When David Beats Goliath: The Story of a Community that Came Together to Beat Big Oil

Photo Courtesy of growingresistancefilm.orgBy Anabel Marquez, member of Committee for a Better Shafter

In July 2018, the City Council in Arvin—an agricultural town nestled in the San Joaquin Valley—voted unanimously to update their oil and gas ordinance for the first time in half a century. During the 2018 midterm election, Political Action Committees associated with the oil and gas industry flooded Arvin with campaign cash in an unsuccessful effort to reverse the vote.Progressives on the council fought off the fossil fuel interests and only one of the industry candidates won a seat.

The July ordinance included increased setbacks and placed the burden of new drilling costs on the oil and gas industry rather than on the City and on Arvin residents. This landmark victory is a classic David and Goliath story. The Arvin community decided to stand up to oil and gas interests, and after years of persistent campaigning, they were able to bring about meaningful change to better their community. The City Council meeting in Arvin took four and a half hours out of my day, including a 45-minute drive, but it was worth it and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

More than 90 percent of Arvin’s 21,000 residents are Latinx. Sometimes when we don’t see progress or change, we understandably lose hope. Seeing the victory in Arvin gives us hope that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it makes me want to fight for my community in Shafter, another Central Valley town 40 miles down the road from Arvin. It means so much more is possible for Shafter and other Kern County communities. Watching our brothers and sisters in Arvin unite and win has inspired Shafter to come together to advocate for what our community needs. In September, our groups marched together, alongside our grandchildren, in San Francisco at the Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice March. We showed the impact of local pollution on a global stage. We also were able to demonstrate that environmental justice communities like Arvin and Shafter are leading the way, and it’s time for our decision-makers to follow our lead.

For as long as I can remember, big industries have recklessly contaminated our air, land, and water. The place we call home is surrounded by oil wells and fumigation from crop fields. Asthma, kidney disease, and cancer are just a few illnesses members of my community experience. Cancer has claimed the lives of many of our loved ones and colleagues. Oil and gas sites operate right next to homes and schools across the state, sometimes with just a few hundred feet between industry and where kids play.

That’s why my organization, Committee for a Better Shafter, has joined with Committee for a Better Arvin along with Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, and National Parks Conservation Association and filed a formal complaint against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to uphold federal air quality regulations and implementation deadlines in the San Joaquin Valley. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and California Air Resources Board (CARB) have neglected to submit overdue plans to address the nonattainment of national air quality standards for fine particulate matter. The lawsuit maintains that the EPA ignored its duty under the Clean Air Act to issue a finding that both the Air District and CARB failed to submit four different plans to improve the air quality.

Four of the nation’s six dirtiest cities for both long and short-term particle pollution are found within the San Joaquin Valley, according to recent report by the American Lung Association (ALA). Fine particles in the air can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, and they are correlated with higher rates of asthma, heart disease, and heart attacks. For over 30 years, the Air District has failed to meet deadlines set by the federal Clean Air Act. How much longer are we supposed to wait for better air? We’ve been lagging behind the rest of the nation since 1997.

The negative impacts of poor air quality in the San Joaquin Valley touch all aspects of life for its residents. Marginalized communities shouldn’t be forced to pay the costs of pollution inflicted on us by big industry. Big Agriculture and Big Oil—and other extractive industries—should be held accountable by our leaders for their pollution. Why aren’t these multi-billion-dollar mega industries asked to pay their fair share? It’s time for communities all over California to deliver the message that these industries can’t pollute our neighborhoods anymore, just like they did in Arvin. If our communities are brave enough to take on Goliath, our elected officials should be too.

We can’t rely on broken systems to change themselves. We have to rise up as communities, with young leaders at the forefront, and demand our wellness, health, and safety by prioritized. Just like Arvin residents did, we must confront big industries and tell them our communities will no longer be bullied.

Anabel Marquez is a proud mother and grandmother, a community leader in the Central Valley, an active member of the local anti-fracking committee with CRPE, and co-director of the local community garden in Shafter, CA