The small Kern County community of Arvin has some of the worst air in the nation. Surrounded on two sides by mountains at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, the city's 16,000 residents breathe air polluted by cars, trucks and industrial operations from nearby, and from across the valley. But now some members of the community are taking matters into their own hands, with a "bucket brigade" that aims to clean up the air. But their efforts are not without controversy.
When the air in Arvin is especially bad, thick with smog and particulate matter, even Bear Mountain, just five miles away fades away into a grayish brown haze. But on days like that, when other residents of this small farming community stay indoors out of concerns for their health, Byanka Santoyo goes outside and starts to work.
"I have problems when I breathe in. You have those burning eyes and I cough a lot. But the work has to be done. If I have to do it, I'll do it. I don't care, it's my community and it has to be fixed."
Santoyo is putting her own health at risk out of a concern for her community and the health of her neighbors. She's the coordinator of a new program from The Committee For A Better Arvin and a Bay Area environmental group called Global Community Monitor. It's called the Arvin Bucket Brigade.
But instead of a volunteer fire fighting battalion as the name might imply, this group is focused a different menace the community, air pollution. The ten volunteers with the group carry large plastic buckets around with them, complete with a set of gear that would make a science geek envious. When they come to a location with especially poor air quality, they take an impromptu sample. Santoyo gave us a demonstration:
"We have a bucket, we'll show you right now. You place a bag and you hook it up to it and start sucking out the air. And we have a vacuum. You suck out all the air take out all the pressure from it, from the inside of the bucket," says Santoyo in an impromptu demonstration.
Santoyo uses a small handheld vacuum cleaner hooked up to some tubing to make sure there's no air left in the plastic bag. It's a process that takes five minutes so we've skipped over some of the steps in the interest of time.
"And after five minutes we open the little valve from the sample bag. It [the sample bag] starts to expand and it grabs all the air, the contaminated air. Close it up, and write the location and place it in the bucket until we get a box from FedEx. And we send it out to the lab," says Santoyo.
The volunteers receive training from Global Community Monitor and document their steps with photos, and a written chain of custody. The data goes to another scientist for analysis.
"It's reliable data, the community members have all been trained on how to use it as well as on quality assurance and quality control methods."
That's Global Community Monitor's Jessica Hendricks, who helps run the program, which is active in 25 states and 27 countries. She says it began over a decade ago when Erin Brockovich and another lawyer were overcome by noxious gasses near an oil refinery.
"Knowledge is power, the more a community knows, the more informed they're going to be. They have a right to know what they're breathing and this is what is allowing them to achieve that," says Hendricks.
And at least according to the the Arvin Bucket Brigade, the results are alarming. Much of the group's attention is focused on garbage compost facility just west of town called Community Recycling. Hundreds of truckloads of food waste from southern California are trucked to the site every day. Santoyo believes the plant is polluting the air with dangerous gasses, known as volatile organic compounds. The group staged a protest outside the plant on Sunday afternoon.
"One of the high ones is hydrogen sulfide. It's really bad for our air. It brings pulmonary problems, respiratory problems, depression," says Santoyo.
The Committee For A Better Arvin says that in July 2012, it detected hydrogen sulfide levels near the facility of over four times the level the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment sets for acute exposure to the gas. And the reported readings were and 18 times higher than the level for chronic exposure.
But not everyone has confidence in the group's 'do it yourself' approach to air monitoring, or the way that data is being interpreted.
"I think more information is always helpful and we can do what we can to make sure that the group is assisted in any way that they can do what they're hoping to do in a more technically sound fashion. More information is always good. It's tricky when you mix activism with science and sometimes information is not properly communicated with the public," says Seyed Sadredin, the executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
"Even if you take what they have measured on the surface, without questioning the methodology and not questioning the numbers, the concentrations that they are measuring at the boundary of the facility is well below the health thresholds for the pollutant that they are measuring."
Different agencies have different standards for measuring exposure to the gas, and the period of exposure.
"It's always important to point out that air monitoring is a highly scientific, technical undertaking that requires years of training and a lot of strict process and procedures that you have to follow. And you have to keep that in mind as you look at various groups trying to do a home-made air monitoring regimen."
But everyone does agree on one thing: hydrogen sulfide is dangerous. In fact last October, two brothers who were working at Community Recycling, Armando and Heladio Ramirez, died after inhaling the gas. Armando Ramirez was just 16 years old. Cal-OSHA fined the company over $150,000 and the Kern County Board of Supervisors revoked the plant's conditional use permit.
Activists like Sal Partida thought that would be the end of Community Recycling. In his office in downtown Arvin, he points to a picture on the wall of the site of the accident.
"Those two boys died right there where there's a group of people. There's a hole in there, and that's where they were found brain dead, after they were breathing the hydrogen sulfide."
But the company appealed, and is the plant is still operating. Partida says he wants the plant to close.
"All the trash and all the garbage they've got here is all from L.A. I don't want no more trash, I don't want no more problems with smell, all the flies that we get over here, papers, we get everything."
Sadredin says that the workers who died and the samples taken by the bucket brigade are two different issues.
"That's not to minimize what happened on the facility about a year or so ago the concentrations that were experienced in that tunnel [which] the two workers were exposed to were basically high enough to cause instantaneous demise of those individuals. So it's important to distinguish what might have happened within the facility at a particular location from what the air district looks at which is outside the fence line of the facility and also in the community there."
He said that the district has investigated the facility in the past and didn't find any major issues.
"I'm not aware of any major violations by the facility. I know we did a study about two years ago where we looked at what pollutants are emitted from that facility and tried to see if there are any traces of those pollutants downwind in the city of Arvin and we were not able to show any traces of those elements that are coming out of the facility."
Partida says he's aware of the criticism of the project.
"The air district is questioning the validity of the bucket. They say, 'how do I know that you didn't get that bad air contaminated somehow. Or how do I know that you're qualified to take that sample. Or that you did take the sample where you said you took the sample and not somewhere else.' They're always questioning it," says Partida.
He says the group takes great strides to maintain the integrity of its data.
"We always have two people one of them takes the sample the other one witnesses the sample and then [does] the paperwork. And then there's a custody sheet as soon as you release the bucket to somebody else, or the bag to somebody else."
Gustavo Aguirre from the Center for Race Poverty and the Environment's, who also assists with the bucket brigade, says the project isn't just about the data. It's about drawing attention to the issue and being proactive in taking on what they believe is a major source of pollution.
"[It's about] how can we influence the authorities to take more proactive action and more effective steps in cleaning our air and facing these issues that they, it looks like they don't want to do more than the minimum."
Sal Patrida says that no matter how long it takes, the Committee For A Better Arvin will continue its work, despite the critics.
"It may be five years, or ten years from now but I know that we're going to see it. because we're not going to let up on the efforts we're putting up now until we see that day when the skies are clean and the air is flowing and we'll be able to breathe easier without any respiratory problems or asthma or any other diseases that are coming around as a result of the bad air."
And in the coming months, Arvin's bucket brigade might get some new neighbors. Global Community Monitor says the Arvin project is an experiment, and the group hopes to start similar projects in communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley.