For Jubilee Residents It’s a Matter of Life and Breath. But for NMED, This Fugitive Dust Is Not Its Problem.

(This is Part One of a Continuing Series on the Administration of Environmental Policy in New Mexico.)

Update: The Candle will publish part Two of this report later today, Tuesday. April 27, 2021. Originally the intent was to publish Part Two Monday evening, however we received a response from NMED late last evening and will include that response and follow-up after thorough reviewing it. The Candle will also include a response received from Village of Los Lunas Community Development Director Erin Callahan regarding our request for a copy conditions included in the approval of the preliminary plat for Double M. Properties’ subdivision.

For months, more than 300 residents of “Jubilee at Los Lunas,” a retirement community about 20 minutes south of Albuquerque, have endured repeated dust storms after a developer tore up more than 270 acres of vegetation for a project next door.

But last Friday’s Storm was the worst.

Jubilee resident Bob Lacourciere made clear the dangers he and others faced by allowing the developer of the proposed subdivision, known as Legacy at Sierra Vista, to continue without first fixing the mess he created:

“As a young man I was in Vietnam for 13 months and fourteen days and was fortunate enough to come home without a scratch. Now I have COPD and I am being slowly killed by blowing talcum-powder dust from the Sierra Vista development. And I am not the only resident here with breathing issues.”

Another resident of Jubilee emailed neighbors expressing health concerns during last Friday’s dust storm: “Here we go again. Hours of clean-up efforts … the flour sand covers every inch of our homes, properties and community.  Imagine what our respiratory systems are taking in.”

During a February Village of Los Lunas Council meeting, Jubilee residents Pia Louchios and Chris Yates presented a petition signed by 304 of their neighbors opposing the preliminary plat approval for Double M Properties’ “Legacy at Sierra Vista.”

Action was postponed.

Then last Thursday evening, April 22, 2021, another hearing was held regarding the developer’s plat approval.

Jubilee resident David Darling, along with Louchios, and Yates, made detailed presentations identifying problems that were created by the denuding of hundreds of acres and asked the Council to delay approving the plan.

Other residents speaking against the approval of the prlimianry plat made it clear they were not opposing the development, but felt it should be delayed until the developer corrected problems he had created and put protections in place to prevent harm to the health and property of the residents.

Despite the arguments and objections of the neighboring Jubilee residents, the Mayor and the Village Council approved the preliminary plat, with some restrictions.

On Saturday morning, The Candle emailed Los Lunas Mayor Charles Gregorio, (pictured to the left) and Councilor Christopher Ortiz seeking a copy of the restrictions as well as a comment regarding Friday’s dust storm and their decision to move the project along. They have yet to respond.

The next day Jubilee’s residents experienced the worst dust storm to date.

While New Mexicans are accustomed to dust storms, most of the high desert area around central New Mexico has sufficient vegetation to protect against the creation of such severe dust as experienced near Jubilee last Friday.

Background – Last century, New Mexico formed the western edge of the Dust Bowl.

In the 1930’s, the eastern counties of New Mexico and five other states were choked by a great drought and related devastation created by governments’ failure to regulate land use and abetted by turning a blind eye to unchecked economic development.

The absence of balanced public policy wrought health and wealth disintegration across the plains, covering more than 100 million acres in an area that stretched 500 miles by 300 miles.

Dateline: Sunday, April 14, 1935, Eastern, NMThe “Black Sunday” dust storm began in southern Nebraska about 9:00 AM and spread south through eastern Colorado, much of Kansas and Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and by 7:00 PM through 2:00 AM the next morning was whipping through eastern counties of New Mexico, including communities like Mills and Clovis.

That was 86 years ago. The photo below is from last week. The more things change, the more they stay the same?

Dateline: Friday, April 23, 2021, Los Lunas, NMEarly afternoon. Less than 165 miles west of Mills, NM. A severe dust storm spread across the Village of Los Lunas community of Jubilee, penetrating windows, doors of area homes, and the eyes, ears, and mouths – and breaking the hearts of hundreds of retirees invested in the community.

Is New Mexico state government turning a blind eye to under-regulated development?

Air quality is included in the New Mexico Environment Department’s mission “to protect and restore the environment and to foster a healthy and prosperous New Mexico for present and future generations.”

The decision of many of the Jubilee residents to buy a home and retire in Los Lunas was made with the expectation that the years ahead were going to be the best of times for them, but instead during the last year they have been experiencing the worst of times.

Residents are puzzled as to why local and state officials allowed Double M. Properties to totally strip so many acres of vegetation all at once, setting up the area for constant dust intrusion.

As one of the residents commented after a local hearing on the matter, “I can’t believe they were allowed to clear all 300 acres without being held accountable for the damage caused to our properties.”

Since at least November of 2020, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has been aware of the severe dust problems created by Double M. Properties of Albuquerque, the developer of the proposed subdivision Legacy at Sierra Vista.

But as winds drive fugitive dust and sand into the lives and lungs of residents of the Los Lunas neighborhood, the state agency seems to be passing the buck to local government, ignoring history, and ignoring its own mission.

The Candle emailed NMED on Thursday (April 22, 2021), prior to that evening’s Village of Los Lunas meeting about Double M. Properties’ plat approval.

In addition to making an Inspection of Public Records Act request for documents in the possession of NMED regarding the Los Lunas fugitive dust problems, we asked the agency to provide The Candle “with a statement regarding the status of any actions NMED’s Air Quality Bureau has taken or contemplates taking regarding the severe dust issues affecting scores of residents, many of them older and more vulnerable to respiratory impairment due to harmful air or atmospheric conditions in their neighborhood?”

NMED communications director Maddy Hayden, pictured below, responded with the following:

“NMED takes all citizen complaints we receive seriously and has responded to over 65 complaints regarding the fugitive dust at this site. After receiving the first complaint in November 2020, Air Quality Bureau staff quickly reached out to the complainant and looked into this situation.

“NMED does not regulate fugitive dust emissions at construction sites such as these.

“Local ordinances, to the extent they exist, are the governing regulatory mechanism that would establish such requirements.”

Ms. Hayden’s response seemed inadequate.

The Candle wrote her back a few minutes after receiving the agency’s explanation, asking:

  • Why doesn’t NMED regulate such air quality problems?
  • If local government fails to address what is an increasingly dangerous situation for residences, especially for residents that suffer from respiratory problems, does NMED have any extraordinary jurisdictional ability to protect the public?
  • What about the federal rules on air quality? Can NMED coordinate with any federal agency?

The Candle has not received a response to those questions.

However, after poking around the NMAC rules and the state law establishing the New Mexico Environment Department and the Environmental Improvement Board it appears NMED can do more than it is doing at this time – which is not enough as far as the people of Jubilee at Los Lunas are concerned.

The Candle will publish Part Two of this report later today. It will focus on what NMED could do if it was moved to do so. We will also update our reporting with any response we get from NMED.

CORRECTION: In the earlier posting of this story The Candle incorrectly referred to the planning plat as the “final plat” approval. It is a preliminary plat, and we have corrected the reporting. We are still waiting for the conditions the Village Council stated would be included in that preliminary approval of the plan, which the Village government indicated they would provide us as soon as it is completed.