Albuquerque Air War: Big Business, Bipartisan Politicos Attack Environmental Justice Rule   

Promoting a tourism mystique, the marketers of Albuquerque, New Mexico, peddle images of clean skies, diverse culture and delicious cuisine. The icons encompass soaring hot air balloons, majestic Sandia Mountain vistas and the ubiquitous chile pepper, red or green. But if current political trends hold, the postcard visitors send grandma might depict more spewing emissions, sickly skies and gagging residents.

At least that’s the implication of recent actions by the Albuquerque City Council that sacked the current members of the joint Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board (JAQCB) and blocked a proposed Health, Environment and Equity Impacts rule (HEEI) aimed at protecting low-income communities of color in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County from further, disproportionate air pollution impacts, including the cumulative effects of pollution.

Both Minnesota and New Jersey previously adopted similar environmental justice measures.

The rule, which would require review and consideration of environmental and health impacts for air permits, was proposed to the JAQCB last year by the Mountain View Coalition of Albuquerque’s South Valley. Members include the Mountain View Neighborhood Association, Mountain View Community Action, and Friends of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.

The HEEI petition is likewise supported by community groups such as Los Jardines Institute and the indigenous Pueblo of Isleta, which is situated on the southern rim of Albuquerque and subjected to pollution from the big city.

A cradle of the modern national environmental justice movement, the predominantly Chicano-Mexicano South Valley and adjoining areas have long struggled against soil, water and air pollution linked to military facilities, industrial plants, big agricultural operations and municipal waste disposal systems.

In 1970, on the first national Earth Day, hundreds of Chicano university students and community members protested odors emanating from Albuquerque’s old sewage treatment plant in the South Barelas neighborhood. In more recent years, residents have protested asphalt plants and other sources of air pollution.

“The time is now. These are basically the things communities have been organizing for,” University of New Mexico (UNM) instructor and veteran activist Manuel Criollo, testified in support of the proposed HEEI regulation at the Albuquerque hearing held by the besieged air board that kicked off December 4, notwithstanding an effort by the Albuquerque City Council to shut it down.

According to the American Lung Association’s 2023 “State of the Air” report, Albuquerque ranked among the 25 worst cities in the nation for ozone pollution. If there was any “good” news in the report, it was metro Albuquerque’s improvement from Number 22 in last year’s rating to Number 24 in this year’s. For 2023, Bernalillo County received a “D” grade for ozone pollution- up from an “F” last year.

“Even one poor air quality day is one too many for our residents at highest risk, such as children, older adults, those who are pregnant and those living with chronic disease,” said JoAnna Strother, the lung association’s senior advocacy director, at the time of the report’s release earlier this year. “That’s why we are calling on lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels to take action to ensure that everyone has clean air to breathe.”

While HEEI advocates and community members turned out for the Albuquerque hearing to advocate for such action, so did a roster of opponents that read like a Who’s Who of the New Mexico power elite.

Think the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, Kirtland Air Force Base, the United States Air Force, U.S. Department of Energy, the UNM Board of Regents, the New Mexico Mining Association, and the Domenic Law Firm, among others.

In written comments submitted to the JAQCB before the hearing, prominent individuals within New Mexico’s power structure argued that the HEEI threatens jobs, economic development and the military establishment.

The naysayers include Jim Garcia of the Associated Contractors of New Mexico and Sherman McCorkle, former banking executive, venture capitalist, and high-tech promoter. McCorkle, a director emeritus and Herencia founder of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, currently serves on the board of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and chairs the Sandia Science and Technology Development Corporation, a non-profit organization engaged in tech transfer activities between the federal government and private sector.

McCorkle wrote that the air board’s rulemaking jeopardizes “dozens of National Security Missions” involving Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Energy (DOE) agencies; According to McCorkle, the combined economic impact of the local military-industrial complex amounts to 23,000 jobs and $7 plus billion in Bernalillo County; there was some dispute at the hearing whether the agencies were adequately contacted and consulted prior to the hearing.

The opposition of DOD and DOE agencies to the proposed HEEI rule touched a politically sensitive nerve. Last April, President Biden issued his Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All that commands federal agencies “to consider measures to address and prevent disproportionate and adverse environmental and health impacts on communities, including the cumulative impacts of pollution and other burdens like climate change.”

Likewise, the Executive Order “underscores the vital importance of Tribal consultation and coordination, including to strengthen nation-to-nation relationships on issues involving environmental justice..”

Based on the Albuquerque showdown, it’s unclear how the siding of DOD and DOE agencies with the anti-HEEI  coalition squares with President Biden’s Executive Order, and whether the fruits of a long-sought order from EJ advocates across the nation will wind trampled in the dust by the churning wheels of business as usual.


Leading up to the hearing, the specter of job killers, environmental extremists and even domestic terrorists on the loose was bandied about by some politicians and local media outlets.

In November, Republican City Councilor Dan Lewis, an unsuccessful 2017 mayoral candidate who’s also the operations director for fuel oil distributor Davidson Energy, sponsored bills to dismiss current air board members and forestall the pending hearing. Passed by 5-4 votes, the bills were then vetoed by Democratic Mayor Tim Keller.

But on December 4, as the air board hearing was in session, two Democratic city councilors, outgoing District 6 Councilman Pat Davis and Klarissa Peña, flipped earlier votes to join conservative Democrat Louie Sanchez and Republican councilors in overriding the mayor’s vetoes and effectively terminating the current air board while moving to truncate the public hearing in progress.

The measures were passed without the consent of the Bernalillo County Commission, which has three seats on the seven-member JAQCB. On October 24, the Commission passed a resolution requesting that the city defer proposed legislation on the JAQCB until both participants had a chance for joint review and revision. On December 4, the City Council also approved a joint city-county working group centered on the air board’s future. Again, however, the action was unilateral.

In a December 8 press release, the Commission noted that the JAQCB was established in 1994 through “deliberate and coordinated lawmaking.”

The Albuquerque City Council veto overrides buoyed conservative spirits and pro-fossil fuel forces. A talk show host on conservative KKOB Albuquerque radio who told listeners that mere mention of the term environmental justice “sends shivers down your spine,” lauded Democrat Pat Davis for his flip on the JACQCB and HEEI hearing.

Linking the HEEI showdown to broader opposition to the liberty-killing “Green Amendment,” the host said, “Hopefully, this can be a jumping off point for other things going on.”

Not surprisingly, Councilor Lewis applauded the veto overrides, declaring that “Essentially, the (HEEI) hearing must cease according to the law.” Lewis’s statement was initially reported as fact by major Albuquerque media, including the Albuquerque Journal, which proclaimed (the hearing) “was almost over before it began.”

Yet after spending months preparing a hearing to ensure public participation in life and death matters, air board members were in no mood to quit. Despite the city council’s terminator votes, the board forged ahead with its proceedings anyway, accepting sworn testimony both in person and via Zoom.

Illustrating a charged atmosphere surrounding the hearing, in-person attendees were first forced to pass through a metal detector and/or undergo pat downs before entering the hearing room at the downtown Albuquerque Convention Center.

Asked by this reporter about Lewis’ contention that the hearing couldn’t legally proceed, JAQCB Chairperson Maxine Paul said, “We’re doing our job.

On the second evening, tension permeated the room when Councilor Lewis arrived accompanied by City Council staffer Kevin Morrow. Given the floor, Lewis reminded the board of the City Council’s votes and read his cease and desist letter.

Pushing back,  JAQCB attorney Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez told Lewis and Morrow that the board hadn’t even been officially notified of the council’s actions, and wasn’t even aware of an effective date of enactment. “I’ll see you in court,” Sedillo-Lopez told Morrow, to the applause of the audience.

Accordingly, Sedillo-Lopez filed for a temporary restraining order from the Second Judicial District Court, which floated about in legal limbo as the hearing proceeded with more testimony from all sides.

Before leaving the hearing, Lewis was taken to task by two air board members for his recent press releases that variously labeled the board “rogue” and stacked with environmental “extremists.”

Appointed to a three-year term last April, Dr. Joseph Galewsky, professor of atmospheric sciences at UNM, asked why he was being shown the exit door so soon. Lewis replied that Galewsky could reapply to the new board that will be created.

Kitty Richards, environmental health specialist and co-founder of the New Mexico Public Health Institute, excoriated Lewis for his actions and words. “I’m very deeply, deeply disturbed how you’ve divided the community. I fear for my family,” Richards said. “I feel like I’m a poll worker in Georgia.”

Lewis danced around Richard’s invitation for an apology and her question of whether he believed she was an environmental extremist. “I believe members of the board are,” Lewis replied.

For nearly three years, Richards and other board members have been under attack of lawyers representing business interests who demanded their recusal (which has happened on different occasions) or disqualification because of alleged conflicts of interest stemming from prior ties to the non-profit New Mexico Environmental Law Center, the attorneys for the HEEI petitioners, or simply because of their professional endeavors.

A short glance at Richards’ lengthy resume reveals why certain interests might not want her voice in policy matters. Regarding the air quality in Albuquerque’s San Jose neighborhood, one of the areas where a HEEI could benefit public health, Richards once wrote that there were a “disproportionate number of air pollution sources in the San Jose neighborhood, compared to Bernalillo County as a whole.”

The media offensive against JAQCB members escalated during the hearing when the editorial board of the increasingly news thin Albuquerque Journal accused the JAQCB of “insubordination.”

Parroting the charges of opponents that out-of-control environmental extremists were wreaking havoc, the Journal displayed some rhetorical adventurism of its own when it cited the air board’s actions as an example of a “bureaucratic deep state.” For good measure, the editorialists tossed Cold War fears into the mix.

“So instead of being able to shoot down a North Korean missile, we could be left waiting for a local air permit to be issued by a bunch of overzealous environmental extremists,” the Journal bellowed.

In response to the demonization of the JAQCB, board member Judy Calman published an op-ed of her own in the Journal that vigorously defended the city-county entity authorized by state law.

“Our membership is incredibly qualified….every single one of us has spent our lives working on air science, air permitting, environmental regulations, and law…,”Calman wrote. Condemning Councilor Dan Lewis’ effort to shut down the hearing as “unconscionable”, Calman posed the question: “Who are the real extremists here?”


During the public comment sessions the week of December 4-8, more than 100 community members spoke out, nearly all of them in favor of the HEEI, including members of the activist Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA) who linked the HEEI issue to the climate emergency and environmental crises engulfing the planet.

YUCCA member Annette Lopez told air board members that family members suffer asthma and exposures to ecological disasters like last summer’s massive fire at an Albuquerque area plastics recycling facility that sent thick, black clouds tumbling into a lower-income section of the city for hours on a Sunday afternoon.

Passage of the HEEI, Lopez asserted, would be a “monumental step” in addressing the ecological crisis. The world has “less than 7 years to act on our climate and environment before we reach the point of no return,” she warned.

Heaven Lucero, environmental technician for the Pueblo of Isleta Environment Department, testified that residents awaken or retire to dirty skies during mornings and afternoons when the sun is at certain angles. According to Lucero, “We get calls frequently from community members,” asking, “What is in the air north of the Pueblo? Can we go out?”

Cancer is rife on the reservation, and the Pueblo will soon install monitoring devices to measure air quality, Lucero added.

As the HEEI hearing progressed, Councilman Dan Lewis remained a hot topic. A woman activist who was singled out in one of the politician’s press releases charged that family lives were “put in jeopardy because of the words of Dan Lewis.”

Zooming in his public comment, musician and Downwinder activist Paul Pino, who hails from the Nuevomexicano communities of south-central New Mexico which were massively exposed to the radiation fallout from the first successful test of an atom bomb in 1945, and nearly 80 years later had pending compensation for intergenerational health maladies blocked by Republican congressional representatives, offered up some concisely simple words: “Clean air is so basic, I can hardly believe we’re having to talk about it.”

Alarmed by the developments, military veteran Harold Pope Jr., New Mexico’s first elected African-American member of the State Senate, came to the hearing. The senator implored the state, county and city governments to work together on the issue, insisting that “getting rid of a board” wasn’t the answer and that talk of “extremists and eco-extremists” should go out the door. Words have consequences, he said.


After an intense week of testimonies, polemics and politicking, the JAQCB passed a new environmental justice regulation, but left community advocates frustrated about its breadth and scope since the particulars of the new rule weren’t immediately published.

A mist of uncertainty grips the fate of the air board, the legality of its action and most importantly, the future of environmentally overburdened communities of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. Is relief from new polluters in the cards?

Maslyn Locke, senior staff attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, assessed the hearing as a step forward in the struggle for environmental justice, despite the shortcomings.

“The hearing happened. It’s the first time something like this has occurred…and that’s a big deal,” Locke said. Significantly, the hearing “left a legal repository of information on what problems exist in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County and how to address them or not.”

Dr. Sofia Martinez, co-coordinator of Los Jardines Institute and a party to the proceedings, took the long view after her involvement in decades of EJ struggles in Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and other similarly impacted communities across the globe.

“The overburdening of the working class and communities of color with air pollution, and frankly all pollution, are now evident in Albuquerque,” Martinez wrote. “This rulemaking’s record proves the decades of neglect and willful disregard of our communities by the City to favor corporate interests rather than their own citizens. As well as the manipulation of policy against the public will and the stifling of democratic due process to silence the just efforts of communities to secure their safety, health and well-being,”

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.