Nov 1-2 @ Imperial Valley College

A Breath of Fresh Air

Author: Maximiliano Ochoa, Policy Advocate

Growing up in the countryside, I never really gave much attention to my mother telling me to open the window and get some “fresh air.” I lived surrounded by rich farmland and long highways stretching as far as you could see; 18-wheeler trucks sped by daily hauling hay, produce and farming equipment, disappearing in the distance.

I never thought that everything right outside my window was in some way contributing and affecting the “fresh air” my mother insisted on letting in. At least, it didn’t become an issue until I was around the age of 10, when I suddenly developed nosebleeds.

At that time, several things made my health worsen as a kid in just two years: the high cost of medical consultation and treatment, my parents having to work 6 days out of the week and unreliable transportation to go across the border for a medical checkup, among other things.

After multiple episodes of nose bleeding, my parents paid someone to drive us to the Calexico border so we could cross to Mexicali for a much-needed medical examination. Turns out that my immune system was weakened and the air quality in our community was so toxic it was slowly killing me.

The doctor explained to my parents that constantly breathing low-quality air over a long period of time weakens the blood vessels in the nose; it affects children at a higher rate due to their lungs still growing and the immune system developing, making them more susceptible to illness such as the frequent nosebleeds I was incurring at the time.

We now understand that toxins and pollutants such as Particulate Matter (PM10 and PM2.5), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), released from unpaved roads, dust storms, motor vehicles, wood burning, agricultural burning, and industries all contribute to poor air quality.

In 2017, Assembly Bill 617 “Non-vehicular Air Pollution: Criteria air pollutants and toxic air contaminants” was introduced to legislation by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D). The bill signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, serves to empower communities most burdened by air pollution.

The Community Air Protection Plan (CAPP) also instituted a design and practice where it allowed members from within the selected communities to take an active role in the development of the air monitoring plans and emissions reductions programs. An important design, considering that those who live and work in these selected communities are both the most familiar with the local issues and most invested in promoting sound environmental quality solutions in said communities. AB-617 also requires the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to develop a monitoring plan for the state, and then select based on the plan, the highest priority locations to deploy community air monitoring systems. Considerations in settling the priority locations include the presence of sensitive receptors like schools and hospitals, where the community is disadvantages, and where there is a high degree of exposure to toxic air contaminants and criteria air pollutants.

Through the leadership of the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District (ICAPCD) in conjunction with Comité Civico del Valle (CCV) along with many other community-based organizations, nonprofits and citizens input, a nomination was submitted to CARB. On September 27, 2018, the CARB board made a final selection for the Year 1 communities to participate in the CAPP, selecting The El Centro-Heber-Calexico Corridor for both community air monitoring and community emissions reduction program.

ICAPCD and CCV assembled a Community Steering Committee (CSC) that would directly oversee the projects for The El Centro-Heber-Calexico Corridor. A committee that included local community based environmental justice organizations, school personal, land use planning agencies, transportation agencies, and local public health organizational entities. The CSC being most critical and integral part as its role is to be involved with all aspects of the Community Emissions Reductions Program and the Community air monitoring program. This includes participant recruitment, identification of key objectives, monitoring site selection, emissions reductions strategy selections, and evaluations and dissemination of results. The Steering Committee is also intended to maintain communication with other community members through the planning process to gather input from concerned citizens and facilitate ongoing discussions.

While the process may be seen slow and often criticized that “nothing” gets done, the statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. In the year since the inception of The El Centro-Heber-Calexico Corridor, it has successfully identified and created a community steering committee consisting of 15 unique organizations from the community, each organization being an integral part of the community’s development and well-being. The committee has drafted and implemented organizational bylaws, code of conduct, organizational duties, procedures, and best practices pertaining to CSC as an organizational entity.

As a committee, it has facilitated and participated in public workshops bringing state and county agencies together to share programs and information that address water quality, air quality, hazardous and toxic waste within the community. All of which are necessary for the community to have a quality of living free of public health concerns.

Locally, the committee has hosted over a dozen meetings, inviting the public and community stakeholders to be part of the conversation and created a space where the community can be critical and raise concerns on issues that previously may have been overlooked.

The El Centro-Heber-Calexico Corridor has pioneer and has the most extensive air quality monitoring system. Recently, the committee approved unanimously to add an additional 15 stationary air quality monitors and two mobile ones in the corridor to better collect data.

The new monitors will be in addition to the existing 40 stationary IVAN-Network Air Monitors currently operated by Comité Civico del Valle. The locations of these new monitors will be located in strategic highly populated areas reviewed and approved by the CSC members. Some locations are near schools, recreational areas and plaza outlets.

Collecting data is imperative as it allows the committee to better and more logically measure areas most impacted by extreme pollutants. It helps to develop projects that will address the existing issues of emissions and air quality.

The CSC works closely with CARB to ensure that AB-617 is properly being implemented. Out of the ten communities awarded as first year recipients of AB-617 CAPP program, El Centro-Heber-Calexico Corridor has accomplished more objectives leading not only within the communities but extensively providing training and guidelines to other communities on how to assess, complete and attain objectives under CAPP – a remarkable feat – demonstrating capacity and ability of readiness, collaboration, and work to implement objectives addressed under AB-617.

As a young professional, now in my mid-20s, I am often reminded of my mother’s insistence to get “fresh air.” Knowing that the air is not fresh but full of toxins and other pollutants has encouraged me to participate and be part of the solutions for a better quality of life, especially when it comes to air quality.

As a policy advocate, I am proud to say that I partake in providing solutions and guiding some of the most pressing issues regarding air quality in Imperial County. And I have the privilege to work alongside some of the most incredible individuals who truly care for the local environment, air quality, water quality and overall quality of life.