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Kettleman City Residents Work to Reduce Diesel Pollution

Anna Martinez was standing on a street corner in the tiny farmworker community of Kettleman City when she heard the familiar sound of a truck engine roaring to life.

She pointed to a diesel truck parked on a lot next to three others. The lot was just one block from State Route 41, and another block or so from a huge agricultural field.

“We’ll see how long he’s going to idle,” said Martinez, a community organizer with Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. “He’s just now starting his truck - see all the emissions and black smoke.”

Greenaction, a San Francisco-based organization, partners with area residents to improve health and reduce pollution in Kettleman City. That’s a big job in this community, which, among other concerns, is home to one of the largest toxic waste landfills in the West.

“When these farmers are spraying their fields, now you have the pesticides, the diesel emissions, not to talk about, you know, the drinking water that’s no good,” Martinez said. “It just goes on and on, and adds to how bad this community is in Kettleman.”

For several years, Greenaction has partnered with local activists to fight the expansion of Waste Management’s controversial landfill, which is located about 3 ½ miles from Kettleman City.  Recently, they’ve focused their efforts on another issue: diesel emissions in Kettleman City and nearby Avenal.

They couldn’t do much about the diesel pollution stemming from the steady stream of traffic traveling along Highway 41, which cuts through Kettleman City as it connects the Valley and the Central Coast. So, Greenaction and several community members launched an education campaign to reduce the number of drivers that park their trucks within the community, and leave their engines chugging.

“The way we started this program was we got a small grant from the Fresno Regional Foundation and the U.S. EPA, and this was to start working in communities to educate truck drivers to reduce their idling, and contamination in the communities,” Martinez explained.

So what’s the big deal about diesel? According to experts, diesel exhaust particulate matter is a toxic air contaminant that can cause cancer, premature death and other health problems.

Diesel particles, "are still very, very small, they will go deep into the lungs, where the air is transferred into the blood, and get absorbed into the blood stream,” said David Lighthall, health science advisor for the Valley Air District. “The smaller particles penetrate deeper into the lungs and they’re more likely to actually be absorbed.”

Lighthall said diesel is a problem up and down the Valley.

“There’s a whole string of neighborhoods that are adjacent to Highway 99,” he said. “Highway 99 is going to be the primary risk zone, where you’re going to have the largest number of people exposed to the highest concentration of diesel exhaust particles. So I think what makes Kettleman City unique are the other potential risk factors that are down there, and they’re not necessarily limited to airborne sources of pollution or risk.”

Lighthall said it’s generally difficult for people to avoid exposure to the ultrafine diesel exhaust particles that are very common near roadways. For that reason, he praised the community’s diesel campaign.

“I think this is a fantastic project, where community activities have actually gone out and they’ve engaged the business community, and they’ve actually, it appears – obviously, you’d like to see a sustained study, to make sure that trucks are continuing to do this – but they’ve reduced community impacts here,” he said.

Jose Rodriguez, 18, participated in the diesel campaign. He’d time how long a parked truck ran its engine. If it idled longer than the legal limit of five minutes, he’d approach the driver, and ask him to turn off the engine. He would also tell him about government grants that can help drivers retrofit or replace their diesel vehicles.

“I would just let them know it was dangerous for them, for the environment, and for their family,” Rodriguez explained.

As part of the campaign, nine businesses signed ‘Good Neighbor’ agreements, and pledged to comply with idling laws.

“These good neighbor agreements are simply saying that if they’re complying with the laws, all the trucks they have will be reducing idling, and if any of these companies see their truck drivers or any other truck idling, they are going to go out and let them know that you cannot idle, it’s against the law,” Martinez said.

The campaign ran from April to December. Based on monitoring of idling “hot spots” at the beginning and end of the project, the campaign claims to have achieved up to a 91 percent reduction in diesel idling violations in Kettleman City and Avenal.

Maria Saucedo is pleased with the results of the project.

“For me, it was good, because the majority of truck drivers accepted that they have to turn off their motors and that it was affecting them,” said Saucedo, a resident of Avenal and a Greenaction community organizer. “In time, we realized that they understood this information, because now the trucks aren’t idling for such a long time. They arrive and turn off the motors.”

Saucedo’s personal experiences motivate her to fight for a cleaner, safer community. Several years ago, Kettleman City gained national notoriety for an unexplained cluster of birth defects. Saucedo’s daughter Ashley was one of the babies born with severe health problems. Ashley died in 2009. Saucedo gave birth to a healthy daughter later that year, but had a miscarriage in 2011. She’s now seven months pregnant, and wants to ensure that her children grow up in a healthy environment.

“As one of the affected mothers, I’m proud to be able to help people,” Saucedo said. “I want there to be a change, and for me this is a big change, even if it’s not very noticeable, for us it’s an extraordinarily large health improvement, that’s the truth.”

Anna Martinez is confident that the reduction in diesel idling can be sustained. But the group could have a bigger fight on their hands. Waste Management is still seeking a permit to expand its hazardous waste landfill. If approved, up to 400 trucks could travel to and from the facility each day. A company spokesman said a small fraction of those trucks would drive directly through Kettleman City.

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.
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