NRDC - Natural Resources Defense Council

06/03/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/03/2024 22:36

NRDC, Los Jardines Institute File Title VI Civil Rights Complaint Against Albuquerque Officials

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - Los Jardines Institute and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) have filed a Title VI civil rights complaint urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require the City of Albuquerque and Albuquerque Environmental Health Department to start accounting for the cumulative impacts of pollution in lower-income communities of color in Bernalillo County when granting air pollution permits, and to reverse the long history of over-polluting those communities which has harmed the health of people living in them.

Federal intervention is necessary because local environmental justice communities first raised concerns a decade ago with EPA about the impacts from multiple sources of air pollution on public health in the county surrounding Albuquerque-and little has happened since. Furthermore, over the last six months, the City of Albuquerque and the city's Environmental Health Department have actively opposed community-driven efforts to change the permitting process.

"The long and pernicious history of air permitting in Bernalillo County suggests that there will be no remedy without EPA's intervention," the complaint states.

"For too long, environmental justice communities in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County have been exposed to dangerous levels of industrial pollution while local officials failed to act and even fought efforts to reduce that disproportionate pollution burden," said Dr. Sofia Martinez, Co-Coordinator of Los Jardines Institute. "If our communities can't get protection from local government, including the Environmental Health Department, we have no other recourse but to call on the federal government to intervene and require compliance with Title VI to protect our health and environment."

The complaint asks that EPA:

  • Find that the City of Albuquerque and Environmental Health Department is in violation of Title VI for failing in its air permitting program to prevent disparate impacts based on race;
  • Find that to comply with Title VI, EHD must implement a cumulative impacts rule and apply it in its air permitting decisions;
  • Require EHD to complete a data-based overburdened-areas map by January 1, 2025, as required by the Health, Environment and Equity Impacts rule passed by the Air Board last year; and
  • Investigate whether the City Council and EHD committed acts of intentional race discrimination.

"The City Council's and the Environmental Health Department's brazen attempt to frustrate the realization of a fundamental goal of environmental justice-to recognize and reverse the deleterious effects of disproportionate and dangerous air pollution-cries out for federal intervention now," said Sara Imperiale, Director of Community Lawyering at NRDC. "History demonstrates that, if left on its own, EHD will continue to permit industrial activity that will shower ever more pollution on communities that already have borne too much, in stark disregard of the Civil Rights Act and EPA policy."

Los Jardines Institute, a grassroots organization that focuses on environmental, economic, and food justice based in Albuquerque's South Valley, teamed up with NRDC, an environmental organization that works in partnership with community-based groups to reduce disproportionate burdens from environmental contamination, to address longstanding inequities in the Albuquerque area.

The complaint notes that Bernalillo County has a number of lower-income Latino communities and communities of color whose residents suffer disproportionate health burdens from air pollution. The county received an "F" gradein all air quality metrics evaluated by the American Lung Association.

A decade ago, the Southwest Organizing Project alerted EPA to the region's inequities by filing a Title VI complaint alleging discrimination by the air quality permitting authorities in the Albuquerque area.

The 2014 complaint alleged that several predominantly Latino communities in Bernalillo County had concentrations of air pollutants higher than national EPA standards and higher levels of numerous diseases (including leukemia, lung, bladder, brain, and thyroid cancer) and child hospitalization rates for asthma compared to the rest of the county. EPA eventually stepped in and drafted an informal resolution agreement, but EHD refused to accept it.

Then in 2022, community groups petitioned the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board to issue a cumulative impacts regulation requiring the Environmental Health Department to map overburdened communities and limit their exposure to additional air pollution by requiring certain facilities to adopt best available pollution control technology.

But in late 2023, just before the Air Board began public hearings on the cumulative impacts rule, the Albuquerque City Council tried to dismantle the Air Board and kill any regulation. Despite those efforts, in December, the Air Board issued a final cumulative impacts rule, the Health, Environment, and Equity Impacts (HEEI) rule, which provides a community-endorsed mechanism for EHD to consider unequal pollution burdens as part of its permitting decisions. The HEEI rule has been challenged in New Mexico state court by various entities, including EHD.

Los Jardines Institute and NRDC urge EPA to accept the complaint, or, as an alternative, conduct a compliance review to achieve prompt adoption and enforcement of a cumulative impacts analytical process that, ultimately, begins to protect overburdened communities from air pollution.

Title VI prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin. Federal funding recipients like the City of Albuquerque and Environmental Health Department must practice non-discrimination in all their activities.

The Los Jardines Institute/NRDC Title VI civil rights complaint to EPA is here: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/2024-06/nm-titlevi-complaint-jardines-20240530.pdf

A separate Civil Rights complaint has also been filed with the EPA. It is by the Mountain View Neighborhood Association, Mountain View Community Action and Friends of Valle de Oro, (collectively, the Mountain View Coalition), represented by New Mexico Environmental Law Center and against the City of Albuquerque and its City Council due to its discriminatory actions during the HEEI rulemaking proceeding in December, where the City Council took unprecedented steps to stop the community-driven attempt to address decades of discriminatory air permitting in Albuquerque's South Valley.

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NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Established in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, law and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health and safeguard nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Beijing and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd)