How many of us have had to work with someone that just didn’t do their job?

In the professional world, we face this all of the time; and considering the lackluster economy, there’s probably someone ELSE out there that is more than willing to do the work.

Especially, when you’re paying them!

Well, when we’re talking about governmental agencies, it can be more complex because you can’t just fire a governmental agency.

I was at a community meeting a few weeks ago, where the Air District came out to discuss the local air quality amid deep community concerns over the presence of manganese in recent air samples.  

The Air District dismissed the health concerns and telling the community that they have nothing to worry about since the manganese levels were below one health based standard, although above various other health based standards.

When a community member asked the air district staff if he would raise his children in the community based on the air quality.  The answer was a resounding NO.  

Needless to say after that, the meeting didn’t go so well.

After the (rightfully so) angry parents regained composure, one woman from the community stood to ask another question.

Image from SierraClub.org

“You’re the air district, you care about clean air, right?  So do we, but why do we have to fight you for our right to breathe clean air?”

Unfortunately, this can be the harsh reality when dealing with air pollution in Environmental Justice communities.  Many residents are upset at the company because of a lack of communication, no emergency evacuation plan, lies about expansion plans, accidents, etc.  Residents then turn to the regional air district for support. It seems like a natural ally in the fight for clean air.  But the reality is that the air district is, most likely, not going to be an ounce of help.

This is extremely disempowering, especially since the Air District’s mandate is ensure our air is clean.  That’s their job and that’s why we pay them! 

Imagine if we were talking about a landscaper, a contractor or even a babysitter!  If you came home one day to find your child bleeding, and the babysitter just said, “Oh, don’t worry about it,” would you invite the babysitter back?

Too bad we can’t do that with air districts and other governmental agencies.

We’ve seen this with other air districts and environmental agencies before.  It’s not uncommon for them to discredit community based air monitoring results, while refusing to do their own air monitoring.  If you want public information from the SJVAPCD about an facility’s emissions, good luck, and if you’re extremely persistent with the follow-up, you might even get a call from someone working at the agency, just to make sure you have the odor complaint line.

The agency folks assure you that they’re investigating your complaints and looking into your sample data, then months later- they claim that you never submitted your complaint or sent along your air monitoring data.  “The investigation is closed…”

All of that will leave you sitting there, rereading the form email from the air district, knowing that the sample results you sent them are long lost somewhere at the air district along with your public info requests, most likely next to the phone in which you’ve left all of those odor complaint messages.

The problem here is that air districts and other environmental agencies often do not act as though they have the communities’ best interest in mind.  The community meetings, public info requests and ‘on-going investigations’ act more like a smokescreen to make it look like they are doing their jobs.  

The reality is, is that if they really did their jobs…………….

They’d have a lot more work to do!  If the Air District acknowledged elevated levels of toxic substances in our air, they would have to do more comprehensive air monitoring.  They’d need to work with residents to identify local hot spots and sensitive locations like schools and daycares.  They’s need stricter regulations and stronger enforcement policies for polluters.  BUT, no one wants to open that can of worms!  

On  the surface, no one wants to create more work for themselves and no one wants to illuminate a problem that requires money (that we don’t have!) to fix.  Although there are also a series of deeper issues that can contribute to the agencies not doing an adequate job of protecting our safety.  

We’ve seen a number of professionals move from governmental jobs to industry jobs and vise versa.  We can’t help but wonder where their allegiances lie.  On top of that we’ve got a lot of corporate donations and heavy lobbying on government by the very industries that are polluting our communities.    

So, almost as if on cue, we’ll hear once again “The air’s fine.  Keep calm and carry on.”

Now where do we go from here?  How can we ensure that our air is safe for us and our children to breathe?  Will it require long term reform of our governmental agencies or ongoing grassroots pressure from the communities living on the fenceline of heavy industry?  

Either way, exposing this charade is a good place to start!

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