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Parents and Advocates Take Action Against Pollution

January 14, 2013


Environmental justice is fundamentally about overcoming racism and classism.

Tony LoPresti

Campaign Director

Environmental Health Coalition

When Melissa Kelly-Ortega’s daughter was in the third grade, she would turn white as a ghost, saying, “My head hurts, my head hurts.”

Kelly-Ortega, a former second grade teacher, noticed a pattern with her daughter and the other kids. On days with poor air quality, kids would have more migraines, asthma attacks and other health problems.

“People don’t realize how dangerous (asthma) is,” says Kelly-Ortega, now program associate for the Merced/Mariposa County Asthma Coalition (MMCAC). “Asthma doesn’t go away and air pollution is a huge trigger that is linked to a lot of diseases.”

Kelly-Ortega realized that if she was going to stay in the valley where she lived, she would need to get involved in making sure it gets cleaned up.

Parents and community activists throughout the state are also taking a stand to reduce pollution, improve air quality and prevent asthma.

Merced/Mariposa: Strengthening pollution regulation

To help reduce pollution in the area, Kelly-Ortega and other MMCAC members joined with other environmental groups to push for legislation that added four new members to the regional air district board. This board controls pollution from sources, such as power plants and manufacturing facilities — and the legislation required that the additional members have expertise specifically in health and environmental issues.

Parents and other members of the MMCAC spent a long time strategizing, mobilizing people at the state Capitol and then interviewing potential candidates.

“Every step was a challenge,” admits Mary-Michael Rawling, staff program manager of the MMCAC. “You have to follow the process all the way through.”

Long Beach: Reducing port pollution

Parent Martha Cota says a lot of kids in her community were having respiratory problems. She also noticed that high levels of pollution from the nearby port in Long Beach made asthma even worse.

“It was very scary when my son had purple lips and couldn’t breathe,” says Cota, as she remembers one of her son’s asthma attacks.

Cota joined the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma (LBACA), where she advocated for reducing pollution in a number of ways.

“We first informed the community,” Cota says. “We educated them about the contamination — contamination that affects little ones the most.”

Cota and other parents used “p-tracks” to track atmospheric particles let off by trains, trucks and ships. Then they organized the community, testified at city hall and other government meetings, and promoted legislation at the state and local level.

Parent testimony “helps to put a face with some of these issues,” says Gerardo Gomez, assistant project coordinator with LBACA.

Several moms also visited Sacramento and met with Assembly staff members to push for legislation that would require a fee on all containers entering and leaving the port. The revenue would be used to clean up air pollution around the port.

“Every child (with asthma) can have a normal life,” Gomez says. “In the end we will help every single one of our children.”

San Francisco: Improving school air quality

Children’s asthma can be triggered by poor indoor air quality, particularly in schools, says Anjali Nath, advocacy coordinator of the San Francisco Asthma Task Force (SFATF).

“Sometimes people don’t realize little things contribute to poor indoor air quality,” Nath says. “Children and staff spend hours inside classrooms (but good air quality can help) keep children healthy, in school and ready to learn.”

SFATF members — teachers, parents, and community members — helped get a dedicated district coordinator to implement an Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program in local schools. Tools for Schools, a program developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, helps people identify, correct and prevent classroom hazards that contribute to poor air quality and asthma.

“Every school should be using this,” Nath says. “It costs very little, but the benefits are tremendous.”

Nath says they sat down with individual school board members, and spoke with representatives like teachers, principals and parent advocates.

“The school board was pretty receptive because we had worked with them for about five years,” adds Maria Luz Torre, parent and the San Francisco coordinator of Parent Voices.

The school board passed a resolution to adopt Tools for School policies. School facilities staff now make any Tools For Schools work orders a priority, Nath says.

San Diego: Reducing toxic pollution

Maria Martinez, a long-time resident of Barrio Logan (San Diego County), describes the big trucks nearby that pollute the air.

“Our kids play outside and breathe the contamination and get asthma,” says Martinez, who has an 11-year-old with asthma, and worries about the other kids in the community.

Toxic polluters next to homes and schools are causing asthma and other respiratory diseases in Barrio Logan, agrees Tony LoPresti, campaign director of the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC).

“Environmental justice is fundamentally about overcoming racism and classism,” LoPresti adds.

Community activists with the EHC and the San Diego Regional Asthma Coalition (SDRAC) are working to reduce pollution from the nearby port.

“Our primary approach is to put the planning process in the hands of the members of the community and to empower the residents,” explains LoPresti.

The EHC created a community action team who lobby elected officials to pass legislation. The SDRAC held a campaign where port community members wrote letters to port commissioners. Mainly women and mothers attended the letter writing session, which was “very friendly and empowering,” says Melissa Stevens, coalition coordinator of the SDRAC.

The EHC also pushed Dole Bananas to use “shore power,” leading to a 98% reduction in diesel matter. They also helped shut down a company that was using a highly toxic substance just feet away from resident homes.

Originally written by Ellen Noyes.