Proposal in south Santa Fe has kids speaking out on environmental justice

Mar. 28—When El Camino Real Academy teacher Ed Gorman became aware of a proposal to consolidate two asphalt facilities into one larger complex just miles from the south Santa Fe school, it sparked an idea.

He broached the topic with his fifth grade science students to gauge their interest in the proposal, taking it as an opportunity to engage them in the nuts and bolts of public policy and the intersection between civic government and the environment.

Gorman quickly realized his students were overwhelmingly concerned about the plant.

"I think everyone was shocked," Gorman said. "They got to do some research, and they decided writing letters would be a powerful way to voice their opinions."

Associated Asphalt and Materials is seeking to consolidate its two asphalt plants by moving its facility half a mile north from Oliver Drive to Paseo de River Street.

Associated Asphalt says the plan would lead to stronger infrastructure in the area and more restrictions on emissions compared to its previous permit. It also says it would move the Oliver Road plant farther away from neighborhoods. But critics of the plan say it would lead to environmental contamination and air quality degradation in south-side neighborhoods.

Gabriela Rodriguez, a fifth grader at El Camino Real Academy, is one of those critics.

Concerned with how fumes from the plant might impact her health, the fifth grader said she wrote to the New Mexico Environment Department that she wasn't in favor of the plan.

"I don't think it's a good idea," she said. "When I had COVID, it affected my heartbeat, and now if they build the asphalt plant, it might affect it more."

Gorman said of about 50 student letters that were sent to the state Environment Department, only two were in favor of the plant consolidation plan, with the majority of students voicing concerns over breathing issues and its impact on people with asthma and the elderly.

It's a concern shared by Miguel Acosta, co-director of Earth Care, a Santa Fe-based youth empowerment nonprofit with a focus on sustainable communities.

While the plant might be moved farther away from some residential developments, Acosta said it would be moved closer to El Camino Real Academy and its 800 students, as well as Cottonwood Village Mobile Home Park. He said he's concerned about how plant fumes would affect residents in the area, a densely packed population that was hit hard by COVID-19.

Acosta reiterated a concern that many south-side residents have voiced in the past — that they get the brunt of the city's polluting industries.

Acosta called it "environmental racism."

"The goal is a healthy, sustainable community," Acosta said. "We have great quality of life in Santa Fe, but it's quality of life downtown, not necessarily on the south side."

Gorman said he had never heard of the term before some of his students mentioned it.

"One of my students mentioned in their letter, 'What would happen if this asphalt plant was built near Museum Hill?' " Gorman said. "It was an open-ended question, but you could tell where he was going with it."

Associated Asphalt and Materials was founded over 25 years ago by the late Richard Cook, whose businesses largely centered on construction materials.

Sometimes controversial, Cook battled state and federal regulators as well as local officials and was criticized by the people who lived near his gravel and pumice mines. He also was involved with the construction of the Jaguar Interchange at N.M. 599 along the southern portion of Santa Fe.

His daughter, Katharine Fishman, now serves as plant manager.

Associated Asphalt and Materials declined a request for an interview, but spokeswoman Joanie Griffin wrote there are "clear operational, environmental and safety benefits" that would come from the approval of the permit and relocation of the plants.

Griffin noted that the permit would lead to a reduction in overall emissions and improvements in ambient air quality. She said it also would allow for the elimination of large portable diesel generators in favor of electrical power.

"Associated Asphalt is dedicated to being a good neighbor [and] community member," Griffin wrote. "We operate in compliance with environmental regulations including the national ambient air quality [standards]."

The state Environment Department held a public hearing from Monday to Wednesday in which both sides were given an opportunity to plead their case.

More than 100 members of the community and students from El Camino Real Academy and César Chávez Elementary School attended the hearings, represented by two attorneys from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Acosta said he took issue with how few members of the community were given the opportunity to speak. After close to a dozen speakers voiced concerns about polluting agents, hearing officer Gregory Chakalian restricted public comments.

The decision was frustrating to Acosta, who said public comment is one of the strongest ways for residents to show their objection to public policy. He said many community members are concerned that not enough study surrounding emissions at the plant has been done.

El Camino Real Academy sixth grade teacher Patricia Chillon-Garcia agreed, saying people in her community can smell gases from La Bajada Mine, which is farther away than the planned plant consolidation site.

"We understand that asphalt is an important material, but we are concerned that the relevant studies have not been carried out on the impact of this plant on the environment and on the health of the communities that are close to this plant," Garcia said.

Griffin wrote the plant would emit fewer fumes than it would under its current permits. Griffin also wrote the permit the plant is operating under was just two pages long, while the one the plant is seeking is over 50 pages long with more defined language on operation.

"Approval of the permit would reduce the allowable emissions and consolidate [operations] at a greater distance from the nearest residential development," Griffin wrote. "The new modern air quality permit would also greatly increase government oversight and monitoring."

It could take three months for the Environment Department to make a decision on the permit now that the hearing is complete. If the permit is denied, the plant can continue to operate at two separate locations.

Acosta said that if the permit is fully accepted, he expects south-side residents involved in the case will have lawyers file an appeal on their behalf. He said he also expects Earth Care to have conversations with county officials.

For Gorman, he said the class plans to continue monitoring the situation and might start brainstorming ideas for community service.

"These kids care," Gorman said. "They really care about their future, the environment, and it's a real, genuine thing."