New Kern network allows residents to become ‘environmental police’

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.

Residents to EPA: “We’re simply telling you our reality”

On the second day of his two-day tour through the San Joaquín Valley, EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld visited the east Tulare County communities of East Orosi and Seville.

Standing in the driveway of an East Orosi home, Blumenfeld listened to the personal stories of community residents like Berta Díaz, in pink, who has fought for more than a decade for clean drinking water.

“I have fought with mis compañeros for eleven years, and we have not seen any change in this very contaminated water,” Díaz said.

“We are not complaining, we’re simply telling you our reality,” said Jesus Quevedo, pictured at right, as he described the health struggles of family and friends who have been sickened by the poor water.

“I’ve been having to growing up not being able to drink my tap water, which I think is something that’s not really right,” said Jessica Mendoza, 16, pictured above, at left. “All I’m asking for is just a change, because it is not just for my generation, but generations that are yet to come.”

From there, Blumenfeld traveled to Stone Corral Elementary School, where he addressed residents, including Rebecca Quintana, pictured below.

“I really wanted him to visually see what really exists,” Quintana said after the short community forum. “There is a difference between hearing and seeing. I actually wanted him to see with his own eyes what communities and their infrastructure look like.”

Hearing about residents’ personal struggles to access clean drinking water, and seeing their determination to bring potable water to their communities, seemed to leave an impact on Blumenfeld, pictured below.

“You can read statistics,” he said. “But when you meet someone with a name and a face and a child and a house – it is definitely why we all do this job. Our job is to protect human health and the environment.”

That was the reaction María Herrera, of the Community Water Center, was hoping for.

“Anyone can read about the problem… but it is one thing to read it, and it is another thing to be able to come to the actual communities that are impacted by the issue and hear directly from residents,” she said. “That makes a huge difference.”

Read more about Blumenfeld’s tour:

All photos by Daniel Cásarez, Vida en el Valle.

Welcome to Harvesting Health!

Hi, and welcome to Vida en el Valle’s new community health blog, Harvesting Health/Cosechando Salud.

This blog is part of a new reporting project, funded by the California Endowment, that will allow Vida en el Valle to spend a year zeroing in on critical health issues that are impacting Latino communities across the San Joaquín Valley.

In stories in our paper, readers will meet the Valley residents affected by community health issues — like exposure to pesticides, access to clean drinking water and healthy air, and the need for safe communities and healthy food. Readers will also meet the community groups advocating for change at the grassroots- and policy-level.

The in-depth stories will also include a public policy perspective: What policies have created these unhealthy situations? What can local or state decison-makers do to fix these problems?

This blog will add even more depth to the stories. Bookmark this page, and check back  often to view videos of Valley residents and community activists, and to learn about health issues as we’re investigating them.

Why is Vida en el Valle dedicating so much time and newsprint toward community health issues?

Because Valley residents are hit on all sides by health and environmental factors, and the poor and people of color are often hit hardest. And because without media attention, conditions like these could persist:

  • The Bakersfield, Visalia-Porterville, Fresno-Madera, Sacramento, and Hanford-Corcoran metropolitan regions rank in the top ten in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2010 rankings for most polluted cities by ozone, year-round particulate pollution, and short-term particulate pollution.

According to the association, minorities and lower-income groups are disproportionately affected by illnesses caused by air pollution.

  • In 2006, more than 326,700 Valley residents were served water with levels of contamination over a legal limit, primarily due to bacteria, nitrates, arsenic, and disinfectant byproducts, according to the Visalia-based Community Water Center.

Latino communities are more likely to have contaminated water than non-Latino communities, the center says.

  • The San Joaquín Valley is home to more than 220 diasdvantaged, unincorporated communities. In these communities, where residents rely on the county government for services, people tend to lack the basic features of a safe and healthy environment, like clean water, sewage lines, storm drains, streetlights, and sidewalks, according to the national research and action institute PolicyLink.

And, because as EPA regional director Jared Blumenfeld put it when asked why he has prioritized environmental justice issues in the San Joaquín Valley, “(The Valley) is a part of the world that deserves attention, and hasn’t gotten the attention it requires.”

These community health stories, blogs, and videos won’t be effective without your input. What health issues are you experiencing in your communities? What types of health improvements do you envision for your neighborhood?

Share your thoughts with Vida en el Valle’s community health reporter via e-mail (rplevin@vidaenelvalle.com), by commenting on this blog, www.blogs.vidaenelvalle.com/health, or by following us on Twitter (@HarvestHealth.)

 

To read more about this new project, check out next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.