Environmental Justice in Fresno, Where Faith = Awareness

exeter, san joaquin valley, fresno, environmental justice, Leon Kaye
Mural in Exeter, CA (Leon Kaye)

Fresno is the economic capital of the San Joaquin Valley, the breadbasket of California and the U.S. What was once home to wild grasslands and the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, has transformed into valuable agricultural land where livestock and high-value crops such as nuts, stone fruit, and grapes have created some of the wealthiest farmers and ranchers in the country. However, unemployment in the region has long hovered around 20 percent because of the seasonal nature of farm labor.

To understand pollution in the valley, you have to understand its geography. The San Joaquin Valley is 250 miles long and shaped like a canoe with mountain ranges on both sides – the Coastal Ranges to the west and Sierras to the east. This geographical formation creates a protected valley ideal for farming, but the mountain ranges that keep out wind also trap the ozone and particulate matter. The leading sources of local air pollution are agricultural activities (think agricultural burning and heavy duty diesel farm equipment) and motor vehicles which traverse the freeways running straight along the valley connecting northern and southern California. Of the 10 cities with the highest year-round particulate pollution in the country, five are in the valley: Bakersfield, Merced, Fresno, Hanford-Corcoran (which rank from one to four) and Visalia (ranked seven).

While vast disparities in wealth mean it’s possible to find very affluent neighborhoods in Fresno and Visalia, many neighborhoods are very poor. And the San Joaquin Valley’s poor bear the brunt of environmental impacts as their neighborhoods suffer from high rates of child asthma.

Yet a strong and growing environmental justice movement is taking shape, fighting to raise awareness about the devastating health issues in the region. While the long-term problems Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley face show the limits of what any regulatory agency can achieve, hope still shines. The strength shown by faith-based groups in the region demonstrates how religious organizations can work with both the environmental movement and regulators to advocate for the nation’s poorest and most marginalized people.

The advocacy these religious groups have taken on is crucial because no matter how earnest and passionate employees of government agencies such as the EPA may be, they work from the top down rather than the ground up – which means their programs receive little buy-in from the most vulnerable residents.

To the EPA’s credit, the San Joaquin Valley is one of four areas EPA Region 9 has set as the highest priority of focus in the coming decade. The agency’s strategic plans include reducing particulate matter (PM) concentrations by seven percent annually via regulations with the goal to reduce levels by 34 percent next year (compared to a 2009 baseline). According to Deldi Reyes, the Environmental Justice Program Manager for EPA Region 9, if such a standard can be maintained, that would prevent 640 PM-related deaths a year. The EPA is also funding pilot programs to reduce emissions from heavy sources such as the industrial-duty trucks and agricultural equipment by testing vehicles using battery technologies, biogas and even dimethyl ether (DME), an odorless gas that is the byproduct of natural gas and biogas extraction.

The San Joaquin Valley’s poor, however, do not have access to electric vehicles or cutting-edge tractors, much less to information about the local air quality and what can be done to improve lives. To that end, the EPA has doled out small grants to community-based organizations across the country. Since 1994, the EPA has distributed approximately $23 million to 1,253 community groups, who, in Reyes’ words, “have educated and empowered their communities to better understand and address environmental challenges.”

While that is not a huge amount of money when allocated to over a thousand groups and over two decades, it is much more money than some of these organizations would have otherwise. And in a city brimming with churches (this is the Bible Belt of California), plenty of Fresno congregations are ready to fill in the gaps and organize citizens to work for change. One organization’s work stands out.

Established in 1970, the Fresno Metro Ministry describes itself as a multi-faith and multi-cultural organization with a focus on promoting social and economic justice in Fresno. Worship groups from a bevy of faiths including Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Mennonites and Jews have joined the ministry to improve air quality and raise consciousness about climate and environmental justice in neighborhoods long overlooked by local politicians and bureaucrats.

Representatives from Fresno Metro Ministry ramped up their efforts in 2002. The Latino Environmental Health Project conducts platicas, or “conversations,” throughout Fresno and smaller towns in the San Joaquin Valley. Representatives focus on Latino neighborhoods and listen to their concerns about water quality, asthma, chemical use in pesticides and, of course, air pollution. In turn, these reps gather neighborhood feedback and then collaborate with agencies such as the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) to have their say in the development, passage and implementation of environment-related legislation.

As a result, California’s Department of Vehicles (DMV) fees include a fee for the Carl Moyer Fund, which helps to fund voluntary purchases of alternative fuel vehicles, and the coalition has had a role in passing new rules such as regulations covering the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by dairies. The SJVAPCD has also had an environmental justice strategy since 2007. Meanwhile, CARB has passed new rules for off-road construction equipment, as well as others concerning heavy duty diesel trucks, in order to tackle emissions.

Small victories, but organizations such as the Fresno Metro Ministry play crucial roles in the confrontation of huge problems long festering in the San Joaquin Valley. Premature child mortality and chronic bronchitis are far too prevalent, and one in six children in Fresno County suffer from asthma–twice the U.S. average and the highest rate in California. Environmental regulations are the foundation of a cleaner Fresno and San Joaquin Valley, and faith-based groups can fight the good fight and raise these important issues at the neighborhood level. But, the region’s powerful agricultural sector has got to do more. After all, it’s in their best interest: air pollution affects crop yields. Far more cooperation is needed to not only lift more people out of poverty, but out of health-related misery.

[Image credit: Leon Kaye]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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