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'Like a dumping ground': Latina moms in Texas border city are fighting air pollution

El Paso is among the worst places for ozone pollution. Hispanic residents who successfully sued for more regulation want to know why the state is fighting them.

EL PASO, Texas — Nayelly Melendez still gets emotional when telling stories of her son’s hospital visits as an infant. 

“He started going to the hospital every two to three weeks,” she told NBC News. 

The 34-year-old mother of three said her youngest was 6 months old when he started having trouble breathing. “At the beginning, they didn’t even know what he had,” she said. “They couldn’t explain it, because I didn’t smoke.” 

It wasn’t until she described where they lived, Melendez said, that doctors gave her a possible explanation for her son’s respiratory issues. 

She was raising her family in Chamizal, a neighborhood in south-central El Paso. The American Lung Association ranks El Paso as the country’s 13th worst city for ozone pollution, topping places such as New York City and Dallas.  

Melendez is among a group of parents, most of them mothers, who have joined forces with environmental groups to wage a legal fight to demand that the government address air quality issues in the area. Their recent legal victory, however, has been followed by a new setback, these parents explain.

'Like a dumping ground'

The neighborhood of Chamizal hugs the border with Mexico and is home to almost 8,000 people. More than 96 percent of the community identifies as Hispanic/Latino. 

Residents like Melendez say the air pollution is worse in Chamizal than in the rest of the city. 

Hilda Villegas, 43, says the area is treated “like a dumping ground.” She lists the busy Interstate 10, the international bridge, a bus depot, an industrial waste recycling facility and a nearby oil refinery as the main culprits.  

“It’s time for us to really look at what’s happening and really call out these entities to do something about it,” the mother of three said.  

The two women are part of a community organization called Familias Unidas del Chamizal, which translates to “united families of the Chamizal.”  

Like much of the neighborhood itself, the organization is made up of mostly single mothers.  

Ozone is better known as smog. It’s associated with many health hazards, including respiratory problems, asthma and increases in premature deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In 2018, Familias Unidas del Chamizal, with a coalition of other environmental and community groups, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

“We have seen a trend toward worsening ozone quality in the last five, six years after a period of pretty steady improvement,” said their attorney David Baake, who argues that rising temperatures, wildfires and “an explosion of oil and gas production” in the Permian Basin are to blame for a decline Chamizal’s air quality. 

“We wanted them to follow the science,” he said of the EPA, describing the suit as a classic David versus Goliath story.  

They demanded the EPA reassess the air quality in El Paso and enforce the Clean Air Act. The law regulates emissions of hazardous air pollutants to address the public health and welfare risks they create.

In 2020, the court sided with the community. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the EPA was required to “issue revised designations” not only in El Paso county, but also in 15 other counties across Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri and Colorado. 

In November 2021, the EPA officially designated El Paso county as a marginal non-attainment area for ozone pollution. That means all new sources of pollution in the area must be regulated.

“We do hope that now that that designation is in place, state, local and federal legal leaders will start to take this problem seriously,” Baake said. 

But less than two months after the EPA’s new designation was filed, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality appealed it. The state agency argued that nearby areas of Mexico are the primary cause of ozone levels in El Paso.  

Baake and the group of Chamizal mothers he represents told NBC News they were disappointed by the state agency’s reaction. But they were not surprised. 

“They’re spending taxpayer money on a meritless lawsuit,” he said, “instead of spending that same money on looking for solutions.” 

“Whenever we win a battle, there’s always something else that comes our way,” Cemelli de Aztlan, 41, of Familias Unidas said.

“I feel so outraged and so undignified that these governmental agencies like TCEQ, state entities, are not advocating for the interests of our children and us,” Villegas added. 

In a statement, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it uses “a multi-pronged approach to ensure that chemicals in ambient air are not at levels that would cause health effects.”

In a statement, Marathon Petroleum Corp., which owns the nearby refinery, said it has been reducing the emissions since 2011 by as much as 35-70 percent for some chemicals and particulates. "We continue to look for ways to reduce our environmental footprint," it said. 

W. Silver Recycling, the company whose industrial waste recycling facility is near the neighborhood's elementary school, said in a statement that it transfers materials to New Mexico for processing. "Our company does not melt metals or apply any form of heat to our materials at any location," it said.

Both companies said they have roots in the community and support many local initiatives.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it has been monitoring the air in the neighborhood since 1988, and that there is no indication the levels of toxic chemicals there cause serious consequences for children’s or adult health. 

But Familias Unidas members say the commission's air monitor does not accurately measure the air quality in their community, since the monitor is located inside the Chamizal National Memorial, a 55-acre park.   

“That’s not where people are living. That’s literally a protected federal space,” de Aztlan said. 

Baake said they will intervene to defend the EPA’s designation in court in what he says will still be a long fight ahead. 

'At a critical moment'

According to a report from the Clean Air Task Force, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Hispanic Medical Association, 1.81 million Latinos in the U.S. live within half a mile of an oil and gas facility. About 1.7 million Latinos live in counties that face a cancer risk above the EPA’s level of concern from toxins emitted by oil and gas facilities. 

In El Paso, the group's previous victory in the courts despite the ongoing legal battles is giving hope to a larger movement. 

“I think we are at a critical moment where things can change,” said Antonieta Cadiz, the senior manager of Latino engagement for Climate Power, a national group pushing for clean energy policies to tackle climate change.

She credits community leaders of color across the country, like the members of Familias Unidas, for bringing environmental racism as a topic of discussion at the federal level. 

“We have President Biden that actually committed to tackle environmental injustice,” Cadiz said. “You have Build Back Better, which actually is a historic step. If it passes the Senate, it will be a huge win when it comes to environmental justice.” 

For de Aztlán, environmental justice looks like “a community where children can breathe.” 

“A lot of the parents that come to organize with us, they come because ‘My child is coughing a lot. My child can’t breathe.’”   

“This is a very valid concern from these mothers,” said Dr. Jeanette Lara, who sees many patients from Chamizal at a family health center 30 minutes north of the city in New Mexico.

“They come in with COPD, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," she said. "They come in with allergies, seasonal allergies. rhinitis, which is inflammation of your nose. And then, they also come with the asthma, which is the younger group.” 

After several years of frequent hospital visits, Melendez’s son was diagnosed with asthma when he turned 7. 

“Every night he has to drink a pill and then every morning he has his asthma medication,” Melendez explained in her kitchen as her sons packed up for school.  

Villegas summed up the challenges faced by the community.

“We struggle to feed our children, to provide a roof, and then now we’re overburdened with their health,” she said.  

No matter the outcome of their efforts, there are some burdens Villegas says will never go away for the mothers of Chamizal. 

“The environmental effects on the children’s health," Villegas said, "is something forever.” 

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