In the late 1980s, people living in the border town of Sunland Park, NM, had a big problem on their hands—and on their laundry lines, too.
At the time, a medical waste incinerator occupied the middle of the local landfill. It had been built before the state had air quality regulations to restrict emissions coming out of the stacks, and lacked much in the way of pollution control equipment.
Bordered on the east by El Paso, Sunland Park’s southern boundary is the landfill, beyond which Mexico lies. The community’s residents are overwhelmingly poor, immigrant and Spanish-speaking.
As New Mexico Environmental Law Center Director Doug Meiklejohn points out, the two main ingredients burned at medical waste incinerators are flesh and plastic. Meiklejohn recalls residents complaining of the smell of burning meat. The smoke was also acrid from the plastic.
“People in the community felt that the smoke from the incinerator created a lot of illnesses people had,” he says, “respiratory problems and rashes and other allergic reactions.”
Because of the area’s prevailing winds, the incinerator’s smoke blew directly into the town.
“If their laundry was hanging out when the incinerator was operating, they had to wash it again because it smelled so bad,” Meiklejohn says. “[The smoke] also went to one of the two elementary schools in the community, and there were instances of children getting sick, people felt from the incinerator, and having to go home.”
As a result of the law center’s representation of the Concerned Citizens of Sunland Park, the incinerator was closed in 1991—and the state’s Solid Waste Act and other regulations now mandate how far incinerators must be located from homes, schools and workplaces. The state also adopted a set of regulations that govern air emissions from incinerators.
“The situation with the medical waste incinerator is an example of what can happen when there are not regulations in place to protect people from impacts,” Meiklejohn says. “I think that it’s an indication that environmental regulations protecting people and protecting the environment are needed.”
Until approximately four decades ago, industry could do much as it pleased, not only here in New Mexico, but across the United States. But during the 1960s and 1970s, people became increasingly aware of how humans were fouling not only their own nests, but also the planet as a whole.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring warned of the dangers of the pesticide DDT, which, by decreasing the thickness of egg shells, was harming certain bird populations. In 1969, an oil slick in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire, and an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara smeared California beaches with petroleum. When the residents of Love Canal, a suburban neighborhood in Niagara Falls, NY, discovered in 1976 that their houses had been built atop a toxic dump, millions of other Americans began wondering what was underneath their homes and in their drinking water. And let’s not forget the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the United States set the course on environmental protection. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and others regulating hazardous and nuclear waste, workplace safety and directing cleanup of the nation’s most polluted sites.
Environmentalists and union workers united to support passage of environmental and public health regulations, and grassroots efforts arose to protect wild places. In the coming decades, people demanded protections for some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations—poor communities of color that were often targeted as easy marks for polluting industries—and regulatory agencies began contemplating how to incorporate “environmental justice” into planning processes. Thanks to a generation of regulations and protections, those days of burning rivers, unlined landfills and poor communities saddled with dumps and dangerous facilities are long over.
Or are they?