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Air Pollution Starts a Movement

California prides itself on being the nation's breadbasket, the supplier of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other agricultural products to the country and the world. But the San Joaquin Valley, where many of these crops are grown, has the worst air pollution of any comparable area in the country. Western Press Secretary Brian Smith recounts how a unique coalition came together to fight for cleaner air.

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Victory

Kevin Hall grew up on a farm outside Firebaugh, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Out of college he got a magazine job writing about agriculture. In his spare time, he volunteered for the Sierra Club.

When his son Joey was born, Hall, like all young parents, began to pay attention to hazards that a young infant might face, and he was drawn to reports of deteriorating air quality in the valley. He poked around and realized that there was a major epidemic of respiratory illness in the valley brought on mainly by air pollution. The more he looked the more alarmed he became, and in 2000, when Joey was eight, he quit his job and dedicated himself exclusively to bringing clean air back to the valley. He and his wife, Anne Mosgrove, in his words, "agreed to austerity measures to support my efforts. We made the decision as a family not to flee the valley, the only place all of us have known as home, and instead to stay and fight for clean air. I made ends meet by teaching Irish step-dancing, greatly reducing spending, and tapping into my savings."

Through his Sierra Club connection Hall had heard about Earthjustice, and he placed a call to Deborah Reames, head of the Oakland litigation office. That office had just reorganized its docket and was looking for ways to get involved in work to help organizations in the Sierra and the Central Valley, a perfect fit.

Meanwhile, a group of doctors and nurses had noticed what Hall had noticed, and they had noticed it first hand, with a surge of patients suffering from asthma and other respiratory maladies. They began to keep careful records. Hall met Kevin Hamilton, an asthma worker in Fresno, and invited him to report on his experiences at a Sierra Club meeting.

Hamilton set out to build a bridge between the medical community and the Sierra Club and other activists concerned with air quality. He teamed up with Dr. David Pepper in Fresno to form Medical Advocates for Healthy Air to bolster the campaign. Hamilton and Pepper were soon swamped with requests to speak about the problem.

And soon the Latino Issues Forum, an organization with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles that represents the interests of hispanics throughout the state, joined the effort as well, shortly opening an office in Fresno. All the pieces were now in place to launch a movement for clean air in California's heartland.

Hall and Reames convened a summit conference of the organizations at a farm in Stockton, where a new organization was born: the California Clean Air Campaign. And, as the doctors, the activists, and the organizers continued their efforts, the legal campaign swung into action.

The worsening air pollution crisis (one in six school children in Fresno carries an inhaler) came about because pollution -- mainly from agricultural operations, oil drilling on the west side of the valley, and vehicular traffic -- was increasing and because the government agencies responsible for curbing that pollution and defending the public health were shirking their responsibility.

Reames, Susan Britton, and Anne Harper began firing off letters threatening suit against both state and federal agencies that were failing to enforce and abide by the federal Clean Air Act and various state pollution statutes. Many of these situations were so clear that the agencies didn't resist but agreed to take required steps to bring the situation under control. Other matters -- such as the state's policy of exempting the powerful agriculture industry from air pollution regulations -- weren't so simple, but the California Clean Air Campaign prevailed nonetheless. The coalition was soon boosted by the Fresno Metro Ministry -- a coalition of churches -- that set up a listserv to improve communications between the diverse and growing community of activists. This, in turn, evolved into the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. Earthjustice contributed a new website: CalCleanAir.org, to help the coalition organize itself and provide information to the news media.

Next, attention was turned to Sacramento. The coalition found a champion in State Senator Dean Florez, who wrote seven bills and submitted them to the legislature in 2003. The coalition provided witnesses for hearings that were conducted throughout the valley. Five of the bills became law, dramatically strengthening the fight for clean air. The fight goes on.

Looking back, Kevin Hall is amazed at the progress made in just a few years. "Valley residents deserve better from the agencies mandated to protect public health and clean up our air. Now, finally, they are legally responsible to do so, and we have court orders to make sure they follow through."

Program Area:  Healthy Communities
Office:  California
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