The Union Pacific railroad crosses Olive Avenue near South Williams Street in the Barrio Chamizal. According to Hilda Villegas of Familias Unidas del Chamizal, the trains leave behind polluting particulate matter. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Environmental Protection Agency must re-evaluate whether El Paso is violating clean air standards, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has ruled.

The decision stems from a federal lawsuit that challenged the EPA’s designation of multiple cities and counties around the country where pollution levels exceed 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards yet were given passing classifications in 2018.

Attorneys representing Familias Unidas del Chamizal, the Sierra Club and the City of Sunland Park assert El Paso has repeatedly violated ozone standards and contributes to poor air quality in neighboring southern New Mexico.

The EPA did not defend El Paso’s designation in court, but instead agreed that it needed to revisit it.

For Hilda Villegas, founder of the Familias Unidas del Chamizal, it is another chapter in a long battle against what she refers to as environmental racism. The group represents a predominantly Hispanic  South-Central El Paso neighborhood near international border crossings.

“We have been trying to get some justice. (What) we have seen is that it’s mainly neglect from the city and the federal government,” Villegas said. “They do have regulations, but those regulations do not apply to a community like ours.”

Over a hundred EPISD buses fill a lot at Bowie High School in the Barrio Chamizal. EPISD constructed the bus maintenance hub on Bowie’s campus despite protest from the Familias Unidas del Chamizal neighborhood group, which had raised environmental and health concerns. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Familias Unidas tried, but was unsuccessful, in preventing the El Paso Independent School District from building a bus hub at Bowie High School.

“It was just very unjust and horrible what they did to us,” Villegas said.

The Familias Unidas del Chamizal neighborhood

Villegas described the neighborhood as having a large immigrant population with mostly low-income families. The Familias Unidas del Chamizal neighborhood is not officially recognized by the city, but Villegas said it was important to set boundaries.

The area is roughly encompassed on the east by North Cotton Street from the Cesar Chavez Border Highway to Interstate 10 and on the West from South San Marcial Street from the Border Highway to Interstate 10.

The Arellano family spends a Sunday evening at El Barrio Park in the Barrio Chamizal. This tiny park is one of the few recreational areas within the neighborhood. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“We did that to create some identity in the community that really has been isolated from the rest of the city,” Villegas said.

The neighborhood has more thoroughfares, recycling plants and railroad tracks than green spaces, walking trails or landscaped medians like other developed residential neighborhoods in El Paso. Traffic that is crossing the nearby Bridge of the Americas also idles for hours during peak crossing times in front of Bowie High School, she said.

“There’s no place for the kids to go, it’s a forgotten area,” said longtime resident Ema Chavez. “The city forgot us a long time ago and they didn’t give us what we needed as a community.”

Chavez said she mostly stays indoors because the air quality is so poor and there are no parks or shade trees to protect them when they do go outside. She said she also places a towel inside at the base of her front door to prevent dust from entering the home.

Villegas said her children have suffered from health problems, including respiratory issues and frequent heachaches.

She said she hopes the court’s decision will bring more attention to the issue and force the EPA to put more stringent rules in place for El Paso to comply with cleaning the air.

Potential impacts of the ruling

El Paso County currently has an “attainment” designation, which means the region is neither experiencing harmful levels of ozone pollution, or emitting pollutants that contribute to harmful ozone levels in nearby communities.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has sites throughout El Paso that monitor the level of pollutants in the air.

Data collected from the monitoring sites show parts of El Paso are above the EPA standard of ground-level ozone concentrations of less than 71 parts per billion per the eight-hour standard.

David Baake

David Baake, the attorney who represented Familias Unidas, the Sierra Club and city of Sunland Park, said he hopes that based on the data, the EPA will see that El Paso’s designation needs to be changed.

“We had seven violations. This year we have already had four, so we are out of compliance,” Baake said. “The trend is definitely in the wrong direction.”

If the EPA does change El Paso’s designation to “nonattainment” it would require the agency to impose more stringent requirements such as establishing permitting programs for pollution sources and control measures and technology that would bring the area into an attainment status. There would also be deadlines put in place for the area to be in compliance.

The potential change could also have implications for the business and industrial community.

The TCEQ, Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, Texas Oil & Gas Association, Texas Association of Manufacturers and El Paso Electric were among the intervenors in the lawsuit.

According to the motion filed to intervene in the case, the attorneys argued that there would be a disruptive impact if there is a prolonged uncertainty about El Paso’s attainment status.

“Projects that were viable under an attainment designation may no longer be viable when subjected to the more stringent requirements associated with a nonattainment designation. For example, industries in nonattainment areas may be required to install costly control technologies on emitting facilities,” according to the motion.

The motion also stated that industry participants would either have to postpone projects during the potentially lengthy process or “gamble on EPA again designating El Paso as attainment. In many cases, businesses considering investments or relocating to an area are deterred even by the prospect of a nonattainment designation.”

What lies ahead

The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment on the July 10 ruling by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ordering the EPA to re-evaluate whether El Paso was in compliance with clean air standards.

Young people ride a motorcycle toward South. Raynor in the Barrio Chamizal. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Officials with the EPA said they do not comment on pending litigation.

However, an EPA official recently discussed elements of the case in a public meeting. Guy Donaldson, associate director of air programs for the EPA and co-chair for the Region 6 office in Dallas, spoke during a Joint Advisory Committee meeting for the Improvement of Air Quality in the Ciudad Juárez, El Paso, Doña Ana County and New México Air Basin. He said the EPA asked the court to make a voluntary remand on the agency’s decision to designate the El Paso area as being in attainment for the 2015 ozone standard.

“We did that so that we could go back to the record because we felt that the reasoning that we put in our record was not sufficient and so we are now going to go back to that decision and take a look at it,” Donaldson said when a participant asked what the court ruling meant for El Paso.

The court ruled that the EPA must revisit the designation as “expeditiously as practicable.” Donaldson said that the EPA is internally discussing what the schedule will be and what happens going forward, but did not have a schedule set in place at the time of the meeting in mid-July.

El Paso Electric said in a statement that the company agreed with EPA’s request to re-examine whether El Paso was in compliance with clean air standards.

“EPA designated El Paso under the ozone standard based upon a careful weighing of the facts as applied to the governing legal test. We agree with EPA’s decision, which is why we participated in the judicial proceeding in support of EPA’s determination. We continue to support the decision that EPA made and await EPA’s further review and explanation,” the statement said.

Cover photo: The Union Pacific railroad crosses Olive Avenue near South Williams Street in the Barrio Chamizal. According to Hilda Villegas of Familias Unidas del Chamizal, the trains leave behind polluting particulate matter. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Disclosure: El Paso Electric Co., which was an intervenor in the lawsuit over El Paso’s compliance with clean-air standards, is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...