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In California’s Imperial Valley, Residents Aren’t Waiting for Government to Track Pollution

February 16, 2017 | Paulina Phelps | BillMoyers.com

For marginalized communities along the California-Mexico border, projects to gather and share scientific reports are crucial to holding agencies accountable.

This post originally appeared at YES! magazine.

Each day, the drying Salton Sea and an increasingly busy border take their toll on the air quality of Southern California’s parched Imperial Valley. Despite averaging only 3 inches of rain a year, this swath of desert spanning the Mexican border from the Colorado River to San Diego County is heavily dependent on agriculture, and for decades farmers have relied on the Salton Sea to drain their fields. Today, the valley air hangs with toxic dust and pollution, and the residents face the highest rate of hospitalization for asthma of any area in the state.

“I wish I lived in an area where my kids could play outside any time of day,” said Esther Bejarano, a mother whose two children suffer from asthma. She is an educator for Comite Civico del Valle (CCV), a local organization that supports the health of the area’s disadvantaged residents. She knows the risks, regulates how much time her own children spend outside depending on the levels of pollution, and makes sure they have their medication and inhalers with them at all times. Despite taking these steps, she still lives in a state of fear. “I expect the worst and pray for their health.”

Even before Trump took office, government response to air pollution in the region has been lackluster. Luis Olmedo, executive director of CCV, said that especially as the recession came to a head in 2008, environmental health concerns took a back seat to economics, and it is now clear that environmental protection will not be a government priority. “With this administration we are back to the [George W.] Bush era, but we are ready and we are prepared, because we have been there before,” he said.

In 2013, the CCV began an effort to put the power of scientific data into the hands of community members. Through a partnership with the California Environmental Health Tracking Program and the University of Washington, and with funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Imperial Valley Air Quality Control project installed 40 air quality monitors throughout the valley and set up a website to gather pollution information and community-generated reports. The project’s goal is to track particulate matter — the hazardous sum of pollution that includes pollen, dust, smoke and soot — and inform residents of the presence and distribution of possible health risks.

“It gives the community a record on what the government is doing and not doing,” Olmedo said. That information can be used to hold agencies accountable and to inform local, state and national efforts. Olmedo is confident in the Imperial Valley community’s continued support. “We are not dependent on the federal government, and we never have been,” he said.

Residents of Imperial County are predominantly Hispanic and average about half the California per capita income, according to US census data. Due to the placement of highways and fossil fuel refineries, low-income communities of color throughout the nation are exposed to toxic pollutants at significantly higher levels than upper-income whites, and the CCV air quality control project sought to involve the most affected people from the outset to address this disparity. Imperial Valley residents worked with researchers to select locations to set up the air monitors. The online tool, called Identifying Violations Affecting Neighborhoods (IVAN), was launched in September and allows residents to access air quality information from each monitor, which update every 5 minutes, easily report an environmental issue and see others’ reports.

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