MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Neighborhood Callenges Medical Waste Facility

It started with a phone call. Fred and Jessie Sais of the Wells Park Neighborhood Association had a problem. Stericycle, a medical waste disposal company, purchased (at a ridiculously low price) a waste transfer station in their neighborhood and planned to modify and expand the facility. The modifications will enable Stericycle to process as much as 900 tons per month of medical waste (infectious materials and bed pan waste from hospitals, used medical equipment such as blades and needles, and waste from surgical procedures, among other materials).

The story of the people of Wells Park vs. Stericycle is one that is all too familiar to working class communities of color. Environmental Racism is defined as:

"Racial discrimination in environmental policy making and the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from the leadership of the environmental movement." (Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chavis)

Approximately 70% of the Wells Park residents are people of color, mostly Chicanas/os. Clearly, this is a case of Environmental Racism.

The Wells Park neighborhood is one of the oldest in Albuquerque. Nestled between Downtown and the North Valley, Wells Park is a community rich in culture and history - it is also home to five-time world boxing champion Johnny Tapia. Yet it also carries the heavy burden of housing most of the city's homeless shelters and substance abuse programs. Additionally, the residential character of the neighborhood has been eroded by encroaching heavy industries seeking the convenience of nearby Interstate 40. This has created a challenge of maintaining balance among the needs of the residents, social service providers and business.

The Wells Park Neighborhood Association has worked hard at organizing their community to participate in the decisions that affect them. They are an active Neighborhood Association that has worked democratically to identify the needs of the residents and create a vision for the future that will ensure those needs continue to be met for generations to come. They are discussing locating an open air market on Fourth Street, as well as other beautification projects such as revitalizing and expanding a local park, facade improvements, trees, sidewalks, bus benches and lighting. However, these projects are shelved when residents spend precious time and resources to keep Stericyle's medical waste processing facility from setting up shop.

The phone call from Fred and Jessie Sais led to a meeting in which SWOP joined their struggle to stop Stericylce. A community meeting was soon organized where residents joined with other organizations such as the Albuquerque Partnership, the Southwest Research and Information Center, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and members of adjacent neighborhood associations. A coalition had formed and a response to Stericycle's proposal was initiated. Residents spoke to their neighbors, TV. cameras and reporters about why Stericycle should not be permitted to operate in the neighborhood. A petition netting over 400 signatures was collected and submitted to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). And when the permit hearing continued into the wee hours of the morning, residents stayed to give their public comment.

Companies like Stericycle prey on low income and communities of color. They look to site their facilities where they figure they will encounter the least amount of resistance. Working class communities of color often lack the infrastructure, organization and resources to participate in permit hearings requiring technical experts and attorneys. Or they are given the choice between the jobs that polluting industries offer and the pollution they emit. However, people are organizing themselves in Wells Park and communities all across the nation. They are standing up, fighting back and getting better at it every day.

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