I went back to Pueblo for my graduate studies in the 1970s, and then my biggest environmental reality was watching the steel mill churn out all that pollution. Down here in southern Colorado, we’ve seen since I was young the pollution and the impact it has in our communities.
For about a year, I lived four blocks away from the steel mill. At at 4:00 in the morning when everyone was asleep, they’d start shooting that stuff out. And, man, I walked outside and I thought I was under a gas attack. I could hardly breathe. And the smell was something else. Those neighborhoods where the pollution was worst, the Lower East Side and Salt Creek, were predominantly Chicano. But at the same time, the steel mill had been hit bad economically, and thousands of people lost their jobs. So people viewed smoke and pollution as prosperity. You weren’t supposed to have a problem with these things, because they meant too much to our community.
My Master’s thesis was a socioeconomic study on Pueblo. I was able to use Census data to show that the areas with higher poverty rates were correlated to where Hispanics and Chicanos live. And over the last 40 years, not much has changed in those communities. The Lower East Side is still like a wasteland, with no health facilities, no real grocery stores. You can see how the redlining and environmental racism impacted our communities.
When I was younger, we used to play in the Fountain River. But then it got very polluted, and now it’s brown like a sewer coming in from Colorado Springs. The Arkansas River is bad, too. It’s tragic. A group from CSU Pueblo later did tests and found that the steel mill had done all this dumping of all this leftover from their steel processing. Later they’d come in with dirt and put houses on top of all this contamination. This is the Bessemer neighborhood in Pueblo.
When this came to light, they had to go through nearby all these houses and pick off at least six inches of dirt because it was all contaminated. People were going nuts because their housing value was going to go down. I said “Well, if we don’t clean it up, you’re going to be so sick.”
Pueblo still has one of the last remaining coal-fired power plants. The irony is we don’t get any of the power, it all goes north. They even suggested putting a nuclear power plant in place of it. Here we are polluting our air with the coal they’re burning now, and they want to remove it and put in a nuclear plant—the amount of water that would take is astounding, not to mention the possibility of some type of Chernobyl taking place. So the citizens were up in arms about it.