Environmental Health
Advocates Give Central Valley Communities a Voice in Environmental Health Policies

alifornia’s Central Valley is the state’s agricultural epicenter, providing produce to stores and homes throughout the country. But this region is also ground zero for some significant environmental hazards, including pesticides, dust from plowed fields, smoke from agricultural burning, urban air pollution and hazardous waste dumps.

Although the area can boast of fertile soil and favorable weather for growing crops, cultivating environmental health advocates is a more tenuous enterprise. Geographic isolation, coupled with a lack of political clout and legal resources, creates unique challenges for developing and sustaining environmental health policies.

With an office in the town of Delano, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE) is the only environmental advocacy organization with an office in the Central Valley. CRPE serves low-income rural communities with technical and legal support. Founded in 1989, the organization seeks to empower individuals, organize communities and address specific environmental health problems. In June 2003, TCWF awarded CRPE a three-year, $120,000 grant for core operating support to sustain environmental health efforts in the Central Valley.

“Overall, these communities are stuck with the status quo,” said Caroline Farrell, Delano office directing attorney. “These communities need assistance to know their rights and develop strategies to ensure their concerns are addressed to the powers that be."

Working in several neighborhoods throughout Kern, Kings, Fresno and Tulare counties, CRPE’s clients are predominantly Latinos living in rural areas and below the poverty line. With the organization’s support, these communities are developing the skills and confidence to become more engaged in civic participation, honing their grassroots organizing skills to have a voice in local public policies that affect the environmental health of the places where they work, live and play.

So far, there have been numerous successes. For example, when large dairy farms began relocating to the region, residents were exposed to higher air pollution as a result of methane, ammonia and particulates that were produced by the farms. CRPE helped gather community input and technical information, submitting comments to various county and state agencies. This work ultimately resulted in counties and the state adopting new legislation that takes into account the residents’ environmental concerns.

Other successes include motivating Tulare County officials to examine the environmental impacts from a proposed ethanol plant in Goshen; ushering in a new level of transparency and openness from the board of directors for a local water company in Lebec; and organizing a public interest group in Alpaugh that has worked with the local state legislator to obtain clean water while a new well is being constructed.

“Without the legal advice and support offered by organizations like CRPE, many underserved agricultural communities would be hard-pressed to translate concern about environmental health conditions into effective information for policymakers,” said Fatima Angeles, TCWF program director. “This advocacy work ensures that communities in the rural Central Valley continue to receive the support needed to improve environmental health for families and children.”

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