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.

So I started to research the regulatory agencies in the area: someone has got to be doing air monitoring around here.  Arvin is in EPA Region 9, but there’s very little info, regarding Arvin, on their website and it’s only on one of the sites I’m looking into: the Brown & Bryant Superfund Site.

Next, there’s the California Air Resources Board, but all I can find is information on ozone and Spare the Air Days.  Yet when I drive by these industrial facilities I can’t even talk over the pungent rotten egg odor.  I know there’s something in the air and there’s got to be someone monitoring this.

Next, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD), bingo!  This is the agency I’ve been looking for and they even have a handy online form to fill out for public info requests.  Great, right?  Nope.  This is actually where the headache began.

I filled out all the forms and submitted them online, got a call the very next day from Vicki, the woman at the SJVAPCD who handles the requests, with some questions and she said she’d send over the info later that day.  When I got her e-mail back, it was an auto-reply message saying no record were found.  Huh?  She just told me there were multiple documents on all of these facilities and now there’s nothing?!  I called her back to ask what happened. Apparently the files that we had discussed over the phone were from three years ago, and my public record request only included the last two.  So, no records were found and if I wanted to see the files from three years ago that we discussed over the phone, I would need to re-submit a Public Records Request.

Fine, so I resubmit my request and wait for about ten days, until I hear back from Vicki, she was on vacation.  The SJCAPCD doesn’t have anyone else to handle Public Records Requests?! No automated responses, no offline message, no postcard or vacation pictures, nothing!

But, Vicki does send over eleven attachments in her post-vacation e-mail.  However it’s just the same 2 pages, attached eleven times and none of it has any of the info I requested.

Now, I’m referred to Leland.  Leland does not answer e-mails or take my calls, but eventually passes the emissions inventory, what I was looking for in the first place, along to Vicki who forwards it to me, five days later.

Great, one facility down, six more to go.

Since Dec. 1, 2011, I made six requests for public records on the emissions inventory and air monitoring data for one facility, Community Recycling and Resource Recovery.  Although, I did finally receive the Emissions Inventory, as of March 6, 2012, I was still going back and forth with SJVAPCD on the air monitoring data.  I was referred to six different staff members and many times needed to followed up with multiple phone calls and e-mails.

Additionally, three public record requests were made for seven other facilities in which the residents have identified as a concern.  As of March 6, 2012, no information on those facilities has been provided.

The problem here is that the system put in place to request public records is dysfunctional, which actually works in favor of industry.   Many community residents get lost in the bureaucracy and eventually give up searching, which allows the industry to go un-checked.  The majority of this info is self reported by the facility in the first place.  We’ve left the fox to watch the hen house again.

And this brings us to the value of the Bucket Brigade.  Citizen air monitoring is so valuable to fenceline communities because valid information can be so hard to find, considering if it even exists.  Many community residents cannot get the information they need from regulatory agencies in regards to what they are breathing and they’re ready to do their own air monitoring.