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Operating and air permits can be the rules Environmental Justice communities live by. They are meant to keep community residents safe from unhealthy emissions. Air permits are a way for local governments to ensure clean air in our schools, homes, parks, churches and other community centers. But– sometimes even in horribly polluted places air permits are not in place.
Often air permits can provide information through emission inventories, details on what chemicals are being emitted into our air from industrial facilities. This allows families to know what chemicals are being emitted from the facility in their communities. Many of us widely expect and see the need for air regulation through air permits. We trust that they are in place and we trust that air permits are a way the government ensures our safety.
Whether you love them or hate them, air permits are the rules that industrial facilities must adhere too and accept.
Imagine you inherit some family land back home, in the small rural community where the majority of your extended family still lives. You move back, to raise your kids in the same way your family raised you. But, now the same small rural community is home to a large chemical storage facility, which spews out noxious odors daily. Your once healthy children are now getting constant nose bleeds and have developed respiratory problems. Could that be related to the chemical plant? It is right across the street from your home and the elementary school.
Many other children in the community are having similar health problems and families are sharing the same stories and concerns about the chemical plant. So, you pick up an organizing effort that was started by your elders. You start talking to your neighbors, speaking out about these community issues and demanding to know what could be contaminating the air you and your family are breathing. You discover the warehouse does not have a permit. You think they should have an air quality permit.
The chemical company does not like this. They say it’s not their fault and even blames you for your children’s illnesses. So, you go public. You work to raise some awareness and seek justice for yourself, your family and the larger community.
Then, BAM! The company hits you and your wife with a lawsuit. The company that is poisoning your air and making your children sick is suing you. It’s a defamation lawsuit, where the company is holding YOU accountable for damaging their reputation. REALLY?
That’s Arturo Uribe’s story from Mesquite, New Mexico. Helena Chemical Company took Arturo to court, painted a horrific picture of him, making him out to be an irresponsible father and threatening person towards employees of Helena Chemical Company. Helena made it out to seem like they were the victim, saying they were scared of Arturo and that he was saying mean things about them. The jury agreed and slapped Arturo with a $75,000 fine in punitive damages!
Other community residents don’t want to say anything bad about Helena anymore. People are scared to speak out, scared to question Helena and continue to tend to their children’s health problems in silence. No one knows what to do anymore, but they all know they don’t want to be sued by Helena.
Additionally, Helena Chemical has been in violation, operating without an air permit for years and is now petitioning the New Mexico Environmental Department, claiming that they don’t need an air permit!
But Arturo found one more card to play. He was working with the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) based in Albuquerque. They helped him out with some organizing techniques and connected him with legislators on the state level. SWOP reached out to Global Community Monitor (GCM) and started planning the launch of a Bucket Brigade in Mesquite, NM.
And that’s just what happened.
Two weeks ago, GCM flew down to Albuquerque, met with the SWOP team and made the three and a half hour trek to Mesquite to tour the community, train the residents on air pollution, citizen air monitoring, and officially launched a Bucket Brigade! Community residents are now able to take their own air samples to determine what’s actually in the air that they are breathing. They’ll be able to gather their own data and compare it to widely accepted health standards. The Bucket Brigade will give them the scientific evidence to back up their anecdotal stories of air pollution and human health and teach them how to use the results as an organizing tool to get Environmental Justice in Mesquite, NM.
For Arturo and the other residents of Mesquite, that could switch the current legal dynamic. Instead of using the law to silence those concerned about the health of their children, the law would be enforced on those violating pollution laws, allowing families in Mesquite to breathe a little easier.