Earlier this fall, the New York Times’ lead food writer Mark Bittman visited the San Joaquín Valley. In a recent piece for the Times’ magazine, ‘Everyone Eats There,’ Bittman said he came here to explore big farming, small farming, food politics and sustainability – as well as the industry’s impact on natural resources, people, and animals.
During his five-day visit, Bittman experienced the environmental conditions that many of us endure here. He writes:
The air, trapped between mountain ranges, stinks, and the pollution is consistently ranked among the most severe in the country. Worse, there are so many cows nearby in megadairies and feedlots that the air contains microscopic particles of dried dung, enough so that you can taste it. I smelled it on my clothes when I unpacked each night and even brought it home with me. I have never carried Visine in my life, but there I was using it every half-hour.
After visiting huge farming operations and an organic farm, and meeting a Hmong farmer, Bittman lands on this issue:
There must be, I thought (or fantasized) as I traveled through the valley, some movement toward pushing farmers, big and small, to produce decent food sustainably. Because if there’s not, the valley’s problems will only worsen, and we’d be complicit in destroying one of the country’s greatest resources, one that has served us amazingly well until now.
Well, I have an answer for Bittman: There IS a movement pushing for better, more sustainable environmental conditions in the San Joaquín Valley, and it’s bubbling up from the people who are most impacted by these problems.
Yesterday, I participated in an environmental justice bus tour, as part of the launch of the new Fresno Environmental Reporting Network. The network allows residents to report health and environmental hazards in their community, via telephone, text message, e-mail, or the website, www.FresnoReport.org.
During the tour, we visited a farm labor camp in Huron, where residents have to leave their small, cream-colored buildings to use the bathroom or shower. Just down the road, we visited another apartment complex, located next to a “stinky stream,” that turns brownish-red during the tomato harvest. Resident Leonarda Soto told us that when her grandchildren come in contact with the water, they break out in rashes across their bodies.
In Lanare, an unincorporated community surrounded by dairies and chicken farms, we heard about the community’s ongoing struggle for clean drinking water. The community has a water treatment plant, to deal with the high levels of arsenic in the water, but residents can’t afford to operate it, resident Isabel Solorio told us.
With the Fresno Environmental Reporting Network, residents like Soto and Solorio can now report these problems and violations, and get a response from government officials. A task force of community members and government officials will meet monthly to follow up on the concerns and ensure the reports are addressed.
Tracey Brieger, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, said this network represents a movement toward realistically quantifying cumulative health impacts in the Valley, or all the unhealthy elements to which residents are exposed.
“When a farmworker is exposed to pesticides, they’re not exposed to just one, they’re exposed to dozens – on top of smog, on top of water contamination, on top of particulate matter, so it’s not just one thing,” she said. “The way you think about these things, and the way you regulate all of this pollution, isn’t the way a community member in a real human body experiences it.”
The new network, she said, will empower community members to report health and environmental hazards to government agencies, and ensure their concerns are addressed. The model, she said, represents a new trend in government accountability and transparency, when it comes to health and the environment.
“I think this is going to be the cutting edge issue: How to get regulators and government agencies to start regulating in a way that represents communities’ lived experiences,” Brieger said.
“We’re far from that, but as with so many of these issues, it’s directly affected people who are taking the lead – it is community members, it is farmworkers, it is all the people who experience it saying, ‘Hey, you need to look at this differently.’”
Environmental reporting, previously on Harvesting Health:
The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Eng, makes it state policy that every person has access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water. The law requires state agencies — like the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the Department of Public Health — to consider this position when making a water policy decision.
On Monday night, during the monthly meeting of the Community Water Center’s community group AGUA, residents who can’t drink their tap water and their allies recalled their efforts to support and pass the bill.
Residents and their advocates spent several years traveling to Sacramento and sharing their struggles for clean water with legislators, they said. They offered the legislators plastic bottles of their communities’ drinking water and dared people to sample the ‘San Joaquín Valley Kool-Aid,’ they said, laughing.
They recalled that their lack of access to clean, affordable drinking water made international news in March 2011, when the United Nation’s Independent Expert on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville.
The bill’s passage, they agreed, was cause for celebration. So, a mariachi band played everyone’s favorite songs. Chairs were cleared away so people could dance. There was so much food and cake.
Vida photographer Daniel Cásarez’s photos capture the joy and camaraderie of the evening.
Francisco Ramos, 13, of Firebaugh, was born with a collapsed lung, and is destined to be a chronic asthmatic.
He is one of the many Latino children in the San Joaquín Valley who are impacted by the region’s asthma epidemic, my co-worker Daniel Cásarez writes in this week’s edition of Vida en el Valle. His story was produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.
In Fresno County, about 19.2 percent of children ages 1 to 17 have been diagnosed with asthma, according to KidsData.org. Statewide, about 14.2 percent of kids have been diagnosed with asthma.
Even with the huge number of asthmatic children in the region, Latino parents – especially those living in rural communities - lack information about the condition, Cásarez reports. He spoke with Drs. Óscar and Marcia Sablán, who have operated the Sablán Medical Clinic in Firebaugh for more than 25 years.
Too often, parents rely on humidifiers and Primatene mist and don’t realize it is just a short-term fix. A doctor’s examination is necessary.
“Basically people would not treat asthma; just opt for an ER visit,” said Marcia Sablán.
“They would put a lot of Vicks (vapor rub) on their chest. For someone who has not seen a physician, those are the things they do. They don’t realize they could feel better, and actually have a lot more energy when their asthma is controlled,” adds Óscar Sablán.
“If you’re not aggressive in treating the asthma, then the asthma persists into adulthood, and in a more malignant form.”
Not facing the exacerbations of asthma, another term for asthma attack, could lead to more frequent attacks, if early treatment is not sought.
“If you have a lot of attacks, you are at risk to have another one, but if you can get it under control for an extended period of time, then you have less of a chance of recurrence,” said Óscar Sablán.
To learn more about asthma, check out ‘Latinos lack asthma info’ by Vida en el Valle reporter Daniel Cásarez. Photos, both of Francisco Ramos, also by Cásarez.
It will take both short-term and long-term solutions to ensure that all San Joaquín Valley residents have access to clean and affordable drinking water. The 2012 Human Right to Water bill package, which is currently making its way through the legislature, could establish some of those long-term solutions.
Last week, I spoke with Assemblymember Henry T. Perea, who is the author of two of the bills in the package.
“It took decades of bad policy and poor oversight for these communities to get where they are today, and it is going to take some time to fix those problems,” Perea told me.
One of Perea’s bills, AB 1669, would create a ‘Nitrate At-Risk Area Fund,’ which would be used to develop and implement solutions for low-income communities that are at risk of nitrate contamination. These communities would be identified by the state Department of Public Health and the state Water Resources Control Board.
The bill would prioritize funding for areas contaminated with nitrates, and reduce the bureaucratic hurdles that prevent smaller communities from taking advantage of existing funds, Perea said. It targets an ongoing challenge to implementing drinking water solutions, Perea said: there is “always more need than there is resources,” he said.
Another bill, AB 2238, would promote consolidation of small water systems or infrastructure extension, when these actions can help improve access to safe and affordable drinking water in disadvantaged communities.
Specifically, it would improve the ability of Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) to identify and study opportunities for consolidation and service extension. It would also require the state department of health to promote consolidation, prioritize funding for projects involving consolidation of small water systems, and prioritize funding for consolidation projects that promote safe and affordable drinking water.
Instead of having small water districts serving nearby communities, “we would like to see the larger water districts take in those service areas to create greater efficiency,” Perea said. This, he said, would save taxpayer money, and would create economies of scale, so one community does not get left behind.
Both of Perea’s bills are expected to reach the Appropriations Committee in mid-May.
Other bills in the Human Right to Water package include:
AB 685, by Assemblymember Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park,) which would establish the human right to water as a statewide policy priority;
AB 2334, by Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Cupertino,) which would require the Department of Water Resources to conduct an analysis of water affordability every five years;
AB 1830, by Assemblymember V. Manuel Pérez (D-Coachella,) which would authorize the Public Utilities Commission to order restitution to mobile home park residents where it finds that the park owner charged unjust or unreasonable water rates.
During the month of April – in recognition of Earth Day - Vida en el Valle ran a four-part series called Latinos Protecting la Tierra.
The five people featured in this series are true environmental advocates. They are proof that California residents can make an impact on the environmental health of their communities.
Three of the five people were farmworkers, or children of farmworkers. Two of the five have college degrees. They have organized people to fight for health and environmental justice; demanded health-protective laws and actions; and created policies that protect health and the environment for the long-term.
Here is one last look at the people featured in the series.
A community leader in Mecca, where a horrible smell from a nearby facility sickened kids and residents
“This is where I live, and this is where my kids live, and this is where I want my kids to grow up. I want to make sure that my kids and my community and I have the same opportunity to live in a place where we have the chance to be happy and healthy, just like the people on the west end of this Valley do.”
Representing Eastern Riverside and Imperial counties
“I just hope that when this is all said and done, and I look back at this, I can say that we did some great work, and we brought our work and our community closer to justice. I can die with that. I’d be fine with that. I’d be cool.”
“We were the underdog community of color, fighting this multi-million dollar company that was pretty much nationwide. Here we were, highschoolers, trying to bring down this company, and finally after so much advocacy, so much press, so many meetings, so many technical documents — we won.”
What would you do if horrible smells of human waste and gas began wafting into your neighborhood? How would you respond if those smells began sickening your own children, elementary school students, and community residents?
When Celia García, below, was faced with the nightmarish reality last year in her hometown of Mecca, in the Eastern Coachella Valley, she responded by becoming an environmental and community advocate.
As you can read in ‘An advocate blooms in the desert,’ the second story in Vida’s series, Latinos Protecting la Tierra, García and her boys went door-to-door in a neighborhood in sight of a soil recycling facility, to inform people of the situation. She joined a group, Líderes por un Mecca Limpio, to remind residents that the smell could be a symptom of a more dangerous environmental problem. She stood up to government officials, and demanded answers.
In this awesome audio slide show, created by Alejandra Alarcón of Coachella Unincorporated, García explains that she did all of this to protect the health of her family, and her community. She is still inspired by a comment her nephew made last winter, after his school was evacuated due to the sickening odor.
García’s nephew, C.J., said he no longer felt safe at school and, “for me that was heartbreaking,” she says at the end of the slide show. “And that day it became so personal and since that day, I knew there was no way that I would ever feel that way again. And I know that this community is worth all the fight, and all the attention, and all the hard work that’s being put into it.”
Verónica Mendoza and her daughter, Joanna, pictured below, are also featured as part of Latinos Protecting la Tierra this week. Verónica and Joanna live in the Tulare County community of Cutler, where the drinking water is contaminated by the long-banned pesticide DBCP.
Joanna, 16, was featured in this Nick News program about communities throughout the world that don’t have access to safe drinking water.
Lupe Martínez has – quite literally – played a role in two of the state’s great social justice movements.
As an organizer and leader for the United Farm Workers, and then the environmental justice movement, Martínez can always be counted on to sing and strum songs, including ‘De Colores’ – the UFW’s unofficial anthem – as a way to motivate and unify people.
But there’s a story behind his guitar skills.
In a recent interview, in advance of Vida’s upcoming series on environmental justice leaders, Martínez said he developed his musical skills during a challenging period in his life.
In 1977, Martínez, then a farmworker, was fired after his employer discovered he had been attempting to organize his fellow workers around UFW causes.
“I got blacklisted,” he said, explaining that no other companies would hire him. Martínez started playing the guitar, “out of hunger, and paying my bills,” he said.
“The guitar came as a result of the need – and I needed bad,” he said.
He learned how to play the guitar, and then started performing in bars. Eventually, he started to make a living off it.
Just as the guitar gave him hope during a period of unemployment, his music has also brought people encouragement.
“Anytime there is a rally, you can always count on Lupe and his guitar to motivate people and give them courage,” said Kettleman City resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre.
Music, “just releases sometimes a lot of the pressure that’s on that moment,” said Martínez, who is now the assistant director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. “And it just unites people – period.”
The video clip below features Martínez singing at a Central California Environmental Justice Network meeting in Wasco.
Read more about Martínez’s roles in the farmworker and environmental justice movements in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.
254,00: People in California’s Tulare Lake Basin (the southern San Joaquín Valley) and Salinas Valley currently at risk of nitrate contamination of their drinking water
96: The percentage of nitrate pollution connected to cropland. This occurs when nitrogen is applied to crops, but not removed by harvest, air emission, or runoff, and then leaches from the root zone to groundwater.
57: The percentage of the current population in the study area that depend on a community public water system with untreated nitrate concentrations that have exceeded the maximum contaminant level for nitrate in drinking water between 2006 and 2010.
80: The percentage of the population that could be affected by 2050, if nitrate groundwater concentration trends continue.
$20 to $36 million: The estimated cost, per year, for short- and long-term safe drinking water solutions for the two regions.
Learn more about Valley residents’ fight for clean drinking water:
Last week, I participated in an environmental justice bus tour intended to introduce the Kern Environmental Enforcement Network to community members and agency officials.
The network is the latest example of residents taking environmental justice into their own hands. (Past examples include the Arvin Bucket Brigade, and community mapping projects.) The program, which is expected to launch next month, is designed to make it easier for residents to report local environmental hazards, and for agencies to identify and investigate these issues.
The program will include a monitoring website, where people can report their concerns. Residents can also call in or text their complaints. A taskforce of community members and agency representatives will then meet and encourage the responsible agencies to investigate the complaints, and enforce existing environmental laws.
For area residents, the network is an opportunity to take an active role in ensuring environmental health laws are enforced. During the kick-off meeting last Wednesday, Valley residents and advocates said they welcome this challenge.
“We are not supposed to leave situations,” said Susana De Anda, as she described how her doctor encouraged her to leave the San Joaquín Valley, since the region’s polluted air causes her to have asthma attacks. “We can’t just leave and pick up – we have to fix the problems where we live.”
“I learned that I had to start educating myself – because otherwise, nothing is going to change,” Teresa De Anda (pictured below) said, after describing how she tried to report an incident of pesticide use on a poor air quality day, but was instead referred from agency to agency, in an instance of bureaucratic hot potato.
The Kern network is based off a similar, successful program in Imperial County, called the Imperial Visions Action Network. Residents there were experiencing their own environmental justice concerns, like agricultural burning, and the network has allowed people to shine a light on the hazards in their communities, said Luís Olmedo, executive director of Comite Cívico del Valle, the Imperial network’s lead organization.
“These communities in the eastern part of the state are not getting enough attention – they are more agricultural communities, more desert communities, and probably less influential communities,” Olmedo said. “Giving them this tool gives them the ability to have greater and better access to government organizations.”
Does this sound like a great tool for your community? Groups throughout the region – including Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Madera counties – have expressed interest in establishing their own networks, and it appears the EPA supports the project.
Through the program, residents will become “the community environmental police,” regional EPA administrator Jared Blumenfeld said during the kick-off event. “That is your job – you are the eyes and ears for all of our agencies.”
“The future face of the environmental justice movement,” he said, “is you getting equity through accountability.”
Read more about the Kern Environmental Enforcement Network in this week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.