By Vic Bedoian
Environmental activists from throughout the state got together Nov. 8 in the Central Valley to form a new coalition they hope will enhance their campaigns for healthy communities. Their goal is to boost the efforts of individual groups while creating an alliance that will strengthen California’s environmental justice movement as a whole. The California Environmental Justice Coalition plans to use its collective power to more effectively fight polluters and reform the state’s regulatory agencies.
In an attempt to increase their collective political clout, the nearly 200 people representing some 50 advocacy groups joined together to form the California Environmental Justice Coalition. The event took place in Kettleman City, a place that has become iconic in the annals of the environmental justice movement.
Activists from the Bay Area to Southern California, from the Pacific Coast to the Mojave Desert, and from farmlands to industrial zones came to join forces in the ongoing struggle on behalf of impacted communities throughout the state. Central Valley activist John Mataka kicked off the proceedings reading from the coalition’s mission statement.
“The California Environmental Justice Coalition is a broad and inclusive grassroots coalition uniting urban, rural and indigenous communities suffering from pollution and environmental racism and injustice. CEJC brings together community and environmental justice groups, large and small, in order to unify our movement and support our common struggle for healthy communities and environmental justice.”
Air quality is one of the most common problems of concern. Taylor Thomas works with the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. They’re based in the city of Commerce, one of the most heavily industrialized cities in California. East Yard runs several projects aimed at working for a healthier environment using the energy of young people like Thomas.
Thomas shared her all-too-typical story, “Where I grew up there was a freeway, a rail yard and we’re very close to the port. And I suffered from asthma from a young age and I had to wonder why me. When I got older and found out about East Yard I realized that it wasn’t my fault that I got sick.”
Growing up in a corridor of toxic pollutants made Taylor realize that she had to fight for her physical survival, “I live in an area called the diesel death zone and we have high asthma and cancer rates. So I joined East Yard because I realized that it was important and impactful that we have communities and communities of color and low-income folks who are fighting against these monolithic institutions who put profit over our health.”
It is a little more than a hundred miles over the mountains from the diesel death zone of Los Angeles to the oil fields and farmlands of the Central Valley. But air pollution still looms large.
Tom Frantz grows almonds for a living near the farm town of Shafter and moonlights as an environmental watchdog. His skills are badly needed in a region where fracking activity is ramping up.
Frantz says regulatory oversight is complaint-driven rather than proactive, “Our lungs are irritated and our minds—at what goes on. I’ve been working on air quality issues for 13 years and water issues. We’re currently suing big oil companies in Kern County, we’re suing crude by rail projects and we’re fighting supposedly greenhouse gas reduction projects that will make our air pollution far worse that it is now.”
Even renewable energy doesn’t get off the hook. In the Mojave Desert near Blythe, a large-scale solar power facility destroys habitat for wildlife and Native American heritage sites. Dave Harper is with the Colorado River Indian Tribes. He fears for the fate of the unique and amazing cultural geoglyphs, works of art and spirit created on the desert floor estimated to be 9,000 years old, “We have this megawatt solar coming out into the desert where the people removed 3,000 of our artifacts, removed our footprint from the desert and we’re fighting that in California’s desert.”
Some groups focus on empowering people in industrial neighborhoods to become environmental watchdogs by providing the training and tools to do the job themselves. Jessica Hendrix helps communities become their effective whistleblowers, “I work with Global Community Monitor and we work with communities internationally to launch bucket brigades and I’ve worked with quite a few people here. Bucket brigades is community-based monitoring so community members that live near heavy industry can take their own air samples and we use that as an organizing tool.”
Margaret Gordon is a 50-year veteran of civil rights and social justice movements. She works with people who live in the urban core, teaching specific skills that help them navigate through the bureaucratic jungle of private and government agencies, “My organization is called the West Oakland Indicators Project. We use research and data as our campaign logic. And then we also teach the residents about data, the use of data, so they don’t go into a room with regulatory people, the city, whatever it is, not able to speak the language. They don’t like to deal with people of color and poor people, all right, because you don’t speak the language.”
The impetus for the California Environmental Justice Coalition came mainly from San Francisco‒based Greenaction. Director Bradley Angel reflected on the importance and challenges of bringing together so many groups from such a wide geography and such varied concerns, “There’s a multiplicity of issues; [a] giant toxic waste dump here in Kettleman City to fracking to coal projects to contaminated water to refinery expansion to sacred site protection for indigenous people.
“And this coalition was formed by so many grassroots groups for a few reasons. One is to build a really strong environmental justice movement that doesn’t sell out, doesn’t compromise [and] that unites people, both to support each other’s individual struggles but also to find the common ground.”
One area of common ground, Angel says, is the State Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). Its regulatory jurisdiction and decision making intersect with many of the issues that coalition partners work on. The group decided to launch a campaign to reform the department that they see as soft on polluters. The coalition sent a comprehensive set of recommendations outlining how to improve the DTSC to Governor Jerry Brown. They plan to meet with state officials to demand those reforms be adopted.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at email@example.com.