EJ @ stanford
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EJ @ stanford

Many EJ organizations work to combat air pollution in Sacramento

By Sonja Hansen

Disproportionate levels of air pollution within American cities have been attributed to the historic racist policy known as redlining, defined as the government-sanctioned denial of housing to people of color that occurred from 1937 to 1968 that has visible impacts today. Regions that were subjected to redlining were deemed by banks as not worthy of investment. Today residents of such neighborhoods have less tree cover, live closer to polluting facilities, regularly experience the heat island effect, and thus extreme summers, and suffer a higher prevalence of underlying health conditions in addition to a host of other economic and physical barriers.

Pacific Gas & Electric Company plant in Sacramento circa 1912. (Wikimedia Commons)

California’s capital city was no exception to this policy, and today Sacramento’s environmental justice organizations work to draw attention to the persistently higher air pollution faced by North and South Sac under ambient conditions.

United Latinos Sacramento (ULS), an organization founded to encourage Latinx civic engagement, is one such group that expanded their mission in 2016 to orient toward healthcare and environmental justice. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term defined by Oxford Languages as people of Latin American descent).

In 2016 ULS community organizer consultant Herman Barahona had been investigating why Latinx Sacramentans were being turned away from local medical service providers. In the process of researching this issue, ULS found through interviews that a higher proportion of Latinx patients were being submitted to the ER with asthma and heart attacks and cancer-related afflictions.

After a year and a half of meetings with regulatory agencies, elected officials and community leaders, Barahona learned that of the 4,500 air pollution permits that the government issues, many are concentrated in South Sac. Thus, in 2018 ULS began advocating for increased air quality monitoring in their neighborhoods.

President of ULS Ronald Jimenez grew up in Sacramento, attending C.K. McClatchy High School and growing up near the now defunct Campbell Soup Factory in his South Sac neighborhood.

The Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake Factory located in Sacramento circa 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

“The aggregate collection of pollution [in South Sac] is horrible,” Barahona told me. “And, of course, everybody individually is not breaking the law. They are permitted to pollute. But because they’re concentrated in the same neighborhood, you can imagine that nobody’s really looking at what’s happening.”

Most recently, on June 2, ULS published a blog, calling upon its supporters to demand that the County install federally regulated air quality monitors in Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods. United Latinos pointed out that there are no air quality monitors south of Highway 16, where the heaviest polluting facilities, greatest concentration of transportation infrastructure and least tree cover are located. Rather, the central city hosts the greatest density of monitors.

The current locations of air quality monitors in Sacramento County published by United Latinos Sacramento. United Latinos points out that there are no air quality monitors south of Highway 16, known as South Sacramento where the heaviest polluting facilities, most transportation routes and least tree cover is located. Rather, the central city has the greatest density of monitors.

ULS also wrote that in Sacramento County, Latinos are experiencing the highest rates of asthma and that populations suffering from the highest air pollution have had higher COVID-19 related fatalities.

As of November, ULS has raised $30,000 to independently purchase two air quality monitors due to inaction from the city. The organization intends on collecting data on local air pollution for one to two years and then re-approaching the city with their findings.

Following my interviews with ULS I assembled a StoryMap through the Stanford course Fundamentals of Geographic Information Science. My compilation of digital maps looks at distinct regions of Sacramento delineated by asthma prevalence and transportation infrastructure. I conclude that air quality facilities in South Sacramento will account for greater complexity of the air in the county, better inform decision makers on addressing the growing health crisis and empower residents.

Downtown Sacramento and the waterfront in the central city. This region hosts the greatest concentration of air quality monitors whereas neighborhoods in North and South Sacramento see an apparent lack. (Wikimedia Commons)

Over the course of my project, I spoke with other local community organizers on the tactics they are implementing to address the history of air pollution in South Sacramento.

Moiz Mir is the administrative coordinator for Sacramento 350 and hub leader of Sunrise Sacramento, which works on local electoral affairs, such as endorsing local candidates, aiding in their campaigns and supporting or opposing legislature. Last December Mir and his hub successfully petitioned Mayor Darrell Steinberg to declare a climate emergency. Mir is currently working with Sacramento 350 to create a 10-week youth climate activist course on how to engage with a city council or county board of directors to be launched this spring.

Simeon Gant, executive director of Green Tech Education, founded his group to prepare local youth for college and careers in sustainability. Green Tech’s mentor-based curriculum covers environmentally friendly construction, manufacturing, transportation and environmental utilities management in addition to empowering students.

“I would ask the kids [if] they know anybody with cancer,” Gant told me. “A lot of kids would raise their hand. ‘Do you know anybody with asthma?’ A lot of kids raised their hand. I might go into birth defects or cardiovascular issues; all these hands would go up. And I would illustrate to them that these issues are getting worse. These issues are preventable. And this is how we can prevent them. And you can actually get a job doing it. You could have a career helping to prevent these problems. So that’s how I would get people’s attention. Let them recognize that it is about jobs. It is about protecting the polar bears. But it’s also about protecting human health.”

Jackie Cole, principal at Veritable Good Consulting, teaches government agencies through workshops what environmental justice looks like and how to approach and collaborate with communities regarding issues of food access, housing and transportation. For example, Sacramento is seeking to restore neighborhoods through corridor projects; however, Cole told me that such projects risk gentrification-induced displacement for long-time residents without secured housing and community collaboration.

Hailing from Sacramento, California, Sonja Hansen is a junior studying Earth Systems on the Land Systems track, pursuing a Notation in Science Communication. Sonja is passionate about reading and writing in addition to working toward environmental stewardship and justice. Contact her at smhansen ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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