Risk, hazards, exploitation: Welcome to the Central Valley

Which came first – the environmental hazard or the socially vulnerable community?

According to UC Davis’ new report on the inequities of the San Joaquin Valley, the two are closely related and the key to addressing the region’s history of exploitation and neglect.

“Land of Risk, Land of Opportunity” is one of the first efforts to include communities on the frontlines of environmental justice issues facing the valley. The UC Davis Center for Regional Change worked in close collaboration with grassroots organizations, mapping California’s heartland according to environmental, social, and health indicators like the presence of toxins, refineries, waste treatment facilities, poverty and education levels, and life expectancy.

What they found was that a third of the population faces high levels of both environmental and social risk, and that the higher an area’s social vulnerability the more susceptible to environmental hazards.  

 “These hazards are not spread out, they are concentrated in particular places and those places need to be the focus of extra attention, care, protection, and investment. So the message to policy makers is: focus,” said Dr. Jonathan London, the study’s primary author.

These high-risk areas, or Cumulative Environmental Vulnerability Actions Zones (CEVAZ), tend to be communities of color living below the poverty line. Limited access to resources like health care and good food make them more vulnerable to pollutants, while language, economic, and racial barriers prevent their access to the political process.

One of these communities is Grayson, California, an incorporated area outside Modesto with a population of about 1000 people, 60 percent Spanish speaking. Along the San Joaquin River, it’s surrounded on three sides by agri-business. According to resident and veteran advocate of environmental justice Rosenda Mataka, her community faces the constant spraying of pesticides, asthma from poor air quality, nitrated water, and they are currently looking into birth defects in neighboring Westley (which is also the location of the nearest clinic).

She recently attended a meeting on the re-permitting of an incinerator in Patterson, one of only three in the state and a major emitter of dioxin, a chemical linked to cancer and birth defects.

But she found the hearing on this major hazard to her community unsurprisingly empty.

“Their legal definition of ‘informing’ people isn’t effective,” said Mataka, who struggled to find the public notice provided by the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District nestled in the business section of the Modesto Bee a month before the actual hearing. “I knew about it, and was actually looking for it, and I couldn’t find it. They didn’t even post it in the Patterson Irrigator, and that’s where the meeting is.”

And while a Spanish translator and documents were available at the hearing, Mataka notes that no overt effort was made to reach the Spanish-speaking community.

“There’s a real question of access to the political process,” says London. “A lot of planning documents are in English only, meetings are held in English-only contexts in the middle of the day in the county courthouse far away from the rural community where the issue is playing out. You have a lot of people who are undocumented immigrants, so they have concerns about being part of a public process. And you also have, unfortunately, many examples of ways that diverse communities are made not to feel included and respected in public agency processes.”

And it’s just this lack of political presence that makes these vulnerable communities easy targets for undesirable facilities.  The Central Valley is home to two thirds of California’s prison population, and is the receiving end of such niceties as the Los Angeles County’s sewage sludge.

“Talking with community groups that we’ve worked with over these few years, they really feel dumped on, literally,” said London.

But, along with a scientifically documented and community-proofed assessment of the Valley’s many burdens, the report also suggests solutions, a new framework for dealing with the multifaceted and interrelated challenges of the region.

“Citizens expect that they are being protected from pollution by decisions that are made,” said Sarah Sharpe, executive director of Fresno Metro Ministry, a member of the steering committee that originally contacted UC Davis about collaborating on the project. “We need to have the right framework in place to make sure we’re looking at everything when we’re deciding where to put a new prison or a new toxic waste facility, there’s a lot more things you have to take into account than just jobs.”

According to the report, inter-agency cooperation must be part of any policy framework moving forward. Too often state and federal agencies are “siloed, ”focusing exclusively on a particular hazard without considering its relationship to other problems in the community.

“We would suggest the Office of Planning and Research and the governor’s office or maybe at the Strategic Growth Council level across agencies, that there be some coordinating body that can help link regulation across air, land, water, occupational, domestic, and school environments across all these different jurisdictions,” said London.

In January, the report will be presented at the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District Board meeting, to recommend that they consider using this kind of cumulative analysis as part of their strategy and prioritize how to allocate air quality incentive funds, enforcement, and factors they consider in permitting additional air pollution-producing facilities.

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