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Environmnetal Racism & Dirty Skies

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The Enivronment Protection Agency reported Thursday that nearly one in five counties across the country suffers from unacceptable levels of smog. We go to Fresno where the air was determined to be the worst and examine the impact of environental racism. [includes rush transcript]

The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that nearly one in five counties across the United States has unacceptable levels of ground-level ozone, a major ingredient in smog.

That means that over half the U.S. population, or about 159 million people, is breathing unhealthy air. This week, the EPA set tougher smog standards which put 474 counties nationwide in violation of the air quality rules.

These regions now must curtail pollution of smog-causing ozone to bring the air into compliance under the more stringent standards. But in some cases, compliance deadlines have been extended and regions will now have anywhere from three years to as many as 17 years to do it.

Take California as an example. Though the state has some of the toughest air pollution requirements, Los Angeles and nearby counties were found to have the worst air. But three California regions — Riverside County, San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento — now have all the way until 2013 to curtail ozone pollution.

Critics say the new EPA rules mean air in some counties will now stay dirtier longer.

  • Rey Leon, policy analyst for environmental health issues at the new office of the Latino Issues Forum in the San Joaquin Valley. He is also the founder of La Raza Unida Foundation, a youth leadership support group.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman as we continue our conversation with Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Also joined on the line with us right now, Ray Leon, he is policy analyst for environmental health issues, the New Office of Latino Issues Forum in the San Joaquin Valley. Two nights ago we kicked off our California “Exception to the Rulers Tour” in Fresno, California, celebrating the community radio station there, KFCS. In the morning, I bumped into Ray on the street. He was most concerned about with the latest findings that the San Joaquin Valley had the dirtiest air in the country. The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that nearly one in five counties across the U.S. has unacceptable ozone, a major ingredient in smog. It means that over half the U.S. population is breathing unhealthy air, and it looks like the air around Fresno is the dirtiest. Ray Leone, can you talk about the effect. You have said that the disproportionate effect of this kind of pollution on the Latino community in the San Joaquin Valley.

RAY LEON: Good morning, Amy. Everybody knows that air pollution impacts everyone who has lungs, right? And that’s true; it’s impacting every resident in the San Joaquin Valley. Specifically in terms of Latinos, it has a disproportionate impact, because for the most part, it is known that when you are low income and person of color, you tend to live in the areas where you are at higher risk to diseases because you are near to sources of pollution. In the San Joaquin Valley, which is — just to give a — an outlook of the San Joaquin Valley, it’s the strongest, it’s the greatest producer of harvest in the whole world, right? I’d like to say I’m from the community here. I’m a farmer in the community, where, at the moment, the lettuce season is taking place. We ship lettuce to Japan, to China, to Mexico, all over the nation and when it’s not in season, we do the same and when it’s in season, we do the same. In the valley, I like to say, that we feed the world. The problem is that in the valley we have a huge amount of families that are going hungry. And poverty is an issue in the valley because a lot of people are farm workers. Most people who are farm workers are Latinos. When you are a farm worker, of course, you know, you do not earn a living wage. You earn minimum wage, which is barely enough to get by sometimes.

It’s a problem because also when you are a farm worker, you do not have health insurance, and so, this compromises the situation of many of our valley residents because when you get sick, what do you do? You — if you — your child gets an asthma attack, many times it’s because they were never previously diagnosed, because they didn’t have access to that health care. When a child gets an asthma attack, they end up in the emergency room, and it’s that much more expensive, and it’s a further hindrance to the economic development of that family, and it makes it that much more difficult, destabilizing that family and the community and destabilizing the — I would say the whole valley.

So, the disproportionate impact is the fact that the Latinos do not have health insurance and many Latinos live near and are surrounded by pesticides and dust which, you know, compose what we call particulate matter, right? And, the studies show that ozone actually causes asthma. It creates asthma, and in the past there was — it was thought that asthma was something that was for the most part a gene that was inherited and if the child would get asthma at some point in their life, now, studies show — scientific studies show that actually ozone can create asthma in a healthy male. And in terms of particulate matter, the other part of air pollution — I mean, this is a matter basically that droplets of humidity that capture particles from — of chemicals from pesticides, from diesel fuel and from smoke and from just dust in the fields. There’s two types of p.m., p.m. 10 and p.m. 2.5. Particulate matter is really dangerous because it is — there’s also scientific studies coming out that tell us that particulate matter actually kills people. In the valley alone, per year, 1,300 people die, and it is — the responsibility is particulate matter, that exacerbates and creates people’s respiratory situations and makes it something worse, to the extent of which they die. I mean, it increases cardiovascular and lung cancers. Cardiovascular problems and lung cancer. We are in a bad situation here in the valley, especially now that we — it’s not getting better. That’s a problem. It’s not getting better.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Van Jones at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. You not only focus on criminal justice issues. You have a launched a whole green jobs campaign. What’s the relation?

VAN JONES: Well, exactly what the brother was talking about. The communities where there is over incarceration and over-policing and overspending on so-called crime prevention, which is really just the economies of incarceration, and they — supporting incarceration industry, those same communities are also the communities where there’s excessive pollution and excessive toxics, cancer clusters, the asthma epidemic, birth defects and so what the criminal justice movement is now doing is reaching out to the environmental justice movement. We should be one movement. We should come together under the banner of green jobs, not jail. It’s possible to create jobs in our community that are clean, that are restorative to the environment, healing of the environment be it solar energy, a permaculture, bio-diesel and new technologies for clean energy and green products that are available. Who is going to get these jobs to make the technologies available? We’re saying as environmentalists and criminal justice people, we want the clean, green jobs in our community. Let that be an alternative energy strategy and alternative environmental strategy and community safety strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Apollo Project. We were in New Hampshire for the campaign, the primaries, and saw a bunch of people dressed in orange jumpsuits?

VAN JONES: Yes. We’re entering a third wave of environmentalism in this country. The first wave was the conservation, Teddy Roosevelt, wave. In the 1960’s, you got the conservation plus regulation wave as people began to be concerned about toxics. Now we are going into a third wave where it’s conservation and regulating the bad and investing in the good. Investing in solar and hydrogen and investing in the things that we know will help the environment.

The Apollo Project is the leading-edge campaign that’s getting labor and environmentalists together who have always been fighting and say, look, let’s not fight. Let’s say to the government we want billions of dollars spent on clean energy jobs. That’s a great new development. The Bioneers are on that track. Phil Angelitis, with his green wave initiative here in California is trying to put a half billion dollars of state pension money into green and stainable business. Our initiative now, which we call “Green Jobs, Not Jails”, bringing environmentalists and criminal justice together, saying, hey, don’t throw money and give substances to polluters and incarceraters which makes problems worse. Spend that money on good jobs in our community. Jobs that will heal the environment and restore the economic viability of our community. We’re saying out of this crisis of over-incarceration, the public health crisis with the — of the environmental situation, there’s opportunity for new coalitions and a forward vision-driven environmentalism, pollution-driven environmentalism that connects with criminal justice. That’s what we’re about.

AMY GOODMAN: Van Jones, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Your website.

VAN JONES: People who are interested, especially in the April 28 candlelight vigil to stand with the families of the young people who lost their lives in the youth prison systems, please go to our website: Sign up and get involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for being with us. Also, Ray Leon, a policy analyst for environmental health issues at the New Office of the Latino Issues Forum in the San Joaquin Valley. You are watching and listening to Democracy Now!.

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