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.”
Sofía Gática, of Córdoba, Argentina, was one of six people honored with the international Goldman Prize today. The award, which comes with a prize of $150,00, bills itself as the “world’s largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalism.”
Gática’s story will resonate with San Joaquín Valley residents who have fought for years for health-protective laws regarding pesticides.
About 13 years ago, Gática’s baby daughter died of kideny failure. She soon noticed that residents in her working-class neighborhood of Ituzaingo were also suffering from alarming rates of leukemia, lupus and other diseases, according to this San Francisco Chronicle article.
Gática, who had only a high school education and no organizing experience, formed the group Mothers of Ituzaingó. They went door-to-door in their neighborhood, which is surrounded by soy bean fields, and discovered that pesticides were having a disastrous impact on the health of their community.
They found that only two households had not suffered from illness, according to the Chronicle. That spurred them to begin protesting the use of weed killers with a “Stop Spraying” campaign.
Their efforts eventually led to a ban on aerial spraying of agrochemicals within 2,500 meters of homes. (In comparison, some Valley counties have pesticide buffer zones of 400 meters.)
The short movie below captures Gática’s inspiring story.
When I spoke on the phone with Gática on Monday, I asked her if she had advice for Valley residents who were also concerned about the health impacts of pesticides. Valley communities have also experienced pesticide drift, and inexplicable health problems.
“I recommend demanding the rights to health and the environment,” she said.
She also recommended demanding the right to information – about what types of pesticides are being used, how they are being applied, and close to schools and homes they are being used.
Tracey Brieger, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, said Gática’s story and advice is an inspiration to Valley residents fighting for health-protective pesticide laws.
Gática’s story, “would be a reminder that communities across the world are facing the same problems with pesticides, and it is very important to learn from each other,” Brieger said.
“The regulations and the rules are stronger in Argentina than they are here in California. We need to learn what it actually looks like to be health-protective.”
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.
Well friends, another year of investigating community health in the San Joaquín Valley is coming to an end.
Below are my picks for the Valley’s top five community health issues/trends of 2011. What did I miss? What issues were important to you this year? And what would you like to read more about next year? Let me know in the comments section below!
1. San Joaquín Valley’s contaminated drinking water grabs international attention
The visit was part of a 10-day tour through the United States that included stops in communities that have limited or unequal access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.
Her report, presented to the U.N. this fall, did not mince words when describing those communities — including numerous unincorporated, majority Latino communities in Tulare County — that have been marginalized and excluded from this basic right.
“While these groups comprise a small proportion of the population, the independent expert emphasizes that they need priority attention,” she wrote. The agricultural San Joaquín Valley is “experiencing enormous challenges, particularly nitrate contamination, with regard to drinking water.”
Water advocates hoped the U.N. report would shine a bright light on the Valley’s drinking water challenges, which disproportionately impact Latinos, and help them advocate for the Human Right to Water bill package, which was making its way through Sacramento.
It all must have made an impact. In October, Governor Brown signed the Human Right to Water bill package, which is intended to ensure that communities across the state have access to clean, affordable drinking water.
2. Poverty increases
Though the great recession officially ended in June 2009, Latinos across the country continued to struggle with poverty and food insecurity in 2010, government statistics showed this fall.
Nationwide, 26.6 percent of all Latinos in the United States lived in poverty in 2010, up from 25.3 percent in 2009, according to statistics released last week by U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty rate for whites was 13 percent in 2010.
California’s overall poverty rate — at 16.3 percent in 2010, up from 15.3 percent in 2009 — was above the country’s overall rate, 15.1 percent in 2010. In Fresno County, 20.9 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, according to the 2005-09 American Community Survey, the most recent data available.
In the Valley, the increase in poverty was evident at the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter, where more and more families were seeking shelter after they had lost their job or home.
It was evident outside of Catholic Charities in September, when a husband and wife – both with degrees in social work – waited in line to receive food from the Neighborhood Market food distribution. (After I blogged about this couple, the woman was offered a job at Catholic Charities.)
And it was evident in November, when possibly hundreds of people were evicted from downtown Fresno’s homeless encampments. Two of the people I interviewed had landed on the streets when the money they made working in the San Joaquín Valley fields and packinghouses no longer covered the rent.
3. School food tops the menu
As child obesity – as well as poverty and food insecurity – has increased across the state and nation, more attention has been focused on the meals students eat while at school.
Studies show that breakfast increases kids’ health and improve their academic achievement. Also, teachers report fewer behavioral problems and higher attendance rates, school nurses see fewer students complaining of stomach aches, and school districts benefit from federal meal reimbursements.
And thanks, in part, to the efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, schools began removing chocolate and strawberry milks from their school cafeterias. Los Angeles Unified School District last week became the largest school district in the nation to ban chocolate and strawberry milk from school menus, and Valley districts – including Earlimart, in Tulare Count – have also stopped offering flavored milk.
Is all this attention on school nutrition making an impact? I’d like to say ‘yes,’ but a recent Los Angeles Times story reports that L.A. Unified’s “trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop.”
4. Health reform provides benefits – and challenges
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act won’t be fully implemented until 2014, but the San Joaquín Valley is already experiencing ups and down from the law.
The Affordable Care Act designates funds to support the ongoing operations of community health clinics, create new health center sites in medically underserved areas, and expand preventative and primary health care services at health center sites, according to HealthCare.gov.
But preparing for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has also proven challenging for Fresno County. In September, the county board of supervisors voted 3-2 to withdraw the county’s Low Income Health Program application from consideration by the State Department of Health Care Services.
With the vote, the county became the first in the state to withdraw its application for the program, which was intended to help counties prepare for the expansion of Medi-Cal that will come with the implementation of the federal health care law in 2014.
5. Residents, experts approach environmental justice seriously and scientifically
As I reported this summer, people of color have become the state’s strongest environmentalists, since they are most burdened by environmental pollution, and the resulting health problems.
So this fall, it was neat to hear about two projects that are comprehensively measuring just how badly residents are burdened by pollution.
In Arvin – a farmworker community that has been considered one of the smoggiest cities in the nation – residents have kicked off a two-year, community-led air monitoring project, or “bucket brigade.”
And UC Davis researchers just released a three-year study that analyzes every census block in the eight-county Valley, and assigns each one a numerical score for environmental hazards, based on the most recent data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and another score for its social vulnerability, based on recent U.S. Census data.
In the new year, both projects could be great tools for communities advocating for health and environmental justices.
If all goes according to plan, construction could begin on a surface water treatment plant in Kettleman City in as little as two years, state officials said last Wednesday night.
Once the treatment plant is completed, residents could begin drinking clean, safe water from the California Aqueduct. The community’s 1,500 residents, 88.8 percent of whom are Latino, currently rely on two old wells that offer water contaminated with naturally occurring benzene and arsenic.
A 2010 state study into Kettleman City’s inexplicable cluster of birth defects — which impacted 11 infants and killed three between 2007 and 2010 — identified the community’s contaminated water as a critical public health concern, though the water was not linked to the defects.
At the end of the meeting, Kettleman City resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre thanked the local and state officials who were involved in the project, as well as the residents and community organizations that spotlighted the dire need for clean water.
“It comes down to the residents in town that were brave enough to speak out and bring attention to problems that we have ongoing in the town,” said Mares-Alatorre, who represents the community’s environmental justice organization, People for Clean Air and Water.
She was thankful for the long-term solution, but said the community also wants a short-term solution to the lack of drinking water.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be looking forward to the day when I don’t have to bathe my daughter in Kettleman City water, or brush her teeth in Kettleman City water, so we are grateful for the long-term solution. But we would like a short-term solution as well.”
She announced the community would be holding an early Independence Celebration on Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. in Kettleman City Park to educate residents about the water issue and to raise funds to get clean water brought to Kettleman City in trucks in the coming weeks.
As early as 1967, residents of West Fresno were complaining about the odor emanating from a rendering facility in their backyard. More than four decades later, the plant, which today is owned by Darling International Inc., still smells.
How bad is it?
Before a press conference Wednesday afternoon in an empty lot adjacent to the facility, I heard one person describe the smell as “barbeque gone bad.” Another said it reminded them of “expired dog food.” “I think I’m going to throw up,” someone said to me.
During the press conference, West Fresno residents – who live with the smell on a daily basis – waved the air in front of their noses, as if to make the scent pass by them. Children pulled their t-shirts above their noses to block out the smell.
While the smell is a nuisance for West Fresno, the community has bigger concerns about the facility. Mainly, this one: Darling has never operated under the authority of a conditional use permit for its existing use as a rendering facility, according to community residents, its lawyers, and letters from the City of Fresno.
According to a 2009 Fresno Bee article, Randall Stuewe, Darling’s chief executive, said Darling plays by the rules, and should be treated as a valued corporate citizen of Fresno. “The facility has all the necessary permits to operate within the city, the county and the state,” he said to the Bee.
The facility first obtained a variance in 1953 to operate as a slaughterhouse, with a small rendering operation, according to an April 13 letter submitted to the City of Fresno by California Rural Legal Assistance, who is representing the Concerned Citizens of West Fresno.
The facility now takes in 5.2 million pounds of incoming raw material weekly. The facility processes 3.9 million pounds, and sends 1.3 million pounds off site, according to a 2008 letter from the City of Fresno to the lawyer who is representing Darling.
Because the facility has never undergone the California Environmental Quality Act process, as part of a conditional use permitting process, there has been no comprehensive analysis of the environmental impacts the plant may be having on the physical environment or the residents of West Fresno, according to the CRLA letter.
Community residents question how the site might be impacting their health, and the health of their families. “It is more than just the smell – we think there is a lot more involved,” said Mary Curry, of the Concerned Citizens of West Fresno.
Curry said she is not trying to shut down the Darling facility. All she asks, she said, is that the City of Fresno obligates the facility to come into compliance with the law.
“It is not too late to turn around and do the right thing,” Curry said. “You’ve turned your head and looked the other way for 50-plus-years, now it is time to step up to the plate and own the problem.”
The City Council met in closed session last Thursday to determine whether it should obligate the facility to go through the proper permitting process. During the meeting, the Council extended the public comment period on a draft abatement agreement 90 days, and agreed to hire an environmental justice consultant to examine the issue.
In next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle, we will be featuring the mothers of Kettleman City as people to watch in 2011.
Because personal tragedies transformed these women into courageous community activists. Eleven babies were born with birth defects between 2007 and March of this year, and three of them have died.
And because by bravely sharing their stories, and putting a compelling face on the local health crisis, the mothers of Kettleman City helped bring media attention — and then government scrutiny — to the tiny, Latino community, which is located in rural Kings County at the intersection of Interstate 5 and State Route 41.
In 2011, the mothers of Kettleman City will continue to search for answers to why their babies were born with birth defects, and why some of those kids died.
“But also because of the bravery of the Kettleman City moms in speaking out and demanding answers and an end to pollution, the big impact is going to be on what decisions the government agencies actually make about adding more pollution to Kettleman City.”
For now, listen to two of the Kettleman City mothers describe, in their own words, their goals for 2011.
Magdalena Romero’s daughter, América, was born with birth defects and died less than five months later. (En Español)
Lizbeth Canales’ daughter died in her womb at six months gestation.
Read more in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.
For years, residents of Kettleman City have lived with many environmental hazards and polluting industries.
The tiny Kings County community is located 3-1/2 miles from a huge hazardous waste landfill. It is located near the intersection of State Route 41 and Interstate 5; has water contaminated with arsenic; and is located near agriculture fields sprayed with pesticides.
A recent state investigation studied these environmental factors, and concluded there was no common cause for 11 babies born with birth defects between 2007 and March 2010. Three of those babies died.
Even though state officials concluded the community’s polluted water did not cause the birth defects, the need for safe, clean, affordable drinking water was one of the main focuses of a recent public meeting in Kettleman City.
“The floor is cleaner than our water,” longtime Kettleman City resident Dolores Moreno told me during the meeting. “I am afraid every time I turn on the tap.” She said she does not drink the water, but does use the water for everyday activities, like cooking beans, washing dishes, and bathing.
But according to a letter from the state Department of Public Health, it looks like residents of Kettleman City might be on their way to obtaining clean drinking water.
The chief of CDPH’s Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management considered numerous options for how to improve drinking water in the community. In a Dec. 3 letter, he determined the most cost-effective, affordable, and long-term solution to the problem would be for the Kettleman City Community Services District to drill a new groundwater well, and install treatment for arsenic and benzene.
The groundwater project would cause the community’s water rates to increase. With state and county funding, residential water rates would increase from about $30.05 per month of $32.39 per month.
That rate hike seems to be one hitch so far. According to the letter, the Safe Drinking Water fund considers an “affordable target consumer rate” to be 1.5 percent of the median household income. (In 1999 dollars, the median household income in Kettleman City was $22,409.) The current water rates are about 1.8 percent of the community’s median household income; with the new water project , rates would increase to 1.94 percent of the median household income.
“While the groundwater project is expected to result in water rates that exceed the target consumer rate, the other alternatives presented would require water rates in excess of two percent of the MHI (or as high as $43 per month.),” wrote Gary Yamamoto, chief of the state’s Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management.
The project is still in the works, but if everything goes according to plan, the new well could be functioning in about a year, said Kevin Reilly, chief deputy director of Policy and Programs for the state health department.
“Do you want clean water or dirty water?” Becky Quintana called out from her kitchen, in a joking tone.
For an hour or so, Quintana, a resident of the tiny Tulare County community of Seville, had been telling me about her fight to improve the drinking water quality in her neighborhood and in communities throughout the San Joaquín Valley.
She spoke with such passion that it was no surprise she needed to gulp water – from a bottle of Aquafina. (Seville’s water, which courses through 100-year-old pipes, has high levels of bacteria and nitrates.)
That’s just one of the many ways Quintana – a member of the local group, Committe for a Better Seville, and the Community Water Center organization AGUA – has been recognized for her water advocacy efforts. She was recently profiled in the Los Angeles Times, interviewed by the Today show, and is scheduling an interview with the BBC.
Maria Herrera, community outreach coordinator for the Community Water Center, said Quintana deserves all of these recognitions.
“I’ve know Becky since late 2008, and I have really seen her transform into this incredible community activist that is not just fighting for basic things for her community, but also for the many communities that are in the same situation that Seville is,” Herrera said.
Watch the video below to hear Becky Quintana explain, in her own words, why she is dedicated to fighting for clean, safe, affordable drinking water for San Joaquín Valley communities.
Do you know an environmental justice champion in your community? Describe the champion in the comments section, and I’ll try to feature him or her in an upcoming blog!
On Monday, the state Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Public Health released a draft report of their investigation into the birth defects in Kettleman City between 2007 and March 2010.
Their conclusion: There is no common cause for the birth defects found in 11 babies from this impoverished farmworker community of about 1,500 people. (Read the full story here.)
That news didn’t sit well with Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a community activist with the local organization El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio/People for Clean Air and Water.
“I feel that they need to continue the investigation, and it needs to be more thorough,” Mares-Alatorre told me. “They need to find out actually why the birth defects happen, so people can continue to have babies without fear.”
Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, suggests a solution for how state agenices could determine the exact cause of the birth defects in Kettleman City: Bio-monitoring.
In a phone interview, she said the state agencies could test Kettleman City residents’ blood, urine, or mothers’ breast milk to determine what chemicals are in people’s bodies, and then compare their level of chemical exposure to the national average.
It’s a tool that’s proved effective in other cases, she said.
She said bio-monitoring helped solve a devastating childhood cancer cluster mystery in Fallon, Nevada. There, bio-monitoring discovered a link between tungsten and acute lymphocytic leukemia. (Read an excellent story about that case, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, here.)
“These tools are being used more and more,” said Williams, who grew up in Rosamond, the site of another childhood cancer cluster. “Most of the last clusters investigations have used bio-monitoring to try to identify the exposure.”
“Why wouldn’t you use every available tool that you have to find out what the cause of the problem is?” Williams said. “The investigation would not be complete without doing bio-monitoring.”
Al Lundeen, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said bio-monitoring can be an effective tool in public health investigations. But, he said, the state investigation indicated that Kettleman City families didn’t have enough exposure to chemicals or pesticides to warrant using bio-monitoring.
“Bio-monitoring would really pinpoint a chemical, but our investigation did not find that there appeared to be an exposure to chemicals that could be of a significant level to result in birth defects,” Lundeen said.
“It’s clearly a tool in the toolbox, but it didn’t seem to be a tool that would tell us more than we had already learned.”