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“Civic Engagement and Social Justice in the Central Valley: Environmental Justice, Legal Advocacy, and Academic Research Perspectives”

‘Thorn in oil’s side’ speaks at Delano

Morgan Park, Reporter

Two experts in their fields of social and environmental justice spoke on the poor health conditions in the rural areas of the Central Valley on Nov. 21 as part of Bakersfield College Delano Campus’ C.H.A.P. (Cultural and Historical Awareness Program) fall series.

The talk, “Civic Engagement and Social Justice in the Central Valley: Environmental Justice, Legal Advocacy, and Academic Research Perspectives,” filled the classroom to well-over capacity.

“Both of my parents were migrant farm workers who would pick strawberries in Oxnard in the winter and in the summer go to Blythe, California near the Arizona border to pick lemons,” said Gustavo Aguirre Jr., project coordinator at Central California Environmental Justice Network.

Both of Aguirre’s parents illegally migrated to the U.S. when they were young, but soon after became registered, and eventually, citizens. His father soon came to work with the United Farm Workers of America working to improve working conditions, climbing to national vice president before his retirement.

Aguirre’s organization works in Kern County and Northern California to urge the agricultural industry to safer practices and report violations that would otherwise go unchecked.

“We receive a wide spectrum of reports in communities that deal from graffiti, illegal dumping, to big industry violations,” he said. “We deal with hydraulic fracking, we deal with pesticide issues: we deal with so much.”

Aguirre’s team will also sit down with the EPA to discuss Central Valley conditions.

“We have a one-on-one conversation of issues that are affecting rural communities and then they address them, either fixing them or recommending sources that have those capabilities,” he said.

When asked what it’s like to be the thorn in the side of the big industries of oil and agriculture, Aguirre reacted with excitement. “It’s a tough job, but it’s hella fun. I would say five or 10 of my good personal friends work for the oil industry as engineers, in the rigs, and welders.”

Demonstrating one of his organization’s air sampling buckets (part of their “Bucket Brigade” program) for the audience, Aguirre recounted a victory of environmental justice.

“They were bringing about 18 to 30 trucks of biomass and green waste every day from Los Angeles to Arvin, and the emissions they were producing were very significant, a lot of H2S (hydrogen sulfide).”

The company was later shut down and replaced by a more environmentally conscious provider. Aguirre also recounted a story of pushback from a company they were investigating.

“We were filming these tanks and two pickup trucks drive up to us on either side,” he said. The two men began insisting that Aguirre and his team not film there, suggesting it’d be dangerous for them.

“’People die here,’ and we’re like, ‘what do you mean people die here? Are you insinuating we’re going to die today?’”

The men eventually gave up trying to send away Aguirre’s team, and soon after Aguirre filed a report that found them in violation of several air emission codes.

Standing beside Aguirre was Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz, a doctoral student in developmental sociology at Cornell University.

Alatriste-Diaz’s research focuses on the social and ecological determinants of health in the Central Valley, which includes education, race, income, whether or not someone votes, as well as ecological factors like neighborhood, infrastructure and housing condition.

“What’s interesting about this study is that most people say ‘such and such never goes to the doctor and that’s why he’s really unhealthy.’ Well it turns out medical care, access to it, and whether it’s used makes up only 30 to 38 percent of what makes a person healthy,” he said.

Alatriste-Diaz pointed to data showing Kern County’s 38 percent obesity rate versus only 24 percent statewide, and posed the question to the audience of why that might be.

“Where you live has a bigger effect than some of the other stuff we normally think about with health.”

His research suggests that environmental factors contribute to overall health much more than access to hospitals, and that a disparity in those conditions in rural communities in the Central Valley is the biggest contributor to the area’s statistics.

The panel was then opened up to the audience for questions, of which the first was one of advice for those wanting to organize events and raise awareness of issues locally.

“I’ve only been doing this work for two years, and it’s a tough job to get people engaged. It’s a process, you have to educate, empower and really encourage folks to go out there and make a difference,” Aguirre said.

“A predecessor of mine used to preach about changing the narrative. It’s telling people the truth. Sometimes the truth is nasty and not what people want to hear. It’s very hard to listen to the truth, but when you empower people and you encourage them to do something for the better, it takes time and it’s a slow process, but once you get one or two folks in, they get one or two folks in,” he said.


What is new at CCEJN?

In this second half of 2016, we are excited to share what is new at Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN). First, we have a new coordinator! Nayamin Martinez joined our team on May 2nd. Born and raised in Mexico, Nayamin moved to California in 2000 and since then she has worked with various nonprofit organizations (i.e. Binational Center for the Development of the Oaxacan Indigenous Communities; Alliance for California Traditional Arts) organizing immigrant communities and advocating for their wellbeing. Nayamin has coordinated projects in Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties that provided health education, access to health and social services, and opportunities for civic engagement and leadership development. Let’s learn what motivated Nayamin to join CCEJN and what has been her experience in these first two months.

Nayamin in YosemiteWhile I was born in Mexico City, I spent most of my life in the State of Mexico, in a small town two hours from Mexico City. Pollution wasn’t a concern for me until I lived in Mexico City when I was going to college. I thought I had overcome this problem when I married and moved to Fresno, California. After all, Fresno is a small city, right? I would never imagine that air pollution was as bad as it is! Having lived here for 16 years, having a son with asthma and a family that suffers from bad allergies, I have learned the hard way that air pollution is something that affect us all in the San Joaquin Valley. For over a decade, I have worked closely with farm workers who are constantly exposed to pesticides and I have witnessed firsthand the living and working conditions of low income communities of color and the environmental hazards that surround them (i.e. substandard housing; lack of clean drinking water; proximity of pollution sources such as waste management facilities and freeways, to mention just a few).

In my previous jobs, I had the opportunity to educate community members on ways to improve their health by increasing their knowledge on prevention measures, but most importantly I helped them develop the skills to become advocates for healthier communities. I joined CCEJN because I am convinced that I could continue this journey of educating, empowering and organizing community members to fight for environmental justice.

In these two months at CCEJN I had the opportunity to meet and work with a variety of stakeholders. From the government representatives who participate in our monthly meetings and help us address the reports that come in through our environmental reporting networks (FERN and KEEN), to community residents of Fresno and Lanare who are dealing with illegal dumping issues and lack of clean water. In July 9-10, I participated in a Barnraising training organized by PublicLab, where activists from all over the country met for a weekend to discuss environmental problems and best practices to address them. I had my first experience with balloon mapping; participated in a power analysis of the different entities that are involved in regulating landfills and other waste management sites; and joined a discussion of best ways to engage youth and children in environmental discussions.

I have learned a lot and I know there is still much more to learn. I am excited with this opportunity and I look forward to working with all our EJ partners!

In solidarity, Nayamin

Last but not least, we have a new home in Fresno! Since May CCEJN is sharing offices with the Central California Asthma Collaborative (CCAC). We are located near the Fresno airport, come and visit us at: 4991 E. McKinley Ave. Ste. 109.

Oil Wastewater Ponds — Story on Eyewitness News

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) – After going largely unnoticed for decades, state water quality regulators are setting their focus on a common practice in oil production – wastewater ponds.

In an inventory completed this November, staff at the Central Valley Regional Water Control Board found 1,074 wastewater ponds. Of those, 716 are still active, though 182 were designated as “unregulated.”

The board has been issuing enforcement actions since April to operators that are out of compliance…


Residents Mobilize to Fight Illegal Dumping in Fresno

Fresno, CA

Residents of district 5 and district 7 are mobilizing to protect their communities from illegal dumping. This chronic problem plagues neighborhoods that are already overburdened by other pollution sources. In this video, we talk to a group of community leaders that have come together to clean-up their neighborhoods and demand action from city officials. This group is working to draft and propose a city ordinance that will directly work to prevent this illegal dumping problem.

CCEJN chairs the Fresno Environmental Reporting Network (FERN) project that has invested a lot of time and resources in dealing with the illegal dumping program.  We have worked with government agencies to draft illegal dumping source documents, language for an ordinance, among other things to get resources for the affected communities.  We will update on this issue as we move forward.  Stay tuned.

CCEJN Founding Member Fasting in Solidarity with Kern Residents

November 19, 2015

Grayson, CA — “Today I am fasting in solidarity with all my Environmental Justice Comrades to say No to Fracking and in particular in Kern County where the political and state and county agencies have lost their minds!!! Join me at least 1 day with in the next week to show your solidarity. Your brother in the struggle.”

John X Mataka -Grayson Neighborhood Council


Kick-off: Community Cohort to Promote Compliance with Environmental Regulations.


November 13, 2015

Tulare, CA — Central California Environmental Justice Network is excited to kick off a project to improve the participation of community members in compliance and enforcement processes throughout the San Joaquin Valley.  This project includes  putting a cohort (pictured here) of residents and advocates through inspector level courses at the Cal-EPA.  Through the next 8 months this group will be learning alongside government regulators about various topics including pesticide use & drift, oil & gas exploration, evidence and report writing, and visible emissions evaluations.  The cohort will also be participating in a series of community data-gathering events that will seek to understand and collect data about some of the most poignant sources of pollution in the valley, and some of the most affected communities in the state.

This project is supported by the US EPA through an EJ Small Grant and has the potential to serve as a model as we discuss Next Generation enforcement and compliance in the future.  Through this project, residents will combine newly gained technical knowledge along with on-the-ground community experience to promote compliance with environmental regulations.

Please stay tuned for future posts about this project.


Community Fast in Support of Kern County Residents

November 12, 2015

Today, Cesar Campos, Director of CCEJN is fasting in solidarity with Kern County residents. This community fast was started by residents and organizers in Kern County to protest the county’s adoption of an ordinance that serves to fast track and undermine environmental review of oil exploration projects–including fracking and other extreme well stimulation techniques. The style of this fast is one that allows people from all over the state to participate. Participants fast for 24 hours and then pass the charge to others in their community or other areas of the state who agree to fast for another 24 hours. With this fast, we hope to create a chain of support that extends across the whole state. Fresno is the first place outside of Kern County to participate, where Campos and Janaki Jagannath of California Rural Legal Assistance are undertaking the charge today. You can participate in this fast, by organizing a group of people in your community to fast for 24hrs and blog, post, or tweet about your efforts.

Kern County is the top oil producing county in the state, and the first place to have active fracking permits. Residents of Kern County have to disproportionately bear the effects of contamination associated with oil operations including poor air quality, contamination of groundwater, loss of agricultural land, etc. The ordinance adopted fast tracks permits for the next 25 years by allowing companies to propose and receive permits for projects without doing a full environmental impact report on those projects. Although the ordinance was adopted on Monday, there is still a lot that we can do to reverse that decision. Consider joining Kern County residents, Kern advocacy groups and CCEJN in this statement of solidarity. For more information contact Gustavo Aguirre Jr at