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Community Engagement At Center Of New State Law On Air Protection

Kerry Klein
Valley Public Radio
In mid-December 2018, dozens of residents, business representatives and other community members attended the first meeting of the South Central Fresno Steering Committee as part of AB 617.

When it comes to monitoring air quality, we typically turn to air regulators, like the state and the local San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. But a recent state law is taking on a new strategy: Putting air quality in the hands of the community. And one person who’s excited about the opportunity is Southeast Fresno resident Lilia Becerril.

Becerril lives near the Fresno Fairgrounds and Vang Pao Elementary School. She likes it here, and she’s a kind of neighborhood career volunteer, working with local schools, and groups giving legal aid and tutoring services.

And so when she volunteered as a crossing guard a few years ago, it pained her to stop after just three weeks. “My throat was hurting,” she says, from so many cars passing by on a busy street and waiting outside the school. “When the cars were idling they released so much exhaust,” she says.

But it’s likely more than that, too. As we speak, she asks me if I can see a dark smoky cloud hovering a few blocks away. I ask her where it’s coming from. “I don’t know,” she answers, “but there’s smoke coming from everywhere, all the time, and we don’t know how we’re here breathing.”

Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Community advocate Lilia Becerril, concerned about air pollution in her Southeast Fresno neighborhood, points to a faint cloud of smoke hanging a few blocks from her home.

Just a few blocks from Becerril’s home is heavy industry. Food distributors, warehouses, and lumber yards—many served by 18-wheelers and freight trains. She says her neighborhood feels trapped in the middle. “When the wind blows from different directions, it all comes toward homes,” she says.

She wishes she could know more about her air quality, so she’s gotten involved in improving it. As part of a new state law focusing on community air quality, South Central Fresno was selected as a priority area. And Becerril is on the steering committee, helping guide what happens here. “We want to be heard,” she says, “and we want this to be beneficial for everyone, not just certain communities.”

We know that air quality can vary from place to place, even within the San Joaquin Valley. But with only 38 air monitors among 10,000 square miles, air regulators are likely to miss trends happening on a local scale. For instance: We have an idea how many heavy-duty trucks traverse the state’s highways every month. But where and when do they bypass highways and release their exhaust in neighborhoods?

Enter AB 617. Like Becerril, the author, Los Angeles County Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, also felt her community was being overlooked by regional policies. “We were forgetting communities like mine and communities like mine had been left behind all my life,” she says.

And so the law empowers residents, by selecting 10 focus communities across the state and establishing local steering committees. With it comes with $15 million for local grants to build air monitors and bolster community outreach. The idea is: With more data on local emissions, a galvanized community can hopefully guide air regulators in cleanup efforts.

Dave Warner is a deputy air pollution control officer with the Valley air district. Outside of AB 617, Warner says the district is primarily focused regionally. It also puts together an inventory of polluting industries and vehicles.

“We know what's coming out of those pieces of equipment, but are there other things that we're not aware of that we're not controlling?” he asks. “This will be a fantastic way to find out.”

AB 617 could be a change of pace for an air district that’s been criticized for a lack of transparency. At a kick-off meeting in December, Fresno steering committee members complained the air district doesn’t educate the public enough on air pollution and its health impacts. In a letter, the air district also sent the wrong meeting date to Spanish-speaking residents, though it later corrected the mistake.

Credit San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District
These blocks in Shafter, left, and South Central Fresno, both encompassing industry and major highways as well as residences, schools and hospitals, are among California's first 10 priority areas selected for community protection under AB 617.

South Central Fresno and the Kern County city of Shafter are among the communities selected as the law’s first priority areas. Veronica Eady is assistant executive director of environmental justice at the California Air Resources Board, and she says the state knew it was critical to select regions with disadvantaged communities.

“The most noxious land uses tend to be in disenfranchised, low income communities and communities of color,” she says. Indeed, a high pollution burden does tend to track with other negative measures like poverty, unemployment, asthma and low birth weight.

“AB 617 as a law is basically an evolution of a civil rights moment,” says Ivanka Saunders, a policy coordinator with the non-profit advocacy group the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

The Leadership Counsel and other Valley advocacy groups were awarded nearly $2 million in grants through AB 617. Saunders is also a member of the Fresno steering committee.

Though Saunders is optimistic, she says she’s concerned that AB 617’s Fresno region doesn’t include an area of Southwest Fresno that consistently ranks as the most environmentally burdened in the entire state. It’s Saunders’ hope that the steering committee will vote to expand and include that neighborhood.

Whether or not it does, Lilia Becerril is excited about representing her southeast neighborhood on the committee. “I’m the voice of my community,” she says, “sharing what my community is telling me.” Maybe soon, Becerril can shake the nickname she’s given her neighborhood: The Black Circle.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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