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PHI in the News

Pollution Makes the Personal Political

August 08, 2018 | Ada Statler | Sierra Magazine

Jose Gurrola at the 2014 Democratic Party State Convention

Photo courtesy: Jose Gurrola/Sierra 

Jose Gurrola always keeps an inhaler nearby—tucked into his gym bag, in his car, in his office. He’s had asthma for as long as he can remember. He considers himself lucky because he was diagnosed early—his mother is a nurse.

After his diagnosis, his parents pulled up all the carpet in their house, since carpet fibers can harbor the  pollutants and allergens that trigger asthma attacks. But it was clear that the problem was larger than the Gurrola household. “In this city,” Gurrola explains, “if you ask people to raise their hand if they have struggled with asthma, almost every hand goes up.” 

The first text after the webpage banner on the Arvin Union School District website is not about recent events or student accomplishments or policy changes, but rather reads “Arvin Air Quality Data.” “We experience more leaks and more fumes and more headaches than the rest of the county, but we don’t get the money or the engineering jobs,” says Salvador Partida of Committee for a Better Arvin. “Why should our kids be put at risk and need inhalers every day?”

Asthma is an inflammatory disease. Think of something like an acid burn, says pulmonologist and asthma expert, Charlie McDonald, but on the soft tissues of the airway. Slowly, this inflammation inflicts cumulative damage, eventually developing into a permanent condition. 

One of the biggest problems experienced by asthmatics, says McDonald, is the routine underestimation of their struggle. “It takes energy not being able to breathe.” 

For a child without asthma, about three percent of the body’s energy is devoted to the simple act of breathing. For a child with asthma and experiencing symptoms, that number climbs up to 10 -15 percent. If the asthma is not regularly managed, teachers may begin to understand that the child’s shortened attention span and sluggishness are just normal ways for the kid to be. Diagnosing children can be difficult—they simply see themselves as regular kids and don’t want to complain.

Asthma is just one of the most visible signs of bad air. Exposure to air pollution—and particularly particulate matter pollution—can interfere with placental development. This hinders the delivery of nutrients and oxygen, slowing the baby’s development. It can also cause inflammation in the womb, causing early contractions and birth. According to the California Environmental Health Tracking Program, preterm births attributable just to particulate matter pollution cost Kern County over $45 million annually. These costs are borne by families in an area where 45 percent of residents are on Medi-Cal and 9 percent (conservatively estimated) are uninsured altogether.

The more he learned, the more Gurrola realized that the air quality in his hometown of Arvin, California, was not what it should be. At the age of 19, he ran for city council, and won. He wanted a lot of things for Arvin, but more than anything, he wanted to clean up the air.

He soon learned just how difficult this could be.

Complex local context

The first day I met with Gurrola it was 104 °F, the type of heat that coats you in a fine layer of sweat in the time it takes to walk from your car to the edge of the parking lot. It was hard to see the mountain skyline through the smog in the air, but the city hall’s lawn was well-manicured, a splash of bright flowers fighting against the drab, 60’s-era tan tiling of the building. Inside, the air-conditioner blasted a small waiting room, and the tables were stacked with voter registration information and informational pamphlets on topics like immigration services and taxes in English and Spanish. 

Elsewhere in Kern County there’s a tendency to blame the polluted skies on the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or even China—as the story goes, the wind carries pollution from these cities to Arvin, where it gets trapped over the city by the mountains. Arvin's former mayor, Jose Flores, told Valley Public Radio that Arvin’s pollution is “inherited.”

There’s some truth to this.  Even in the Central Valley, which  already contains five of the EPA’s 10 worst cities for air quality, the 19,000 residents of Arvin are situated in one of the most geographically unfavorable locations. The city is squeezed between large dairy farms and nut orchards, oil fields, and major highways, and  backed up against the mountains of the Tehachapi Pass.

But according to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, only seven percent of pollution in Arvin is “transported” from outside of the southern region of the Valley. The rest is home-grown. Seven of the top 10 taxpayers in Kern County are oil and gas companies. The industry supports thousands of jobs—the majority of them concentrated in the larger, wealthier, and more conservative Bakersfield.

Smog is primarily created by two components: volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrous oxides (NOx). Among VOCs in the greater San Joaquin Valley—an area including Kern and several other counties—the air pollution district reports that the largest stationary sources are agriculture (31 percent of emissions) and oil production (7 percent) with mobile sources (cars, trucks, and other vehicles) contributing another 21 percent. Of the nitrous oxides, over 60 percent comes from mobile sources like cars and trucks, with farm equipment making up the next largest blocks at 17 percent and 10 percent.

The oil industry also contributes pollutants. Stanford energy resources engineering professor Adam Brandt, who has studied oil production in the Central Valley, found that oil and gas operations in the San Joaquin Valley are responsible for 31 percent of sulfur oxides and 70 percent of hydrogen sulfide in the area. Sulfur oxides can contribute to smog, and directly harm the respiratory system and trigger asthma attacks. Hydrogen sulfide can also trigger asthmatic symptoms, as well as  nausea and vomiting.

“The rest of the county likes to blame San Francisco or China or whoever they can,” says Gurrola, “but in Arvin we see oil operations and we see the agriculture and we experience the impacts of these industries. So no, we can’t blame other places.” 

The teenage councilman

A few months after Gurrola was sworn in to the city council, Southern California Gas detected signs of a leak near Arvin High School, in Gurrola's neighborhood. As it turned out, the leak was from a line owned by Petro Capital Resources, used not to deliver gas to homes, but instead to flare off excess gas in oil field operations.

For two years before the leak was discovered, some families living near the pipeline had complained about smelling gas, as well as headaches, nausea, random and persistent nose bleeds.When the leak was officially detected the levels of gas measured were high enough to pose a substantial risk of explosion.

After the leak was detected, the pipeline operator spent four days to even locate the leak. The three-inch pipe was too small to require regular safety inspections  under California regulations, but was nevertheless capable of leaking enough crude, unrefined gas – completely invisible to the human eye – to force the evacuation of dozens of families for eight months. 

In the wake of the Petro Capitol leak Gurrola proposed a complete moratorium on oil and gas operations in Arvin. He thought that with the leak, the rest of the city council might be willing to put the brakes on development. But then the Kern County Board of Supervisors sent in representatives to lobby the Arvin City Council.

The supervisors told Gurrola and the rest of the city council to hold off on taking action. The county was creating an ordinance that would complete an environmental impact report for all future oil and gas development, they said, one that would provide protection from future leaks.  Instead, says Gurrola, the completed county ordinance (itself still being challenged in the courts) allows the drilling of up to 70,000 new oil wells in the county over the next two decades. The city council’s vote on the oil and gas moratorium failed to pass.

“Bakersfield and the county government get a lot of money from the oil industry,” says Gurrola “So they sent people in and made sure there was no moratorium.”

In the months after the leak, Arvin residents filed 416 legal complaints against the county and the city, seeking a total of over $10 million in damages. At the conclusion of these arguments in 2016, two years later, Petro Capital Resources would only be fined $75,000.

Continue reading the full article in Sierra Magazine.