KUNM

Neighborhood Holds Breath For Better Air Quality

May 23, 2016

Air pollution is a serious problem for some neighborhoods in Albuquerque—especially in low-income areas that border an industrial zone south of downtown.

"I go in with an asthma attack, they can’t even drive me because it might take too long to get there. So they call the ambulance," said Lucy Rodriguez. Her house in the San Jose neighborhood south of downtown Albuquerque sits between a concrete factory, train tracks, and a busy street. "And right away they intubate me because I can’t breathe, nothing. I pass out."          

She’s had mild asthma since she was young, but she said her health problems took a quick turn for the worse when she moved here, where residents say pollution hangs in the air around the clock.

"We need to do something to clear the air," she said. "Next time I go in I might not be so lucky."

Rodriguez and others in San Jose blame their health problems on air pollution, but proving that link is almost impossible. There have never been any epidemiological studies of industrial neighborhoods in Bernalillo County. But we do know there is air pollution in this neighborhood. A lot of it.

"Every time there's pollution I get very sick," said San Jose resident Lucy Rodriguez
Credit Ed Williams

Businesses in this zip code have reported releasing over 130,000 lbs. of chemicals into the air over the last two decades, most of them in the San Jose neighborhood. Compare that to less than 250 lbs. released in all of Santa Fe County in the same time period.

"Like Honstein Oil, and then there’s Western Refinery, the cement plant, and then we have the marble company on the other side of the train tracks," said San Jose Neighborhood Association President Esther Abeyta.

And then, there’s the trains. A wide system of railroad tracks runs right behind Abeyta’s home.

"We can have either two or three engine trains parked in one area idling for 24 hours," Abeyta said.

Those trains idling for hours send exhaust straight into the neighborhood, Abeyta said. But they aren’t regulated by the city, and their emissions aren’t included in pollution estimates. The actual amount of air pollution is a mystery.

Air pollution permits issued by the City of Albuquerque. San Jose is just west of I-25 and south of Bridge St. Head to publichealthnm.org for the full interactive map.
Credit Rashad Mahmood

Abeyta said the neighborhood association has tried to get information about air pollution from the city, but hasn't had much luck getting meaningful information from public records requests.  "They charge you, but I don’t really think they give you all the information you want," she said.

So we decided to look for ourselves. KUNM put in a request to inspect the city’s records on air pollution in this area, to see if we could get an idea of what violations were taking place, and how much pollution was really in the air.

It took about six weeks for the city to find the files we asked for. The records custodian had to load them onto three carts and wheel them into an office for us to review. Only a few of the city’s pollution records are electronic, the rest are in humongous paper files full of handwritten notes.

We did eventually find dozens of potentially serious air pollution violations for things like improper venting of vapors from gas terminals or hazardous materials used without permits. But with the city’s current system, there’s no way to get a comprehensive, real-time picture of what people in San Jose are breathing, or which businesses are breaking which rules.

One of several carts of air quality files KUNM got access to through a public information request
Credit Ed Williams

Air Quality chief Damon Reyes says that doesn’t mean Albuquerque can’t keep pollution under control in San Jose.

"We have sources down there, large medium and small, that we inspect on a routine basis. Either through commitments we have to EPA, from complaints or from surveillance that comes from inspectors being out in the field," Reyes said.

Reyes has seven inspectors on his team, which he says is enough to keep tabs on all the city’s industrial businesses. But for Esther Abeyta and others who live in San Jose, it’s not just about who’s breaking the rules. 

"Individually they’re within the regulations of the EPA, and the city, and the state. But we’re saying once you put everybody together, it exceeds what a community should be having," she said.

Abeyta and other environmental activists in San Jose are lobbying the city to consider the total air pollution here before issuing any new permits to industrial businesses.

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Public Health New Mexico is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and the Con Alma Health Foundation.