Case Study – Southern San Joaquin Valley: Chelsea Tu, Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment

On December 4, 2018, CEJA hosted a webinar featuring three environmental justice experts to celebrate the release of our updated Green Zones Across California report, as well as our new website.

Below please find an excerpt from the December 2018 Green Zones Webinar.

Ericka: We would like to now introduce Chelsea Tu. She’s the Senior Attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. Chelsea collaborates with residents and community groups to bring land use decisions and infrastructure investments that benefit low-income communities of color in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. She also coordinates the policy team at CRPE. Chelsea received her law degree from the American University Washington College of Law with a focus on environmental law and completed her undergraduate work in environmental sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. With that said, we’re so happy to have you, Chelsea. Thank you for partaking in this webinar with us, and we can’t wait to hear about what you have to say today about green zones.


Chelsea Tu: Great. Thank you so much, Ericka. Thank you. And can everyone see my slides okay?

Ericka: Yes, we can.

Chelsea: Okay. Great. Thank you for bearing with me on these technical issues. Okay. Great. Hi, everyone. I’m Chelsea Tu. I’m the Senior Attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty & Environment, and today I’m so excited to share some of CRPE’s work. It seeks to invert the traditional top-down approach in land use planning by advancing community power to advocate for the healthy lives they want and deserve. I’m trying to share my screen again because, for some reason, I’m getting kicked out. So hopefully that works. Great. I’ll continue.


Okay. As I said, I work for the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. We are an organizing and legal advocacy organization that is working at the state level, as well as deeply in Kern County and the broader Southern San Joaquin Valley region of California. This region contains some of the most polluted and poorest areas in the state. For those of you who may not be as familiar, if you drive up and down the 5 near Bakersfield, that is the area that I’m talking about. Even though you’re right next to the Sierra Nevada mountains, you’re barely able to see the mountains because of the massive pollution that’s in the air in the Southern San Joaquin Valley.


In 2017, just to put more context around the environment in which we’re working, Kern County, where Bakersfield is located in, ranked as both the top oil and ag producing county in the state of California. A lot of the residents we work with are farm workers and live next to oil wells. Many of the residents in this area suffer significant health impacts from both industries. So I’d like to first start with big picture about CRPE’s Forgotten Voices program for our land use and infrastructure work is housed and then share a couple of stories.


So under the broad vision of building strong and healthy communities with communities, we use three primary strategies to advance our land use and green zones work, similar to the strategies that Tiffany shared at the beginning. Number one is advancing environmental justice communities’ priorities through local, regional, and state land use planning processes. Number two is connecting community-identified infrastructure projects to funding opportunities at the state and national levels. Number three is building community leadership, self-governance, and resilience.


In essence, I think of our work in Forgotten Voices as getting the bad stuff out, putting the good stuff in, and building community power. So how has CRPE specifically helped build community power? In the last three decades, we’ve helped form two regional networks and over 17 community groups, three of which are incorporated. I think this work is quite unique, and it’s very key to our model from the ground up. We don’t want to just represent communities. Our organizers actually spend a lot of time collaborating with residents in different communities throughout different counties in the Southern San Joaquin Valley to build their own infrastructure in order to represent themselves.


And what this work looks like is ranging from strategizing solutions to environmental health issues facing specific communities with community members to creating bylaws for local communities as well as grant writing. The bottom line is we believe that strengthening communities also helps strengthen the advocacy infrastructure and power to environmental justice communities in the Southern San Joaquin. So that all sounds good, but how do these strategies work on the ground? And now I want to tell you the story of the community of Arvin, a small 20,000-people town just 20 miles outside of Bakersfield in rural Kern County.


Folks may know about our recent win in Arvin of where we worked with the community for a better Arvin to convince the city council to pass a health protective oil and gas ordinance that increased setbacks between oil and homes and required companies to have community emergency response plans, among many other requirements. The last update previous to this recent one, July 2018, was in 1965, so it was about time that the ordinance was updated and the restrictions heightened to be protective of the community. However, I want to highlight that this victory, is the culmination and building power and working with residents in Arvin to clean up their community for the past 12 years.


So back in 2007, CRPE supported residents’ efforts to form and incorporate the Committee for a Better Arvin. One of the first projects that we worked on was cleaning up a nearby recycling facility, and I’ll save that story for the end of my presentation. Now, in 2009, CBA participated in CRPE’s Power to the People campaign where CBA designed a community-led vision for green jobs and climate justice. This is the process that helped shape the first oil and gas ordinance. Moving up the timeline, in March 2014, a terrible gas pipe leak evacuated eight families from their homes for almost nine months in Arvin. And after the Nelson Court incident, we tried to pass the oil and gas ordinance update for the first time, but unfortunately the ordinance was defeated by a 3-2 vote.


However, the community wasn’t going to take no for an answer, so they decided to up their political game. In 2016, with the help of CRPE’s C4 organization, Arvin elected several candidates that ran on a climate justice platform. This was incredible for Kern County, the heart of oil in California. So finally after two more years of advocacy, the city then passed an updated ordinance in July of 2018. However, unfortunately, the city then turned around and approved four new wells right in the heart of town, next to hundreds of existing homes. And so we are now currently representing the Committee for a Better Arvin in challenging this approval.


Of course, as you might guess, the story of Arvin continues, and it’s not complete without mentioning the hundreds of people who’ve worked to improve Arvin, not only in the oil and gas ordinance update, but so many of the projects that we’ve been collaborating on together. So I want to show you a picture of the group of us, including CBA members, staff, and volunteers. On a blistering day in early July, after we knocked on hundreds of doors in Arvin to urge the community to come support the new oil and gas ordinance, and they showed up. Over 100 people came to both of the key hearings that led to the passage of this groundbreaking ordinance.


On the bottom right, you’ll see the proposed well site that’s next to an apartment complex and other existing homes right here in Arvin. So moving on to the next story, Arvin isn’t just taking on the oil industry. Since 2007, as I mentioned before, CBA has been working with us and with nearby Lamont to stand up against community recycling, which was also polluting local air and water. And it wasn’t until the death of two teenagers breathing toxic waste fumes in the facility that community recycling finally sold the facility to Recology in 2015.


In 2017, CRPE worked with CBA and the Comite Progreso de Lamont to successfully negotiate a good neighbor agreement with Recology. Now I just want to touch on three key elements that this voluntary agreement has. First, the good neighbor agreement included accountability mechanisms. For example, requiring Recology to report on how it’s reducing pollution to a stakeholder committee made of local residents and also required the company to establish a complaint hotline. Second, the good neighbor agreement included litter and odor reduction measures. And as a result of community advocacy over all the years, Recology also installed pollution control technology that would reduce emissions by 80% over time.


Finally, I want to highlight that the good neighbor agreement also committed Recology to funding significant community investments through ongoing [inaudible 00:37:37] production per ton of the waste that Recology accepted. Last year, for example, the residents decided to use some of this money to install street lights next to a previously unlit and dangerous park. Like many low-income communities and communities of color that we’ve been describing, Arvin faces multiple sources of pollution that require solutions not just at the local level, but also at the regional and state levels. At the county level, Committee for a Better Arvin is supporting their unincorporated neighbors on advancing a better Kern County General Plan and budget advocacy that prioritize environmental justice communities’ priorities.


And the community is in turn supported to access county funding for parks and infrastructure improvements. In 2018, because of our collective advocacy, Kern County allocated over $2.6 million for parks. In 2019, we’re continuing to work with CBA and other groups and allies to bring comprehensive planning and budgeting reform in Kern County. We hope that this project and talking about using strategic collaboration as well as legal enforcement, all in partnership with community groups, will help bring a toxic-free future for Southern San Joaquin communities. And so, with that, I’d like to stop my presentation here. Thank you very much.


Ericka: Thank you, Chelsea. I hope that everybody learned a ton about the work that Chelsea is doing within CRPE or learned about Arvin. I didn’t know those issues were taking place, so thank you for sharing.