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A Hispanic community teams up with activists to demand protection from pollutants


A Hispanic community is teaming up with activists to right what they say is environmental injustice in Colorado. They say for decades, the state has given preferential treatment to the local steel mill, allowing it to pollute the creek that runs along their neighborhood. And now, they want change. Colorado Public Radio's Miguel Otarola reports.

MIGUEL OTAROLA: It's Tuesday morning at the Fulton Heights Community Center. The coffee's brewing in the kitchen, and long tables are set up on the gym floor that doubles as a basketball court. A group of older women known as the Salt Creek Homemakers Club is getting ready for its weekly game of bingo.

JOVITA CHAVEZ: Most of them that are out there started when they were young, teenagers. And now, there's a lot of them in their 80s.

OTAROLA: That's Jovita Chavez. She runs the center and has lived in the Salt Creek community all her life. She says it's been neglected by the neighboring city of Pueblo and the surrounding industries, especially the steel mill that's just an eyeshot away.

CHAVEZ: We're a forgotten little area. We're only a half mile from the city limits.

OTAROLA: Over the years, Chavez and other residents have fought for buses, paved roads, even a proper sewer system. Salt Creek used to run black with contaminants from the steel mill, which, to this day, uses the creek to carry and treat its wastewater.

CHAVEZ: That's what we used to call it, the black water.


OTAROLA: Velma Campbell is a physician in Pueblo with a long history of environmental activism and who's been in steel mills across the country. She's standing at Salt Creek Junction on a rail line between the creek and the neighborhood.

VELMA CAMPBELL: We have an industrial legacy in this community of which we're rightly proud, but we also have a legacy of environmental hazards that need to be addressed.

OTAROLA: That includes the steel mill's permit to discharge its waste into Salt Creek.

CAMPBELL: And I would like to see the polluting discharges minimized. I'd like to see the polluting entities held responsible and whatever regulatory changes are needed.

OTAROLA: In 1979, the mill's owner, Colorado Fuel and Iron, used its political power to convince the state to set softer pollution limits for Salt Creek. It did so by stripping the creek of its official designation as a state waterway, something Campbell says needs to be reversed. The steel mill is no longer the main engine of the local economy.

So do you believe that this should be treated like a state waterway?

CAMPBELL: Obviously. Yeah. I mean, I think it's obvious. It is a state waterway.

OTAROLA: So do students at the University of Colorado's Environmental Law Clinic. After learning about Salt Creek, they partnered with Campbell and other environmental groups earlier this year to call for a formal review of the mill's discharge permit. One of those students is Tess Udall, the daughter of a former U.S. senator. She says she sees this as not just an interesting case, but as an environmental injustice to the Salt Creek community.

TESS UDALL: It's not conforming with standards that the state uses for almost every other permit user. So it's a very clear violation of, like, public transparency, protecting communities and protecting state water.

OTAROLA: The state's water quality control division isn't scheduled to review the permit until the end of next year. People in Pueblo and Salt Creek want that to happen sooner. The law students sent the division a formal letter demanding it do so immediately and through a public forum so residents can share their opinions. They say they're still waiting for a response. The mill's current owner, Evraz, declined to answer our questions about their use of Salt Creek. For NPR News, I'm Miguel Otarola.