Around one-hundred students took an overnight bus ride to Sacramento to attend the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) hearing on February 2.
Led by Inland Empire based Sierra Club My Generation organizer Allen Hernandez and Oasis resident Marina Barragan, the adolescents from Desert Mirage High School in the small Coachella Valley town of Thermal were granted a few minutes by EPA officials to advocate for higher air-quality standards. The EPA is working on a plan to strengthen current smog protections from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to a range of 65 ppb to 70 ppb and has held similar hearings nationwide to hear input and concerns from the public.
Similar to the plight low-income residents suffer in Inland Empire cities such as Colton, Fontana, Redlands, and San Bernardino, a high proportion of the Coachella Valley’s population suffer from respiratory illnesses. According to the Health Assessment Resource Center, 18 percent of the Valley’s adults (61,809 people) have been diagnosed with a respiratory disease and 10.1 percent have asthma. Eleven percent of Coachella Valley children (8,581 children ages 0 to 17) are approximated to be diagnosed with asthma.
Barragan argued at the hearing that stories of frequent hospital visits and abrupt tragedy are all too familiar to the residents of the South Coast Air Basin communities that stretch across Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties.
“I am from a low-income family, living in the Eastern Coachella Valley,” she said. “My sister can’t breathe. In one week she was hospitalized three times due to severe asthma. My uncle died in the hospital due to asthma and troubled breathing. Unfortunately, my story is not unique to my hometown–where smog pollution is the worst in the nation.”
The 20-year-old College of the Desert student and “Green Academy” organizer called on the EPA to protect the residents of the Valley region.
“We deserve better, far better than what we have,” Barragan said. “I can’t have my sister suffer the same fate as my uncle, but in many ways my hands are tied. It is up to the EPA and our air regulators to implement and enforce strong air protections that fix a problem that we did not create.”
However, others believe the regulations may have detrimental impact on the economy. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) released an information graph that presented possible risks the EPA’s proposed regulations will have on manufacturing jobs across California. The graph cites a study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012 that suggests counties potentially impacted by the new standards are responsible for 2,142,619 manufacturing, natural resources and mining, and construction jobs.
Of the 37 California counties that may have jobs at risk as a result of the EPA’s proposed regulations, San Bernardino and Riverside, according to the study, have the most to lose. San Bernardino County has 47,552 manufacturing jobs at-risk (compared to Riverside’s 38,788) and Riverside County has 37, 953 construction jobs at risk (to San Bernardino’s 26,638). The two counties also have the highest number of Measured Ozone Levels, both emitting 106 ppb.
In 2014, the South Coast Air Basin experienced 93 days with ozone levels above the EPA standards, according to data provided by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). In contrast, the Coachella Valley, experienced 40 days last year, down from 50 in 2013 and 54 in 2012. Nevertheless opponents of the proposed standards are diligently looking to convince the EPA that strengthening smog protections will only hinder economic opportunity.
“Communities designated “non-attainment” have a hard time attracting and retaining industry and sustaining economic activity and growth,” American Chemistry Council senior director Lorraine Gershman said in her testimony. “Industry located in a non-attainment area face increased operating costs, permitting delays, and restrictions on building or expanding facilities.”
The trip to the state capitol was seen as another moral-boosting victory to Hernandez, who just a little over a year ago led a caravan of Desert Mirage High School students and Inland Empire environmental organizers to a California Public Utilities Commission meeting in San Francisco. Facing another unique opportunity to mentor insightful and passionate Desert Mirage students, the Fontana resident said he also feels a little disheartened because the opportunity provided to the students to confront the EPA is one a handful may never receive again.
“A lot of these kids don’t leave the Coachella Valley area,” said Hernandez. “And who knows if any of them will ever have the chance to go to Sacramento or San Francisco to confront these officials again. Unfortunately, after high school many of them turn to the fields to try to make a decent living.”
However, Hernandez believes the students’ heart-warming testimonies will not be forgotten by the EPA. .
“The students from the East Coachella Valley have made history today,” said Hernandez. “Literally made history with their brave, courageous, heart-wrenching, beautiful testimonies. Such a proud moment. Such a historic moment. I’ve never felt anything that intense in my organizing career.”
California Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) issued a statement on Monday, providing praise to the Desert Mirage students for their willingness to be involved in the air quality political conversation.
“Air quality is a very serious issue in my district, from the city of Calexico in Imperial County to the city of Desert Hot Springs in Riverside County,” the statement reads. “What the 107 students from Desert Mirage High School are doing today by testifying about smog and the air quality hardships they are facing is not only historic for my district, but it’s also a breath of fresh air as it relates to how our young people are engaging in the policy making process.”