Two lawyers with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center have joined a Southside fight against an asphalt plant whose owners want to operate 24/7 and consolidate operations in Santa Fe County.
Maslyn Locke and Eric Jantz, lawyers with the center, and Mike Schneider, who worked in the New Mexico Environment Department's Air Quality Bureau for 23 years and is now the coalition's designated expert, are working pro bono to represent a collection of Southside residents and groups.
Schneider and the lawyers are taking a close look at the company's air quality permit application, which would allow it to move all operations from 3810 Oliver Road to 86 Paseo de River St., just across Highway 599 behind the County Public Works building, as well as operate around the clock and 365 days a year.
Locke and Jantz want to make sure that Associated Asphalt and Materials' operations under an updated permit follow state and federal emissions guidelines. The team already has concerns about the technical details in this latest iteration of the company's permit, but they see the effort as a bigger fight for nonwhite and lower-income neighborhoods.
"Polluting industries are concentrated in this area on the Southside of town…in one of the most, if not the most, densely populated, primarily Hispanic areas of the city," Locke says. "We ultimately got involved because this concentration of polluting industries is an environmental justice issue…The city and the county are concentrating pollution in communities of color of lower socioeconomic status who generally have fewer resources and less power to advocate for change."
Jantz places a lot of the responsibility on the shoulders of the company itself, as well as local and state governments.
"You would never, ever, ever see something like this being proposed for Bishops Lodge or Canyon Road," Jantz says. "It would never, ever happen and that's because the folks in those communities have the resources to shut it down quick."
Associated Asphalt's permit application in 2019 drew citywide attention when an online forum for Tierra Contenta residents exploded with concerns and complaints of foul odors and smoke exuding from the plant, including some who claimed they suffered negative impacts to their health. The outcry from Santa Feans forced the NMED to reexamine the company's plans.
Reporting in the spring by SFR revealed an ongoing state investigation into possible violations at Associated Asphalt, including employees not keeping consistent records of baghouse pressures, a measure of how many particles from asphalt production are released into the air. Baghouses control air pollution and dust in order to stop it from being released into the air.
The state also previously confirmed that Associated Asphalt, owned by Katharine Cook Fishman, has gone 30 years without submitting a biennial emissions inventory. The purpose of the inventory is to monitor new trends in pollutants.
The company was supposed to make its case for increased operations at a formal hearing this week. Locke and Jantz sought to delay the hearing after the NMED did not make documents about the draft permit available in time for proper review.
While the team now has more time to analyze the permit, there is, once again, no set timeline for a formal hearing.
"The unfortunate thing is that we're still seeing…the agency playing fast and loose with the process because we don't have any indication which permit we're going to be working from. We don't have any indication of how the process is going to unfold from this point forward," Jantz tells SFR. "It illustrates the…disdain I feel like the administrative agencies tend to have for the communities where these polluting operations are going to be located."
Joanie Griffin, a spokeswoman for Associated Asphalt, tells SFR the company didn't want the hearing to go on as planned either, because it didn't agree with some of the language posed by the environment department. The department, however, said the hearing was moved due to "COVID-related concerns" not problems with the draft.
Linda Marianiello, a resident of Tierra Contenta and active member of the coalition, tells SFR she and others have noticed foul odors and airborne debris coming from the area of the plant since she and her husband moved into their house on the Southside in 2009.
She agrees with the lawyers that the fight is about more than just the technical details of the application—it's about the side of town that has the lowest incomes, the fewest amenities and the densest and largest nonwhite population in the county, forced to live with industrial fumes from the airport, the sewage plant and various asphalt and gravel companies.
"A lot of the folks who live in this area of town who are low-income and immigrant populations also work in tourism and in low-wage jobs, and these folks already are having a higher outbreak of COVID as it is than the general population of Santa Fe," Marianiello says.
The lawyers agree that it's possible the state will eventually approve the company's permit. But Jantz says that as long as the community is behind it, the law center can file an appeal and take the issue into the courts.
Marianiello is thinking farther ahead and hopes that the attention this one company's application receives could make people look differently at where and how industries operate here.
"The people who don't benefit from polluting industries are the ones who have to bear the air quality issues that are generated by those, because people who live on the north side of town here in Santa Fe don't have any of those kinds of polluting industries near their homes, nor would they ever allow that to happen," Marianiello says. "But down here, somehow it's OK to locate all of them here."