To provide some context for the interviews, what follows are snapshots of the geographic communities we visited and the issues and organizations involved in each, compiled from participants’ own words and stories.
Established in 1999 after a pesticide accident, El Comité para el Bienestar de Earlimart focuses on issues of pesticide exposure and air quality/pollution in the town of Earlimart, a majority farmworker community of about 6,500 in agricultural Tulare County. In 1999, pesticide exposure sickened and forced the evacuation of nearly 200 people after a toxic cloud of metam sodium drifted into town; years later, residents of Earlimart continue to report that they experience multiple health effects, especially neurological symptoms and endocrine/reproductive disruptions such as miscarriages, premature births, and precocious puberty in children. Since 1999 there has been another major accident in the neighboring community of Arvin, and El Comité has been active in educating community members on pesticide regulations and how to report violations. However, a more important goal for El Comité is empowering community residents to fight the low-level, day-to-day drifts whose cumulative effect is more significant than the larger, more visible accidents.
Also in Tulare County, Visalia is home to the Community Water Center (CWC), a spin-off organization of the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment based in San Francisco and Delano, CA. The CWC tackles the issue of groundwater contamination, a major issue given the impact of agriculture in the region coupled with its dependence on groundwater and the absence of state groundwater regulation in California. The result is contamination of groundwater by nitrates and other pollutants, largely via legally sanctioned agricultural runoff. The fact that Tulare County has the highest poverty rates in California means that the impact of this contamination hits hardest in the poorest areas, which are rural and predominantly Latina/o. Because many cannot afford the option of bottled water, these communities experience numerous health problems that they suspect are related to their water problems — lead poisoning, viruses, headaches, stomachaches, and cancer were some of the health problems mentioned by interview participants. Importantly, groundwater contamination is not an isolated issue for the CWC, but a part of a larger lack of infrastructure in rural communities throughout the South San Joaquin Valley. Along with water contamination, communities reported lack of sidewalks, streetlights, and other basic environmental and public safety standards. As with all environmental injustices, lack of infrastructure is compounded by an exclusion of the most impacted communities from the political process. This exclusion takes place both formally (via the citizenship and voter registration requirements mandated for participation on local boards) and informally (where meetings conducted in English bar community members from full participation.)
Fresno is one of the urban centers of the Central Valley, and along with Sacramento one of two urban areas we visited. We met with organizations affiliated with the Fresno Housing Alliance — Fresno West Coalition for Economic Development, one of the oldest and most well-established community organizations in the West Fresno area; Community Catalysts of California, a state agency that provides safe, secure housing to developmentally disabled adults who want to live independently; and Fresno HUD (Housing and Urban Development), a branch of the federal housing agency whose local role involves providing outreach and technical assistance to community groups that want to access HUD funds. Fresno is a “majority-minority” city, and much of the work of the three groups interviewed involves fighting injustices regarding access to safe and affordable housing among the city’s poorest communities — largely African American, Latino, Asian American, immigrant, and refugee communities, but also people with disabilities, a population environmental justice literature and activism rarely considers. Some of the housing issues focused on in the three organizations interviewed are lead exposure, inclusionary zoning, economic development in communities of color, brownfields abatement, and provision of safe, affordable housing for people with disabilities.
EJ issues in the Sacramento Valley are relatively less well documented than in the San Joaquin Valley, and our purpose in having one interview focused around region rather than issue or organization was to get a feel for what sorts of things environmental justice activists in the Northern part of the Valley were working on. The two organizations we met with were Butte Environmental Council and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, both of whom focus on a number of environmental and environmental justice issues in the Northern Sacramento Valley. Some of the EJ issues Butte Environmental Council has focused on include toxics — specifically soil contamination caused by a nearby burn dump — and groundwater protection. The Winnemem Wintu also focus on water, particularly as a cultural and spiritual resource, threatened by a state proposal to raise Shasta Dam for the purposes of increasing water storage for agriculture and power generation. The area along the McCloud River between Mt. Shasta and Bear Mountain is the ancestral home of the Winnemem Wintu, yet since the damming of the McCloud in the 1930s this area has slowly been flooded under, and the state of California’s proposed CalFed program would further inundate Winnemem sacred lands. In 2004 the Winnemem declared war on the United States over CalFed, yet they continue to be excluded from decision making over the dam since the US government refuses to extend federal tribal recognition.
A historically black town founded in 1908, today Allensworth is an unincorporated community in Tulare County about 10 miles from Earlimart. It is also home to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park — the only African American state historic park in Calfornia — and for a number of years was the site of a proposed megadairy which would contain upward of 12,000 cattle. Like the Shasta Dam issue, Allensworth is in this respect another example not just of agriculture’s effects on water resources, but of cultural preservation as an environmental justice issue. Allensworth residents were never consulted about the proposed dairy, and their concerns about the impact of flies and odor on the future of the park — not to mention the impact that great concentrations of livestock would have on the town’s groundwater supplies and air quality — were repeatedly dismissed. After a struggle spanning years that eventually involved the California Black Caucus, numerous state legislators, and some of the largest EJ organizations in the state, the California General Attorney ruled in June 2007 that no dairies could be built within a 2.5 mile radius around the park, and in September of 2007 the state of California agreed to pay dairy owner Sam Etchegaray $3.5 million not to develop around the park.
The other urban site in our inventory, Sacramento, hosts a number of activist organizations and initiatives focused on environmental justice and food networks. We met with activists from four different organizations, including the Sacramento Area Community Garden Coalition, the Hunger Coalition, Organic Sacramento, and the Healthy Eating Active Living Collaborative. All four organizations deal in some way with issues of food security and the health disparities arising from differential access to healthy food among poor communities and communities of color — whether through higher rates of obesity and diabetes or higher bodily burden of pesticides due to limited access to organic produce.
Grayson is a majority Latino town of about 1,200 people in Stanislaus County. Residents began organizing for recreational space in the community in the 1980’s, when the cemetery was the only space for children to play in. After 20 years of struggle, this effort resulted in the creation of the Grayson Neighborhood Council (GNC) and the construction of a beautiful community center and two parks. Since then, Grayson Neighborhood Council’s ties to the community have grown in breadth and depth. They have worked in collaboration with many other organizations on issues such as drinking water contamination and air pollution. GNC worked to insure that the Westley tire fire of 1999 was extinguished quickly and that cleanup efforts were sufficient. They have monitored pesticide drift at schools and in residential areas and continue to advocate for the closing of the nearby Covanta garbage incinerator. In partnership with Californians for Pesticide Reform, GNC also conducts leadership and education trainings on pesticide free gardens, homes and buffer zones. Members also participate in “Cop Watch” to monitor police activities and curb police abuses.
Kettleman City is an historic environmental justice community of national and international prominence. It was home to a successful struggle to prevent the construction of a toxic waste incinerator there in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. 88% of this unincorporated community of 1,500 speak Spanish at home, according to 2000 census data. Kettleman City is host to a hazardous waste landfill located 3.5 miles outside of town. The site was opened in 1979, without the knowledge of many residents. It is operated by Chemical Waste Management, the largest waste management company in the world. Hazardous waste from the Central Valley, Northern California, Southern California, other states and even Mexico is landfilled there. It is the largest hazardous waste landfill in the western United States.
In the late 1980’s, Chemical Waste Management announced plans to add a hazardous waste incinerator to their site. Community members created El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water) to lead the fight against the incinerator. Among other tactics, they filed a lawsuit against Kings County through California Rural Legal Assistance, which they won in 1991. The lawsuit was the first of its kind in the nation. It charged that the permitting process for the incinerator violated residents’ civil rights protections by not enabling monolingual Spanish speaking residents to participate through adequate translation and interpreting.
After facing years of protest and losing two court cases, Chemical Waste Management dropped plans to construct the incinerator in 1993. No new incinerators have been built in the state of California since that time. However, community members are working to protect their town from new threats. In 2008, Chemical Waste Management announced plans to increase the size of their current hazardous waste landfill by 11 acres and to build a new 64-acre hazardous waste landfill. There are also plans to build a bioreactor on their site outside of Kettleman City. Westlake Farms plans to import sewage sludge from Los Angeles County to compost on land outside of Kettleman City.
The community has now seen three generations of environmental justice activism. The youngest are organized within KPOP (Kids Protecting Our Planet).
In Avenal, residents formed Lucha por la Salud Justicia Ambiental to organize in response to the odor and pollution from the Avenal Regional Landfill, a large garbage dump importing waste from Los Angeles and other large cities. The landfill is on property owned by the City of Avenal but operated by Madera Disposal Systems Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Connections. The city gets money for each load of trash brought into the landfill. Members of Lucha por la Salud Justicia Ambiental have pressured the City and landfill owners to stop the noxious odors, and to have a new entrance built that does not require trucks to drive through the town on their way to the landfill. The city has approved the entrance, which should be completed by the fall of 2008. Other concerns about the landfill are its bad odors and residents’ asthma, which are exacerbated by the diesel trucks driving to and from the landfill.
The Addams community is located in the Central West Side of Fresno. This community is largely made up of Latino and immigrant populations, and to a lesser extent Caucasian, African American and Asian residents. The community action committee, Comité ASMA (Addams for Health and a Better Environment), works on on community neighborhood issues pertaining to infrastructure and environmental justice. Fine particulate matter or PM 2.5, a product of diesel exhaust, is a problem in the neighborhood.
The Addams community was highlighted in the Brookings Institute Report, “Katrina’s Window,” which identified it as part of the area of concentrated poverty in Fresno (Fresno was at the top of the list). Many parents in Comité ASMA have children attending Jane Addams Elementary School, which has the third highest asthma rates in the district. The school is located within 100 yards of State Route-99, the railroad (500 yards), two distribution centers (20 yards, 250 yards) as well as over ten other companies which house mobile and stationary diesel-powered equipment.
Comité ASMA has conducted demonstrations, workshops, press conferences, petition drives, and meetings with policy makers to increase awareness of their environmental health problems and to strengthen state policies to clean the Valley’s air. During the summer/fall of 2008, Comité ASMA will be part of a Community Diesel Mitigation Initiative with the San Joaquin Valley LEAP Institute.