Latinos Protecting la Tierra, part 2: Local struggles in Mecca and Cutler

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.

Why?

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.

Previously in the series:

2011′s top community health issues

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

In March, a United Nations independent expert visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville, where she learned about San Joaquín Valley residents’ prolonged fight for affordable and clean drinking water.

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.

This winter, I reported on the trend of schools using innovative methods to ensure students eat breakfast.

 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.

A sizeable portion of that money has been funneled into the medically underserved San Joaquín Valley. It’s hard to keep track of all the money coming into the Valley, but I’ve started tracking it in this blog post.

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.

From the archives:

File photos by Rebecca Plevin and Daniel Cásarez.

Refreshing news in Kettleman City, and how you can help

UPDATE: Read ‘No more brown water’ here.

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.

The plan was detailed during a meeting Wednesday night at the Kettleman City Community Center, hosted by State Sen. Michael Rubio. (Click here to read about past proposals regarding Kettleman City drinking water.)

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.

The celebration will include a local band and a dance contest. The goal is to raise at least $400 to fund a water distribution, through the Community Water Center.

Kettleman City, previously on Harvesting Health:

VIDEO: Water distributions in the Valley, and how you can help

UPDATE: Read ‘Water bottles ease woes,’ which ran in the June 8 edition of Vida en el Valle.

The first of a series of water donations took place last Friday morning in Monson, East Orosi and Seville – three unincorporated Tulare County communities with a history of contaminated drinking water.

During the first distributions – organized by the Community Water Center, Food Link, and Feeding America - about 200 families gratefully accepted 24 gallons of bottled water per household.

The 24 gallons of water each family is receiving through the donation is a very short-term solution to a long-term problem, said María Herrera, community outreach coordinator for the Community Water Center. For residents of these communities — who have lived for years with contaminated drinking water — the donated bottled water might last just one, or two, or four weeks, she said.

The distributions will help raise awareness of the need for potable water in all Valley communities, and is an opportunity to educate residents about the quality of their water. Still, Herrera’s reaction to the distribution project was bittersweet.

“I shouldn’t have to be doing this in California,” Herrera said. “It’s kind of unreal.”

More water distributions are expected to occur in the next week or so in about 15 more low-income communities in Tulare, Fresno and Kings counties that have a history of contaminated water – and CWC is still accepting donations to support this distribution.

Watch the video below to hear Maria Herrera, of the Community Water Center, describe the need for safe, affordable, accessible drinking water in San Joaquín Valley communities. She also invites people to donate to the project.

Donations can be sent to:

  • Community Water Center, 311 W. Murray Ave., Visalia, 93291
  • Food Link, 7427 W. Sunnyview Ave., P.O. Box 1544, Visalia

Read more about the water distribution in this week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.

VIDEO: UN Expert learns about Valley’s drinking water problems

UPDATE: The story – ‘UN report not watered down’ – can be found here.

People from outside the San Joaquín Valley are often surprised to learn that many residents in this region can’t drink their tap water.

So imagine how people around the world will react when they learn there are communities in California with unsafe drinking water and dilapidated water infrastructure.

The Valley’s drinking water problems could gain international attention this year, when the United Nation’s Independent Expert on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation releases her report on the United States’ compliance with the human right to drinking water.

The Independent Expert, Catarina de Albuquerque, was in California for three days this week, and spent one afternoon in the tiny Tulare County community of Seville. While there, she viewed the community’s water infrastructure – an old pipe that runs through an irrigation ditch – and heard from residents of other lower-income, majority Latino communities.

“The power that I have is to draw attention to issues, and to point my finger at problems that I see in the countries that I visit,” de Albuquerque told Valley residents who gathered in the cafeteria of Seville’s Stone Corral Elementary School, where elementary students drink bottled water, since the taps and water fountains, along with the rest of the community’s water, is contaminated with nitrates and bacteria.

“Sometimes there needs to be someone from the outside pointing the finger at the country to make the country move, do something, and change things,” de Albuquerque said.

In the video below, Seville resident and Environmental Justice Champion Becky Quintana describes her community’s drinking water issues to de Albuquerque.

Read the complete story in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.

Clean water could soon flow toward Kettleman City

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.

Through the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the state would provide a $3 million grant and a $135,000 loan, assuming Kings County provides the remaining $2.9 million for the project.

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.

Pictures of Kettleman City by Daniel Cásarez.

Video: Meet an Environmental Justice Champion

UPDATE: Read more about Becky Quintana in this Vida en el Valle story.

————————————————————————————-

“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.)

For her passion and dedication to improving drinking water quality in San Joaquin Valley communities, Quintana has earned the 2010 Environmental Justice Champion award from the U.S. EPA, Region 9. She is expected to receive the award on Thursday in Los Angeles.

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!

Day 2 of the #SowChange tour

On Day Two of the Women’s Foundation of California’s Sowing Change 2010 tour, we began in Visalia and visited Seville, Matheny Tract, Lamont and Weedpatch. Read more about the tour, and about Day One of the tour.

  • Stop 1: Seville

“This shouldn’t be happening here in California and the United States – this is something that happens in a third-world country,” Seville resident Becky Quintana said Thursday morning, as she told the Sowing Change tour participants about the undrinkable water in her tiny Tulare County community.

Seville’s water is contaminated with nitrates and therefore unsafe to drink, Quintana said. The community’s water infrastructure is old and dilapidated. Sometimes the water goes out for days, and sometimes sand comes through the shower and toilet.

Still, Seville residents pay $60 each month for water they can’t drink, she said, and an additional $40 or $50 for drinking water.

Quintana, a local school board member, took us to Stone Corral Elementary School, where the students can’t drink out of the faucets. The school has set up water jugs in every classroom, and outside in the schoolyard.

Quintana is a member of the Visalia-based Community Water Center, which fights for access to clean water through organizing, education, and advocacy.

“If you drink water, you’re a potential ally for change,” Susana De Anda, co-director of the water center, told the tour participants.  “We need water t0 live – we have to respect that life source.”

  • Stop 3: Lamont and Weedpatch

So often, people complain there is nothing for young people to do in the Valley’s rural communities. It’s when youth have nothing better to do that they get into trouble.

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, brought up this issue during a discussion about prison reform. She said Latino youth would be much better off working in the vineyards then selling drugs in the streets.

We saw an awesome example of the power of active and engaged youth during our visit to Lamont. Camila Chávez, executive director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, showed us a mural that youth have created, with the help of a local artist.

Not only does the mural brighten up the streets of the community, which is home to 13,296 people, 88.9 percent of who are Latino, it also prevents other people from tagging the wall with graffiti.

The mural is just one aspect of the great work the Dolores Huerta Foundation in the Kern County communities of Arvin, Lamont and Weedpatch, and the Tulare County communities of Cutler-Orosi, Woodlake and Lindsay, to get disenfranchised people involved in civic participation. Along with the mural, the foundation’s community organizing work has also resulted in a Boys and Girls club, a pool, sidewalks, and stop signs.

To read my tweets from the Sowing Change tour, click here. Follow me on Twitter at @HarvestHealth.

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.