Imperial Valley Residents Must Fight for Right to Breathe Clean Air (2)

Seeley, CA – Until his knee gave out, Ramon Villa Jr. dreamed he'd be a soccer star. Across a pitted playing field of dirt and grass, he and his friends would chase a ball through the desert sunset every day after school. The playing field — with a fire station on one corner, it is the de facto town center — is as much of a downtown as the community of Seeley is ever likely to have.

Surrounding the field on all four sides sit the sun-bleached homes of Imperial Valley farm workers. An unincorporated community not far from the Mexican border, Seeley has only 1700 residents. It's not a big place, not even a formal town.

For years the kids would play after school, when the broiling daytime temperatures dropped, but they'd have to stop when it got dark. Ramon's mom Carolina would point her pickup at the field and turn on the headlights, just to give them another half hour of play.

They'd get thirsty— in the summer the thermometer can top 110 degrees. Sweating and out of breath, the young players would put their heads under the spigot for a garden hose, just a few inches off the ground, to get a drink.

So Carolina Villa decided she had to do something. With her sister Liz, she organized town residents to call on the Seeley County Water District, which owns the field. After some discussion, they won a few lights on tall aluminum poles. With the help of the planning department, they also got a real water fountain, so the players wouldn't get burrs from the grass in their ears when they drank.

Unincorporated Communities: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

It was not easy for the Villas and other parents to get simple amenities for their kids, like light and water, because Seeley is one of the many unincorporated communities in rural California that lack the most basic services, like sewers, sidewalks and streetlights.

According to Policy Link, a foundation promoting economic and social equity, “Throughout the United States, millions of people live outside of central cities on pockets of unincorporated land. Predominantly African-American and Latino, and frequently low-income, these communities … have been excluded from city borders.”

Imperial County has ten unincorporated towns the size of Seeley and its sister community Heber, and 59 other smaller “colonias” or settlements. Three years ago, Policy Link partnered with California Rural Legal Assistance to create the Community Equity Initiative, to find legal and organizing-based strategies for dealing with the critical situations confronting California's unincorporated communities.

CRLA attorneys Phoebe Seaton (who directs the Community Equity Initiative) and Ilene Jacobs have argued that larger neighboring cities – both Seeley and Heber are less than ten miles from El Centro, the Imperial County seat — have gone through pains to avoid taking responsibility for unincorporated areas and their residents. “Local governments, desperate to protect their resources, perpetuated the political, social and economic isolation of these communities. The local governments, in turn, fail to provide basic services to these communities that were intentionally excluded from planning and infrastructure investment,” the two charged in their report, “Advocating for Equity In California's Rural Communities.”

Having light posts and a water fountain on the field make it more attractive to kids with little to do in this small community. But these basic amenities only scratch the surface of the problems faced by youth and other residents in Seeley.

Across the street from the local elementary school sits an abandoned house that has come to be known as “the graffiti house.” There, the local mota smokers and mainliners get together and party, leaving beer bottles and even syringes lying on the empty floors. Huge holes have been punched through walls covered in graffiti. Electrical conduits have been pulled out and ripped open, in search of copper wire to sell for scrap.

Being a teenager in Seeley has its dangers. But an even worse one isn't visible at all. It's in the air.

Gasping for Breath

As Joahn Molena sits in his back yard, hugging his pit bull in front of his henhouse, dust coats everything outside his home. Molena's proud of his white Honda Civic, with its mag wheels. It's a few years old, but still in primo condition. Of course, he has to wash it almost every day because dust in Seeley is everywhere.

It blows in from the fields that surround the unincorporated communities. In Heber, that dust comes from the empty expanses at the edge of town that previously housed corrals for the El Toro Land and Cattle Company. The hooves of the cattle housed there ground animal waste into the earth in those empty lots. Neighbors worry now about what the dust might contain. Manuel Gonzalez (who is retired, but asked that his real name not be used) lives at the end of the street, where it meets the field. “Every day my wife vacuums up the dust in the house, but an hour later it's back.”

And just across Fawcett Road are El Toro's current feedlots. Hundreds, even thousands of cattle are housed in dense pens, eating their way to eventual slaughter. In the furnace-like heat of the Imperial Valley summer, the smell of cattle waste wafts across the town, giving neighbors a good idea of what the dust is made of. So many feedlots cover the valley that the smell gets to Seeley as well.

Other air pollutants also come with the industrial agriculture that has dominated the Imperial Valley since the All-American Canal, and the Alamo Canal before it, brought Colorado River water to the desert in 1900. Seeley and Heber themselves were the products of the land boom that followed. The post office in Seeley, named for developer Henry Seeley, opened in 1909. Heber is even older, and was founded by the Imperial Valley Land Company in 1903, and named for developer A.H. Heber.

Today, the land surrounding the two towns is farmed in huge tracts of hundreds of acres. To make the desert productive, ranchers not only built the world's largest irrigation canal, but also developed farming methods dependent on chemical fertilizers and strong pesticides. Even with the recent advance of some large-scale organic operations, it's still common to drive a local highway and see a small airplane called a cropduster make circular swoops and passes over the green crops. From the nozzles on its wings, a fine spray of pesticide coats the leaves below. Air moves, however, and with it, the chemical spray from the plane – what's called pesticide drift.

Communities like Seeley and Heber, located in the middle of the fields, can get that drift, even diluted by breezes and wind.

In other fields, tractors pull a rig with tanks of chemicals, and spray nozzles that release them just inches from the plants. Less drift, perhaps, but after many years, powerful pesticides and fertilizers are omnipresent, not just in the fields, but in the small communities they surround as well.

Then, when the crops are in, Imperial Valley farmers are notorious for burning. Big mowers cut and collect the stalks left from crops after they're harvested. Piles of dry plants are then set alight next to local fields and highways. The smoke is often so intense that roads are blocked to traffic, or at least they're supposed to be.

Compounding Problems

Carolina and Liz Villa went from getting lights and water for the soccer field to protesting burning of local fields, because smoke is not just a danger to traffic, but to the lungs of the young people out kicking the ball in the Seeley field.

According to Maria-Elena Young, an adolescent health analyst at the California Adolescent Health Collaborative, an estimated 200,000 young Latinos living in rural areas have been diagnosed with asthma. A third of Heber's 4200 residents are under 18, and 98% of its residents are Latino. The demographics of Seeley are about the same. In both towns, one in every four families lives below the poverty line.

“Geography, poverty and air quality all come together to affect the health of young people in the unincorporated rural towns of California,” explains CRLA attorney Phoebe Seaton. “Health dangers are compounded by things like agricultural burning, and then exacerbated by lack of access to healthcare.”

Policy Link's report, “Why Place and Race Matter,” states, “Health indicators dramatically illustrate the point. In every instance, people of color suffer disproportionately from conditions that shorten life or compromise its quality.” The report concludes, “Racially based inequities in local environments — the almost immeasurable gulf in resources between a Brentwood and an East Los Angeles, a Montclair and an East Oakland, a Carmel and a King City — lie at the root of our gaping health disparities and the alarming rise of preventable chronic diseases.”

A January 2009 study by the California Department of Public Health linked air pollution to asthma, and in mid-February another study found that the Environmental Protection Agency had seriously underestimated the amount of air pollution coming from particulate matter.

According to the ARB, smoke like that emitted from agricultural burning can increase the number of hospital visits by children by 10 percent, and that looks only at those children with access to healthcare. Imperial County, California's poorest, is home to thousands of farm worker families without that access. Many of them live in unincorporated towns like Seeley and Heber.

According to a 2005 Border Asthma and Allergies (BASTA) Study conducted by the California Department of Public Health, 20.2 percent of children in Imperial County are diagnosed with asthma. The national average is 13.7 percent. Imperial County consistently has the highest asthma hospitalization rates among all California counties. From 2000 to 2004, ten asthma-induced deaths occurred in Imperial County.

A Regional Response to the Health Crisis

When Carolina and Liz Villa set up Seeley Citizens United, they hoped that the activism that produced the lights and drinking fountain in the soccer field might be harnessed to work on these basic health and environmental problems. Seeley's organization, and a similar one in Heber, began to look for ways to reduce pollution and its health consequences on a valley-wide level, since they aren't confined to just two small towns.

When Imperial County organized an Environmental Health Leadership Summit to examine health disparities, the two sisters went to make their case. Together, they partnered with Luis Olmedo and the valley's Comite Civico to use public exposure to force attention on farm workers' health problems. They helped set up the Imperial Vision Action Network, and then the Imperial County Environmental Justice Enforcement Task Force. They got help from Megan Beaman, a lawyer in CRLA's Coachella office who'd worked on a similar program earlier in the Coachella Valley. The two efforts together form the first community-based environmental reporting site in California.

Acting on an anonymous report, this February the Environmental Justice Task Force exposed a proposal to open yet another cattle feedlot near Calexico, just a few miles from Seeley and Heber. Carolina Villa and Luis Olmedo said an anonymous report to the IVAN network alerted them to the plans for the operation. “I want to have faith (that) permits (will not be) given out when the facilities are not ready,” Villa told the Imperial Valley Press. Olmedo declared simply, “It's clearly an environmental disaster.”

But disasters and health hazards are no long business as usual in those two tiny towns. Ramon Villa Jr., his mama and aunt all believe that the way not to get sick in the Imperial Valley is to make sure their voices get heard.