Environmental Health and Land Use Planning: In Search of a Paradigm in Bernalillo County, New Mexico

Article excerpt

The Problem

"You've literally got smokestack industries across the street or next door to somebody's home," George Schroeder told JEH. "We have industrial property next to and across the street from things like schools and community centers."

Schroeder is environmental health manager for Bernalillo County, New Mexico. The area of the county he was describing, called Mountain View, contains a variety of industries, among them asphalt batching, concrete batching, concrete recycling, auto salvage yards, metal recycling, bulk fuel storage, and Albuquerque Liquid Waste, a wastewater treatment plant. And, according to Kitty Richards, who serves as a program manager in Schroeder's office, new permit requests keep coming, primarily for "portable sources"--that is, for the storage and batching of building materials that are being used for projects in other parts of the county. The impacts include noise, dust, air emissions, chemical spills, and safety issues associated with heavy truck traffic (see photos on page 61 and 62).

The residents being exposed to these impacts tend to be of low socioeconomic status. Schroeder told JEH that locally, the situation is very much seen as an environmental-justice issue. It's also a complex political problem, rooted in land use decisions that date back to the middle of the last century.

"Land use planners in Bernalillo County are aware of the problem in Mountain View," he said: "how bad decisions that were made 30, 40, 50 years ago are presenting problems today." The bad land use decisions, he added, were a function of the political landscape of the time--"who was in power, what their ties to industry and real estate were, and who was able to get what sorts of development approved."

The Organizational Context

Now, it just so happens that the Bernalillo County Environmental Health Department recently became part of the department that addresses land use in the county. The merger took place after the sitting environmental health director retired; to save money, the county eliminated the position. Environmental health was brought under the Zoning, Building & Planning Department, which is now called the Zoning Building, Planning, and Environmental Health Department.

Many environmental health professionals consider the prospect of getting swallowed by another department--especially a building department--to be one of the greatest disasters that can befall local environmental health. (See, for instance, "In Defense of Technicians," on page 58.) One of their concerns is that the profession will lose touch with the public health rationale for its activities. Schroeder sees the arrangement as, at least for his jurisdiction, a natural fit, one that is facilitating an expansion of environmental health activities. He did acknowledge, however, that some new political and legal challenges arise out of this collaboration.

Life in the Belly of the Whale: Discovering New Tools and Obstacles

In 2007, Schroeder's office became aware that a local land use plan was being developed for Mountain View. "So," he said, "we got involved in writing it and creating some of the policies in it." Environmental health introduced the concept of "vulnerable sites"--locations where vulnerable people might be present. Schools, residences, community centers, elder care facilities, and daycare facilities would all be vulnerable sites.

Environmental health also introduced the concept of cumulative effect: "You could have two places next door to each other that are both operating within their permit limits, but together they could be producing an amount of pollution that has an effect on someone next door. Even one location, emitting something at permitted level, could have an impact on somebody downwind."

As a result of these considerations, the land use plan ended up recommending creation of buffer zones in Mountain View. Industrial properties located within 1,000 feet of vulnerable sites would be required to meet more stringent permitting requirements than those in other zones. …