By Itzel Anahi Giron
EL PASO, Texas — With its idyllic pink sunsets and sweeping mountain views of the Chihuahuan Desert, most people probably wouldn’t question El Paso’s environmental purity. But perhaps surprisingly, the border city has long been heavily polluted, and there are no signs that the problem is abating.
For more than two decades, the American Lung Association has given El Paso a failing Air Quality Index grade, and this year the association ranked it as the country’s 14th-most polluted city when categorized by ozone.
The communities of Barrio Chamizal and San Xavier in the south-central area of El Paso are already harshly contaminated by a metal recycling plant behind their local elementary school, and residents worry that air quality will deteriorate even further because of a planned expansion of the Bridge of the Americas, known in Spanish as ‘El Puente Libre.” Adding to their frustration, voters in May rejected Proposition K, a law that intended to give the city options to reduce the city’s contribution to climate change, to invest in environmental sustainability efforts and to “advance the cause of climate justice.”
Some El Pasoans living in the city’s most polluted parts are calling for action.
Nicole Alderete-Ferrini, who leads the city’s Office of Climate and Sustainability, was not available to speak with the Latino Reporter, but in an interview with the investigative nonprofit newsroom El Paso Matters, she stressed the importance of creating a climate change plan in El Paso despite the rejection of Proposition K.
“Climate is the responsibility of our leadership in this community, government and private sector alike. Because we know it impacts human health. We know it impacts economics, we know it impacts social structures,” she said. “Those aren’t debatable facts anymore in 2023.”
After 82% of El Pasoans rejected Proposition K, residents of Barrio Chamizal and the community of San Xavier said they are continuing to fight for climate justice and clean air in response to a proposal to expand the ‘puente libre’ by adding more lanes.
A study by The University of Texas at El Paso found that particulate matter found in the air can lead to serious consequences that include premature death in people with pre-existing lung or heart disease, nonfatal heart attacks, arrhythmia, aggravated asthma, coughing, or difficulty breathing.
“We have a right to exist,” said Cemelli De Azatlan. “No one cares to protect us.”
De Azatlan is a community leader of La Mujer Obrera, a local non-profit organization dedicated to developing and celebrating the community through economic development as well as health and civic engagement.
“In a time when Biden is saying these promises, at a time when this money is getting invested (into the Bridge of the Americas). At a time when they have the opportunity to do a presidential permit to push these trucks out, they’re not doing it,” she said.
Years ago, community leaders worked together to remove commercial trucks from Paisano Street. Located in front of Bowie High School, where almost all students from Barrio Chamizal attend, Paisano is a highly transited street for surrounding neighborhoods and those accessing the Cesar Chavez Border Highway, which runs parallel to the international boundary.
“The burden falls on us, as the people of Barrio Chamizal, to continue to organize, to continue to push (and) to continue to demand justice.” said De Azatlan.
The bridge expansion is only the most recent problem. There has been a long list of issues De Azatlan and other residents have been fighting. From the toxic soil in school playgrounds to school kids being exposed to the toxic chemicals of a metal waste facility right behind their schools, to the miles-long lines of commercial trucks filling their neighborhoods, the community has taken on these battles and tried to solve them.
Now with more problems piling atop these communities, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Veronica Carbajal has stepped in to help. She represents the communities of San Xavier and Barrio Chamizal. With the expansion of the ‘puente libre’ looming, the people of San Xavier are still waiting for a solution to the problems caused by the Texas Department of Transportation I-10 connect project.
The I-10 connect project would consist of progressive highway design elements and involve extensive coordination with the largest US/Mexico Port of Entry in El Paso, the Bridge of the Americas according to the American Society of Civil Engineers website.
During this construction project phase San Xavier has seen problems arise such as cracks in the foundations of their homes due to the tools being used in the construction site, more air pollution and even more traffic due to detours and road closures according to Carbajal.
“When we look at the free bridge expansion, is it really going to deliver on the promise?” Carabajal said. “Because my clients at San Xavier are dealing with a broken promise (from TXDOT). They were promised the traffic would be reduced, that they would have better air quality, that they wouldn’t be dealing with the noise (but) things have actually gotten worse.”
The bridge is one of the first toll-free commercial bridges on the Texas-Mexico border making it the most convenient for big corporations to utilize without spending on transportation, and one of the most used ports of entries for passenger vehicles.
However, roughly 30 minutes away, is the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in New Mexico, which is also open to commercial traffic but at a cost. Commercial trucks can choose to use the ‘puente libre’ without paying.
Even then, commercial vehicles have the opportunity to use the Tornillo-Guadalupe port of entry which in 2016 became another toll free port of entry in Texas, making it accessible to commercial trucks that now use the Bridge of the Americas.
“To us investing money (into the bridge) means for the people not the corporations, but that’s not how it’s playing out.” said De Azatlan.
The biggest concerns are for the most vulnerable residents of Barrio Chamizal and San Xavier.
Back in 2019, the El Paso Independent School District shut down Beall Elementary School, a school located at the heart of the Barrio Chamizal, displacing hundreds of students. Students would be moved to either Zavala Elementary or Frederick Douglass Elementary, both in further parts of the community making it more difficult for students to attend.
Zavala Elementary sits right next to the bridge, making all of the children attending this school susceptible to the toxins of commercial trucks and passenger vehicles in the air.
Douglass Elementary is blocks away from W. Silver Recycling Plant, which is the only “full service recycler” on the U.S.-Mexico border, according to its website, and can handle industrial trash, plastics, cardboard, pallets and electronics.
W. Silver Recycling did not respond to a request for comment.
Both communities have demands and hope they can assure their children and future generations can continue to live in these historic communities.
“We’re not asking for anything we didn’t have before,” said De Azatlan.
Carbajal said this isn’t the end for either community or their fight for environmental justice, rather another stepping stone in making their problems known and trying to find solutions for them.
Itzel Giron is a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso majoring in multimedia journalism with a minor in creative writing. She is aspiring to become a broadcast journalist. Reach her at iagiron [at] miners [dot] utep [dot] edu or onTwitter @itzel_anahi_16.