By Michael Wenstrom
Several years ago I traveled to Pueblo, Colorado in response to a request from a local resident. I was asked to sit in on a meeting to hear a discussion about the presence of a legally-permitted auto dismantling yard and aluminum smelter in a residential neighborhood. The neighborhood was Salt Creek.
The Salt Creek neighborhood contains about one hundred homes and is predominantly Latino. Most of the residents are third generation Americans of Mexican descent. Someone in the community reached out to the Region 8 Environmental Justice Program to ask for help, not knowing just what “environmental justice” was, but knowing something needed to change.
Among Salt Creek residents, there was little understanding of what government did and how and why they made the decisions they made. In this case, residents knew that things were happening in and around their community that were wrong and they wanted to know what to do to protect themselves.
Salt Creek is flanked by a steel mill which emitted more than forty percent of Colorado’s airborne mercury, and by a major coal-fired power plant and, additionally, was home to the smelter noted above.
As I sat in that meeting, in the basement of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, listening to the community share their concerns, little did I know that this would be the beginning of a fifteen year-long odyssey. This meeting was the first of many.
Over time I learned that Salt Creek residents are strong and proud people. They persisted, even in the face of adversary.
The EJ Program began to work to help the community find its voice. We co-sponsored community meetings and invited local businesses, representatives from the city and county and from law enforcement. We talked (in English and Spanish) about what the community cared most about. In most cases, the invited guests listened and learned. In some cases, they tried to deflect the concerns and occasionally, they attempted to bully or confuse the residents. But, Salt Creek would not be deterred.
Among other things, EPA brought a Collaborative Problem Solving grant to the community, engaged with our RCRA Program to address nearby contamination, facilitated meetings with the steel mill and under an enforcement action, $400,000 in community-based Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) benefitted the neighborhood.
Together, over the years, we saw the steel mill dramatically reduce its mercury emissions, and the local power utility implement ground-breaking emissions controls. Oh, and, yes, the aluminum smelter was moved to a more appropriate location.
In that time, I became friends with some remarkable people, who began to raise their voices and make their community safer, cleaner and healthier. And, on a personal level, I was both proud and humbled by the fact that, together, we were able to make a real difference in the lives of community residents. Through collaboration, persistence and caring, I and my EPA colleagues were able to help a community transform itself.
The attached video is one example of how one Salt Creek resident helped to effect this transformation. Nadine Triste used her common sense, her network of neighbors and, support from the EPA to make a difference. Because of Nadine, and others like her, Salt Creek is forever changed.
About the author: Michael Wenstrom has been working in the Region 8 Environmental Justice Program for almost twenty years. In that time, he has focused on working in communities facing an amazing variety of environmental insults and challenges. Most recently, he has been assisting Region 5 in its ongoing work to assist the residents of Flint, Michigan to address their immediate concerns relating to the water crisis and other threats to their environment and their health.