing to make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak. If this showdown was any indication, the next hearing will be full of impassioned residents unwilling to let American Cement get its way without a fight. "This is not something that is just going to be a slam dunk for the company," Catechis said. "The people are very fired up.”