By Tracy Dingmann
It’s been a week since the Environmental Improvement Board held a hearing in Mesquite, N.M. on Helena Chemical’s request to waive an air quality permit for its fertilizer-blending operations there. I was only there for a short time, but I gathered enough information while there to fuel a week’s worth of writing.
The window for public comment on Helena’s request closes today (July 28) – a decision on the request is expected later this summer.
An Emotional Plea
One of the most moving speakers at the last week’s hearing was Larry Sedillo, a teacher and one of the founding members of Mesquite Community Action, Committee. The group is suing Helena for negligence, alleging that Helena’s practice of blending fertilizer is sickening local children, causing asthma, chronic respiratory infections, nosebleeds and severe chronic bronchitis.
In his often-emotional testimony, Sedillo spoke of the uncertainty of living next to the Helena plant and not knowing for sure how it is affecting the health of the people in the community.
Like pretty much everything else in the town, the school at which Sedillo teaches is very close to the plant.
“We’ve got kids coming into school at 7:30 in the morning and their eyes are burning. Talk to parents at our school. These things are happening and they are going to continue to happen. Our quality of life is going to keep going down.”
The smell from the plant is sickening in itself, Sedillo said.
“We can’t stand the smell, and we are wondering why we are getting sick. I don’t know why we don’t see people in the street complaining to Helena every day.”
Some people have asked why people in Mesquite don’t just move, Sedillo said. Echoing many of the others who spoke at the hearing, Sedillo pointed to the deep roots many have in the community, living on land that was passed down to them from ancestors. Most people who live in Mesquite don’t have the resources to leave – and why should they have to, Sedillo asked.
“I’m not embarrassed or ashamed – I’m proud of Mesquite. Those lawyers have a job to do, and that is to protect Helena. We have a job to do in Mesquite, and that is to protect each other. We are standing up – we are not going to lay down and die!”
“We don’t have an agenda – We just want to be safe.”
A Question of Fairness and Safety
Sedillo also addressed what he called the “outrage” of Helena asking to be let out of an air quality permit.
The company has already shown that it will not comply with state regulations unless it is forced to, Sedillo said. Every other company that works with chemicals in New Mexico is expected to comply – how is it fair to allow Helena to regulate themselves?
“This is a company that’s had numerous violations. If I had a company or I did something at my house where I dumped chemicals in the air or on the ground or in the water, I would be liable. For me it is an outrage to say this chemical plant doesn’t need a permit,” Sedillo said.
“They were working with sulphuric acid and anhydrous ammonia, mixing chemicals,” Sedillo said. “There was a vapor in the air that caused burning of the eyes, so we contacted them. They come back and say now – we stopped the process. They only did it because WE stopped them.”
“Otherwise they would still be doing it.”