In some parts of Bernalillo County’s South Valley, parks sit adjacent to idling trains, schools lie across the street from waste disposal businesses, and entire neighborhoods are bordered by polluting industries. People living there are what’s known as environmental justice communities—neighborhoods that bear a disproportionate burden of pollution.
It was a Saturday night in July, 2014. A massive fire had broken out at Albuquerque Metals Recycling, a business that processes scrap metal for resale. The air turned thick with acrid, metallic smoke, as old cars and scrap metal burned in white and colored flames. Just blocks away, Patty and Enrique Candelaria had put their grandkids to bed and were winding down for the night in their South Valley home, when they noticed a strange smell.
"They’d been in bed for an hour or two, and they were like, 'What’s going on?' They were scared, and one of them started crying," Patty Candelaria said. "And I said, 'We’re going to put you in the car. Just hold your breath when we’re outside.' "
They drove to Patty’s sister’s house and spent the night there. By morning, crews were still trying to put out the fire.
It wasn’t the first time the Candelaria family has had to leave their home because of a problem at an industrial business nearby. They say the county evacuated their neighborhood a few years earlier because of another fire at the same recycling plant; next door is a chemical distributor, and they had to leave their home once because of a leak there.
About once a month, they hear something explode at one of the businesses in the industrial zone just beyond their fence line. And almost every day, chemical odors waft into their home from outside.
"I smell some strange things. Sometimes it’s like a chlorine smell or like a burning smell," Enrique Candelaria said.
The Candelarias think those chemical smells are the reason for their health problems. Nobody in this family smokes, but everyone has a respiratory condition. Enrique and Patty use inhalers. So does her daughter, who lives a few doors down. Even the pets have trouble breathing.
This part of Bernalillo County has some of the highest instances of chronic diseases in New Mexico. Asthma, along with things like diabetes and heart disease, are common maladies for people living near the industrial zone. One study found people living in this area had an average life expectancy of as much as 22 years less than more affluent parts of Albuquerque.
Ask an expert why that is, and a big part of it comes down to one word: zoning.
"Certain communities, like Mountain View, San José, there are places in which there’s multiple exposures to things that we know have negative health consequences," said Matt Cross-Guillen of the health policy advocacy group Healthy Places for New Mexico. He said the county’s zoning laws—which designate land next to low-income neighborhoods for industrial use—are one of the factors that have helped create clusters of avoidable illnesses in the South Valley.
"Whether it be from chlorine plants, whether it be from waste transfer stations or concrete batch plants—there’s multiple sources of negative health influences, and certain communities are overburdened by these," Cross-Guillen said. "Zoning plays a big issue in this."
Within the South Valley’s industrial zone, 600 pounds of chlorine are released into the air each year—more than anywhere in the state. So are thousands of pounds of gas byproducts like benzene and toluene, concrete dust, diesel smoke from trains and other pollutants that aren’t even measured.
Those environmental conditions have made South Valley residents regular audience members at county zoning meetings like this one, where an out of state company was applying to build a fertilizer plant just a few feet from a residential block.
"Can’t we just live there? Can’t we just be at peace?" Patti Candelaria asked the zoning administrator, Juanita Garcia. "I’m getting old. I’m tired of coming to meetings and finding out that, we don’t want any chemicals."
"You’re argument has been made many times before in regards to the proximity of a commercial use next to a residential use," Garcia told Candelaria. "However, my hands are tied, because it is a commercial zone."
Folks were shocked when the county actually denied that permit for a fertilizer plant, because “my hands are tied” is where the conversation usually ends. Community advocates and people in the neighborhood say what they’re working for is a new conversation—one that puts public health first and industrial development second. How that would happen, and what that would mean, is a question that hasn’t been answered.