Sunday, 3 March 2013

Environmental Justice and Coachella Valley

23rd February 2013, Thermal. Desert Mirage High School

February 23rd, 2013 saw the inaugural Environmental Leadership Health Summit, as part of an environmental justice movement in the Eastern Coachella Valley. This part of the desert struggles with poverty, bad air and water quality, high unemployment, high levels of asthma, a receding Salton Sea, high levels of Arsenic in well water, pesticide spraying, and the list goes on and on. A far cry from the glitzy, ritzy bright lights that are shining over the golf courses just due West in the other half of the Valley.   

Danzantes del Sol - amazing performance

This summit was organized by the Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto and the Comite Civico del Valle, and had over thirty sponsors. This includes IQAir, Air Quality Management District (AQMD), Imperial Valley Action Network (IVAN) Online, Loma Linda University, and Calexico New River Committee. It aims to bring leaders from the field of education, policy making, and the governmental, private and non-profit agencies and members of the communities together. The focus of the summit is to promote health and environmental awareness, leadership, systems change, and cultural and linguistic competency.

Environmental Health was the main topic and this was broken down into air and water quality, public health and the Salton Sea Restoration. 

Members of different community organizations
This summit had leaders engage with the public - raising awareness on environmental issues, not only explaining what can be done, what is being done, but more importantly, what each individual can do. Knowledge is power and the aim of the summit was to empower residents.

Information was distributed about ways people could for example help clean the air, Asthma management in children, and cleaning products that are safe to use in the home. There were also keynotes, speeches and workshops that visitors could attend.

I was invited to participate in the summit as a vendor, where I could display my photographs and my book on the Salton Sea. Other vendors and info stalls included, Occupy Coachella, Economic
Legacy of Clean cleaning products
Development Agency, Legacy of Clean cleaning products, California Rural Legal Assistance and Planned Parenthood. The high school had its own booth selling drinks and food to raise money for their class. It was great to see the different stallholders share the same vision of environmental health, equality and help where it is needed most.

Further to being a vendor, I was asked to be a panelist on the Salton Sea Restoration Panel as a photographer, author and Salton Sea resident.

Bea Gonzalez  - Mistress of Ceremonies
Dr Raul Ruiz was there to present the panelists and provoke thought into the current situation. It was my first time as a panelist. Normally I am in the crowd, listening and trying to understand what is happening with the restoration project of the Salton Sea.

We were up on the stage hidden behind the curtain as Ruiz was announcing us. Nervousness aside, it was an honor to be there and voice my opinion and to pass on what other members of the community had been passing on to me over the years. 

Along with me were Doug Barnum, US Geological Survey (USGS); Bruce Wilcox, Imperial Irrigation District (IID); Paul Reisman Acting Superintendent, Salton Sea State Recreational Area; Jason Low, SoCal AQMD and Phil Rosentrater, Economic Development Agency (EDA). Jose Angel was the moderator, from the Regional Water Board.

Fossil Fuel Not Cool
We each presented our keynotes and then it was time for the questions from the moderator and then the audience. 

The questions were formed around the needs of the local residents and the needs of the Salton Sea. What do we each think are the most pressing issues? What is the highest priority? If nothing is done, what is your biggest fear? And what about the efforts at making a viable plan to restore the Sea.  

We spoke about how we need to prevent the toxic dust storm from becoming a reality; how we need to prevent another Hydrogen Sulfide event, aka the Big Stink; how we need to focus on health issues; how it would be nice to have a thriving recreational area again, or at least a sea that will not turn into a toxic semi-dust bowl while emitting hydrogen sulfide burps that stink all the way to Los Angeles.

 Dr Barnum spoke about how one of the major issues the restoration of the Salton Sea faces is that there are many, different, not necessarily mutually inclusive problems. One solution for one problem might be to the detriment of another. In no particular order, here are some of the problems we face:

Rising Salinity
H2S - Hydrogen Sulfide, aka Big Stink
Fugitive dust
Nutrients from the agricultural run-offs, i.e. pesticides

The focus has to be on 'keeping the Salton Sea wet" - a quote I used, taken from my favorite Salton Sea activist, Norm Niver (an activist since 1974). There was mention of how the geothermal, algae, solar, wind and other renewable energy industries might be the key to finding the funding so essential to saving the sea. The Salton Sea area is second to none in the US for potential renewable energy. 

I spoke about the disconnect between the community and the agencies, and how there needs to be more opportunities to work together. This summit is a great start. Often, the residents do not feel as though they have a voice. They are not listened to. Residents have been complaining about health issues and high asthma rates for years and have been fearing the demise of the Salton Sea for decades. There have been various plans to save the Salton Sea since ca 1974!

So, to say that the residents are having a hard time trusting the local agencies on doing something about this is an understatement. The current representatives of the government agencies have to work really hard at earning back this trust.

Two members of the audience during the question time stated this feeling of utmost frustration and once again questioned the restoration project. The project as it stands is to start of small by building a few shallow water ponds down at the Southern end of the Sea. This keeps those areas, which are already exposed playa, wet and also serves as habitat for wildlife. As time goes on, and more funding comes in, further small-scale projects will be implemented. In the meantime, the question remains where the money will come from for a large-scale restoration project. 

Not good enough, says one member of the audience. What about a sea-to-sea plan? And how is it that after so many years, only a couple of small shallow water ponds are being built? How can we trust these agencies? Why is the community not being listened to?  And why are there no answers. He spoke about the meeting the day before, the State Oversight Meeting conducted by Manuel Perez, and how indeed, members of the public could come forward and voice their opinion, but they had a single minute to do so.

A single minute. 

Not good enough. 

A young woman stood up and spoke out saying that she felt that as a local resident, she had no voice. She had also attended the meeting the day before, and prior to that, was excited, that finally, finally they have a say in what they have been going through. She felt let down.

Not good enough. 

The panel did not really have the time to answer. Or have the time to even begin to give hope. As it was the summit was overrunning by quite a bit at this time and we had to conclude the plenary session.

My hope? That we all work together. That the man in the audience gets the information as to why the Sea-to-Sea plan will not be implemented. That there will be future summits like this one where all who enter, enter equally and all leave as leaders.

The overriding reason for why this summit must take place and continue to do so is environmental justice. What is environmental justice? I go straight to the source and am copying just a few of their principles.

Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.

Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production. 

Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.

 For more information on the summit please visit

They will be adding the videos from the workshops, keynotes and presentations to their website in the upcoming weeks - once it all has been edited.

 There will also be updates on another summit that will be held in Imperial County, currently scheduled for the end of April, 2013. The summits are free to attend, but you need to register prior to the event.

Simon Silva

On a different note, I highly recommend having a look at Simon Silva’s art work:
Simon Silva gave a presentation on his work. And he is an amazing speaker.

Roy Dorantes - "Proof of Intelligence"
And if you see that Roy Dorantes is performing near you, I highly recommend you attend. His
one-man-show is brilliant and never heavy-hearted though dramatic. He focuses on very serious subject matters, such as immigration, substance abuse, relationships and teen problems.

Other Photos from the Event

Arturo with the Danzantes

Simon Silva and a lady from the CA Rural Legal Assistance

Using the sun to harness heat to cook hotdogs

Arcela Nunez-Alvarez: What Next?

Raffle and End of Summit

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