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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.

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The Committee for a Better Arvin has been leading the fight for clean air in a city with the worst air quality in the Nation. Here, they show the GCM team around their community.

Most people don’t understand how government works.

On a recent trip to Bakersfield, California, Global Community Monitor attended a day long tour of several Central Valley communities and an introductory meeting with community members, non-profit organizations, emergency responders and government agency representatives focused on environmental and public health issues.

Teresa DeAnda started the day with an introduction of her personal experience about how she saw and felt pesticides being sprayed near her home. After being passed along to five government agencies, she was still unable to file her original complaint. Sometimes dealing with government agencies feels like Dorothy getting directions from the Scarecrow.

Image from Verdoux

Whether it is pesticide spray, strange dust on your car and home or oil refinery flares going off for hours, it is all too common for communities to not have a clear line of communication with the responsible government agency.

The goal of the day long tour and meeting was to kick off a new project: the Kern Environmental Enforcement Network (KEEN) building on successful projects in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys.

The Imperial Visions Action Network (IVAN) brought together these same stakeholders: community members, non-profits, emergency responders and agency reps to bridge the gap on community issues. Community members and agencies can be like oil and water – they just don’t mix. The IVAN pilot made it possible for these unlikely partners to work together. The project provided a website for communities to document complaints (in person or online), producing a map of the problem and showing patterns for areas of high complaints.

The IVAN project included a task force that met monthly and had the insight to bring in a “problem solver” that worked to shepherd the community complaints to the appropriate agency and see the investigation through.

The collaboration resulted in 170 cases reported, 62 solved, 44 of which were reported violations that brought in over $90,000 in penalties. The act of actively seeing a complaint through and closing it after a thorough investigation is extremely rare and something Bucket Brigaders would like to see more of.

The IVAN online model was established using the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s iWitness Pollution Map for gulf coast residents after the BP oil spill in 2010 as a model. The iWitness map is active today and has received 5,464 complaints from residents in two years.

GCM and the Bucket Brigade strongly believe that community members have a valuable and necessary role in env

Lupe with CRPE talks about pollution from Community Recycling, Clay Rodgers from the Water Board looks on.

ironmental planning, reporting and enforcement. Whether it is documenting air quality complaints or taking their own air samples, with community information and involvement with government agencies, communities can better understand how government works and improve their community at the same time.

GCM is hoping the task force and “problem solver” for Kern County will have the energy, good will and the follow through that it takes to address the many issues in the Central Valley. The KEEN project is just getting started, so stay tuned! We plan to be posting environmental complaints from Arvin, CA…….

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…..

Ever heard of Arvin, California?  Maybe you’ve seen the exit off Highway 99 near LA or maybe you’ve read something about it having some of the worst air quality in the United States.

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.

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