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Guest Blog by Gustavo Aguirre Jr.
8 AM: Tuesday, March 18th 2014
A resident in Arvin, CA gets a knock at the door.
A staff person with the Kern County Public Health Department greets the homeowner and states to her that there is very high level (later known to be explosive levels) of gas leaking into her home from a broken pipeline underneath the home. The county worker suggests to the homeowner that it might be a good idea to leave the residence, but only on a voluntary basis, for her own health benefit. Then the county worker walks to the next house, and so on for a total of eight homes.
The county worker did not state it was an emergency, so the family stayed home and continued on with their daily routine.
This resident and her family had been smelling a very strong odor of gas for about three months, mainly coming in from electricity outlets; however she never reported it because she did not know where to report it.
Arvin residents in that area of Nelson Court, had seen PG&E drilling holes in and around their homes and yards the week before, thinking nothing of it. The homeowners assumed that PG&E was fixing the gas leak.
3 PM: March 18, 2014
As a community organizer, I Gustavo Aguirre Jr, working with GCM visited a total of five homes in Nelson Court. ALL OF the residents that I visited confirmed that they had smelled the gas for about 2 to 3 months and were growing concerned with the situation. Why did it take 2 to 3 months to detect a major gas leak?! Why were residents not warned IMMEDIATELY that the levels of gas in their homes had reached explosive levels?!
6 PM: March 18, 2014
Arvin City Council held their regular meeting, however this meeting was much less routine. With a heavy media presence, Kern County Supervisor, Leticia Perez, and the Director of Public Health, Matt Constantine, stated and pleaded to the Council that an emergency evacuation for the eight homes on Nelson Court was of the highest priority.
6:50 PM: March 18, 2014
With the homeowner’s permission, I took an a Bucket sample (air sample) at a residence on Nelson Court.
7 PM: March 18, 2014
Once they made their concerns public, both Mrs. Perez and Mr. Constantine left the meeting to witness the emergency evacuation of all eight homes, including those where the explosive levels of gas were detected. It was then when a resident of one of the homes invited me in to take a Bucket sample (air quality sample) of a room with a very heavy gas odor.
However, only the residents of those eight homes were told of the emergency evacuation. Many of the folks living just across the street are under the impression that there is little danger to their health and safety.
What the community members still don’t understand is, why did the County wait until 7pm to decide that this was an emergency situation? Especially, if they knew that levels of gas were already at explosive levels at 8am that morning!
In the same home where I took the Bucket air sample, one resident stated, “My pregnant daughter is the one who sleeps in the room with the highest smell of gas, last week she got up to use the restroom and while she was walking to the restroom she passed out on the floor.” This same resident stated that she had been feeling sick these past weeks and now she might believe it has to do with the contestant exposure to the gases from the broken pipeline. However, aside from “high levels of gas” no other information was given to the residents on what they may have been exposed over that time.
According to news reports, Kern County Environmental Health said the line is a field gas line, not natural gas. This basically means it’s a waste oil field gas going to flared, or burned off.
According to the county, until the leak, Petro Capital Resources had no idea the line existed even though it was in use.
The County is unclear how long the leak has been going on. It took several days to track down the owner, a problem it said is common because there is no one agency that keeps track of all underground pipelines.
In two of the eight homes evacuated, two households have pregnant women and are concerned for the health of their families and themselves.
The following day, after the families were evacuated, myself, Gustavo Aguirre and Juan Florez from Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, visited the families at the hotel (paid for by Petro Capital Resources), they all relayed the urgency to return home and have the county provide a health impact assessment.
We’re expecting the results of the air sample to be back from the laboratory in a few days. Stay tuned, results will be released Monday, March 24, 2014…………
On Friday Dec. 6th, Kern County Superior Court Judge, J. Eric Bradshaw, ruled against Kern County, CA and its residents, in favor of Community Recycling and Resource Recovery. The facility can continue operations as usual and is no longer responsible for a $2.3 million fine in connection with the deaths of two workers in 2011.
The two young workers were killed from hydrogen sulfide exposure while working at the facility on Oct. 12, 2011. Over a month later, on Nov. 15, 2011 the Kern County Board of Supervisor levied the $2.3 million dollar fine and revoked Community Recycling’s operating permit.
Apparently, “the decision by Kern County Supervisors to quickly close down a Lamont-area composting facility after the deaths of two men violated due process” according to the Bakersfield Californian.
Two young workers were killed from hydrogen sulfide exposure while working at the facility on Oct. 12, 2011. Over a month later, on Nov. 15, 2011 the Kern County Board of Supervisor levied the $2.3 million dollar fine and revoked Community Recycling’s operating permit. Although it’s important to respect due process, how long can we be expected to wait on it while many more young workers’ lives may be at stake? Especially considering Cal-OSHA findings, that five times, between Oct. 12, 2011 and Nov. 15, 2011, the company violated an agency order that no one come within six feet of any openings or entries to the site’s storm drain system, where the two brothers were found unconscious. Does the time required for due process put more workers and community members at risk?
It’s becoming more and more apparent that this facility is not operating in the safest manner and does not want to cooperate with the agencies or elected officials. “The bottom line is, I just can’t believe this company anymore” according to Kern County Supervisor, Mike Maggard. So how can we ensure the safety of the workers and the community?! Sal Partida, the President of the Committee for a Better Arvin has a great point, “These innocent people, they had no idea that they were going to go to work that day and die,” and yet the risk still isn’t eliminated.
The Committee for a Better Arvin, in collaboration with Global Community Monitor and the Center for Race Poverty and the Environment, have been collecting air samples near the facility with the Bucket Brigade. Sample results continue to show a presence of hydrogen sulfide, the same deadly gas that killed the two workers. This gas is not only a danger to the workers, but the samples confirm that that same gas is escaping from the facility into the community and putting the residents’ health at risk.
Long-term exposure to hydrogen sulfide is associated with an elevated incidence of respiratory infections, irritation of the eye, nose and throat, coughing, breathlessness, nausea, headache, and mental health impacts, including depression.
Yet, the facility can continue business as usual and is no longer responsible for the $2.3 million fine, because of due process. One month is not an adequate amount of time for the company to defend itself for killing two workers, violating OSHA orders and repeatedly misleading the Kern County Board of Supervisors? Case closed?!?!
Well not exactly, considering we’ve got a pretty fierce group of activists in the region. After taking a few days to lick our wounds, we dusted ourselves off and got back to work. If the County has a “lots of options” we’ll be there, expressing our concerns and fighting for justice. Where is due process for the two workers that were killed at the facility? Is there one set of rules for the corporations and a different set for the workers and community residents?
Born and raised in California and coming from a family of activists, I was raised around community and union organizing with my father and grandpa in the United Farm Workers Union in Central and Southern California. As a child I soon embraced and lived by the social equality emphasis my parents evoked on me as farm workers. As a teen still in Middle and High School, I organized and was in charge of walking precincts in political campaigns in the Los Angeles area as well as in the Coachella and Central Valley.
I have devoted hundreds of hours in volunteer work organizing communities with farm workers’ rights and environmental justice with Organizations such as The United Farm Workers Union, Committee for A Better Arvin and Center on Poverty, Race and the Environment. While in High School, I also was responsible for organized walk-outs in support of the Dream Act and Dreamers.
Furthermore, my passion for social and environmental equality for everyone has lead me to this new Bucket Brigade Organizer position with Global Community Monitor in Kern County and I am excited to defend the human right to breath clean air and work towards bringing justice to the community in collaboration with various other local, grassroots organizations.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember we officially launched the Arvin Bucket Brigade in December of 2011. Looking back on this project in California’s Central Valley, I honestly don’t think I had a clue as to what I was signing up for.
In October 2011, two young workers lost their lives after being overcome with hydrogen sulfide at the Community Recycling facility in Lamont, CA. This was the last straw for the community, already overburdened by air pollution, and the residents took matters (and air monitoring equipment) into their own hands. The Committee for a Better Arvin (CBA) partnered with the Rose Foundation, the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE) and Global Community Monitor (GCM) to get to work documenting air pollution incidents at the Community Recycling (CRRR) facility and advancing policy change in Kern County.
In less than two years, we have trained 44 residents in three different kinds of air monitoring, collected over 369 pollution logs, 16 VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) and Sulfur samples, 17 diesel samples and 13 Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) samples.
The results continue to confirm community knowledge that the pollution in the area poses a threat to public health.
Bucket samples detected up to 24 different chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide.
Four of those are above at least one health based standard.
The average levels of the PM samples taken at the first sampling location exceeded the WHO’s (World Health Organization) 24 hour standard.
Two of the PM 2.5 samples exceeded the EPA & WHO’s 24 hour standard.
Five of diesel samples contain levels that pose an excess risk of cardiovascular & respiratory hospitalizations on the day of exposure.
With this data, 16 community members have spoken at six public meetings and issued three press releases which led to 10 news stories.
Needless to say, we’ve started something here!
We have captured the attention of the polluter, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD), the Kern County Board of Supervisors, the California Air Resources Board and EPA Region 9. We have challenged the SJVAPCD to do side by side testing and have worked with County Supervisors to get CRRR’s operating permit revoked.
Yet, the SJVAPCD still has yet to step up to the plate. They have discredited our results, dismissed community concerns and kicked us off of meeting agendas. They refuse to come out to the community during resident identified pollution incidents and have refused to meet with concerned residents. Is there no corporate regulation here? Is anyone looking out for the best interests of the community and its residents? Or are the company and the SJVAPCD just looking at the profits?
Saturday, October 12, 2013 marked the two year anniversary of the two young workers’ deaths from hydrogen sulfide exposure and we are still detecting dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide along the fenceline of CRRR. CRRR has continued to appeal nearly every punitive measure levied against them for their numerous violations and the community is still waiting for a judge’s decision, which could close down the CRRR facility.
So, while we’re waiting, the residents continue to document pollution incidents, collect data use the truth in the fight for clean air and a health community.
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.
“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!
So, what’s new in Arvin, California?
The Arvin community has taken matters into their own hands-conducting their own air monitoring. We are yet to see any real action from the Air District.
One year into the Bucket Brigade project, The Committee for a Better Arvin has taken 11 air samples for VOC’s and sulfurs. They have been collecting data on ozone pollution daily and are planning to get a particulate monitor up and running by the end of the year.
Turns out, the air monitoring results prove that the air in Arvin can cause negative health effects both over short and long term exposure. We’ve even detected elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, the same gas that was responsible for the two workers deaths last fall.
Residents have called attention to the results through community meetings as well as submitted these air results to to local news media outlets and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
So, what has the Air District done about it?
They called, gave their PR spiel and sent along the odor complaint line. Turns out the Air District claims it isn’t their responsibility to monitor the air quality in Arvin?!
So, who’s responsibility is it?
The residents of Arvin need comprehensive air monitoring done near Community Recycling & Resource Recovery. We’ve uncovered elevated levels of toxic gases and people are getting sick, yet the Air District is telling folks that everything is fine. Although they claim it’s not their responsibility to monitor the air, they have taken a handful of air samples near the facility, but a handful is not enough. Residents of Arvin need air monitoring done at night and in the early morning hours when they’ve documented the worst pollution incidents.
Sure, the Air District attends just enough community meetings to look like they are interested and create enough hoops to jump through to make community residents feel like it’s their fault that they cannot get the public information documents that they are looking for. But- just what is it that they do to protect the health and safety of Arvin residents?
The problem here is that the air district is not functioning in an efficient way to protect Arvin residents from toxic air pollution. Whether it’s confusion over jurisdiction or the inability to collect air samples at times when the community knows high pollution levels are present. Either way, the inefficiency of the air district to adequately monitor the air in Arvin is once again favoring industry. So residents will continue to take on the responsibility of monitoring their own air in their fight for clean air and a safe environment.
PS: For those wondering, the Air District claims that air monitoring near Community Recycling is the Health Department’s responsibility.
Raise your hand if you separate kitchen scraps, throw it in your green bin for municipal composting, and feel like you’re doing good for the environment.
Don’t be embarrassed, I’m with you here!
But, where does it actually go? And, who is double checking to make sure it only contains organic matter?
Global Community Monitor has recently launched a new Bucket Brigade in Arvin, CA; a city noted for having the worst air quality in The States. The number one facility that the residents want to monitor, is a compost facility, that accepts municipal waste.
Nothing about this facility, Community Recycling, echoes the clean, green side of composting. Recent, Bucket tests have even identified elevated levels of hazardous chemicals escaping across Community Recycling’s fenceline and into the community.
Is this progress?
Sure, it’s convenient for residents of Los Angeles County. Waste Management delivers a little green bin to put in the kitchen, it’s then filled up with kitchen scraps, dumped into the large green waste bin and picked up by Waste Management weekly. Residents in Alameda County, don’t have to go through the smelly, sometimes laborious job of composting themselves, but feel good about not throwing these items in the trash and often once a year get to go pick up free planting soil, generated by their ‘green’ waste.
But, residents of Arvin, CA live next to Community Recycling, a facility that accepts this ‘green waste’. This facility is often impossible to drive past without choking and gagging a bit as you’re trying to have a conversation. AND- from the looks of it, none of this ‘compost’ is something you’d want to use in your garden anyway! Metal, plastics and even agricultural waste is visible in the ‘compost’ heaps and they have a contract with the Water District to accept grey water and sewage sludge to spray all over this ‘green’ waste.
What’s so green about that?! Are we working towards a solution here or are we just relocating the problem? Yes, municipal, curbside pick-up of green waste has many more people separating their food scraps from their trash, but at what cost?
Maybe the real solution here isn’t a free little green bin for kitchen food scraps, but rather a free little compost bin where residents can compost their own kitchen scraps into non-toxic planning soil to re-use in their garden.
Do you ever wonder what’s in the air you’re breathing? Could it be harmful? Maybe, you live next to an oil refinery. Are those odors and burning eyes associated with a chemical presence in the air? There’s governmental agencies that monitor that, right? The EPA? Or maybe that local air district?
These are questions we hear all the time from the fenceline communities that we work with. How does a neighbor of an oil refinery go about finding out what’s in the air that she’s breathing?
Well, here’s my story-
I wanted to find the emissions inventory (what the company’s emitting in the air) for several facilities in Arvin, California. Conveniently, there’s a national website, Toxic Release Inventory, where you can put your zip code in and the website searches the database for the registered toxic emissions in your area. Sounds easy, right? But nothing comes up. According to this, there’s nothing harmful being emitted by industry in Arvin. Well, that just doesn’t seem right, I just read that Arvin has the worst air in the Nation.
As we discussed in our previous post, residents of Arvin, CA want the truth about what is in the air they are breathing. They know they have the worst air quality in the nation, due to ozone pollution, but could the multiple industries be exacerbating the problem with harmful emissions?
To help them determine what is in the air, they invited GCM to provide them with a Bucket Brigade training in February.
The training kicked off at 10am Sunday: GCM brought the Buckets, and the CBA folks brought the coffee, pan dulces and the sheer passion and determination it takes for grassroots change. And, much appreciation to CRPE for taking on the BIG task of translation between English and Spanish.
The residents of Arvin were organized and ready with a ton of great questions. GCM led them through the basics of air pollution, mapped out pollution sources in relation to the community and went over the need to record and keep track of pollution incidents with the Pollution Log.
We quickly learned that Arvin is growing! There are plans for more houses, jobs and industrial expansions. All great news considering the lagging economy, but this is a pivotal point for the residents who are concerned about the growing air pollution problem that could go hand-in-hand.
Residents want a straight and honest answer about the potential health risks of living so close to industry. Community members are concerned about the bad odors near some of the industrial facilities. They complained of rotten eggs, feces and spoiled fruit; often accompanied by acute health effects.
Sal Partida, President of The Committee for a Better Arvin, shared that “when it rains, you can’t tell what color your car was, because all of the pollution lands on it.”
And what better thing to follow-up that conversation than lunch! We’re met with some surprised faces and laughter, but it usually doesn’t take too long for everyone to re-gain their appetite.
Lunch, provided by the community residents, was spectacular. I put my Cliff Bar away and grabbed a plate of fresh seafood salad, with pulled chicken that had been slow cooked with onions and spices. And to top it off hibiscus flavored agua fresca!
Then, onward with the training: it’s time to build the Buckets! Two teams, four Buckets and two GCM trainers geared up for a little competition. Which team could build it first?
Obviously, the younger team far surpassed their elders! We had one Bucket up and running in no more than 15 minutes.
Full Disclosure- this team had seen the Buckets in action before at our Intro meeting, and did have some trouble with the vacuum on the second Bucket. Additionally, there was no need for translation and so we got quite the head start with instructions.
After the other team caught up, we moved into the essential paperwork for sample data and planned out the pollution monitoring plan. Everything was falling into place. The farmer has the early morning pollution patrol and the High School girls have the mid-afternoon patrols. The community residents decided which four activists would be in charge of the Buckets and circulated contact info so everyone can get in touch with them quickly following a pollution incident. The Arvin Bucket Brigade is ready to go! Stay tuned for sample results…..
More recently, Arvin has made the news for a horrible tragedy at a large industrial recycling and compost facility that is putting a further burden on residents by increasing air pollution in an already overburdened community. In October, two boys were killed at the facility after inhaling the deadly gas, Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S).
This was the last straw for the community residents. They wanted answers: What is in our air? What are we being exposed to? And why is the facility still operating after two employee deaths and multiple violations of their conditional use permit?!
The Committee for a Better Arvin (CBA) staged protests, marches, lobbied elected officials and the County finally agreed with the residents and revoked the facility’s operating permit.
Victory, right? Nope, not in this small community of color, comprised mostly of working class, Spanish speaking population.