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Environmental Justice and Coachella Valley

23rd February 2013, Thermal. Desert Mirage High School

by Christina Lange

Learning to Harness the Sun

The inaugural Environmental Leadership Health Summit took place on February 23rd, 2013 as part of an environmental justice movement in the Eastern Coachella Valley. This part of the desert struggles with poverty, bad air and water quality, high unemployment, high levels of asthma, a receding Salton Sea, high levels of Arsenic in well water, pesticide spraying…the list goes on and on. A far cry from the glitzy, ritzy bright lights that are shining over the golf courses just due West in the other half of the Valley. 

Members of Different Community Organizations

This summit was organized by the Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto and the Comite Civico del Valle, and had over thirty sponsors, including: IQAir, Air Quality Management District (AQMD), Imperial Valley Action Network (IVAN) Online, Loma Linda University, and Calexico New River Committee. The objective was to bring together leaders from the field of education, policy making, governmental, private and non-profit agencies and members of the communities. The focus of the summit was to promote health and environmental awareness, leadership, systems change, and cultural and linguistic competency.

Knowledge is power and the aim of the summit was to empower residents. Leaders engaged with the public, raising awareness on environmental issues—not only explaining what can be done and what is being done—but more importantly, what each individual can do. In addition to the helpful and educational information that was distributed, there were also keynotes, speeches and workshops that visitors could attend.

I was invited to participate in the summit as a vendor, where I could display my photographs and my book on the Salton Sea. Other vendors and information booths included: Occupy Coachella,, Economic Development Agency, Legacy of Clean cleaning products, California Rural Legal Assistance and Planned Parenthood. The high school participated by selling drinks and food, to raise money for their class. It was great to see the different vendors share the same vision of environmental health, equality and help where it is most needed.

Legacy of Clean products

I was also asked, as a photographer, author and Salton Sea resident, to be a panelist on the Salton Sea Restoration Panel. Other panel members were Doug Barnum, US Geological Survey (USGS); Bruce Wilcox, Imperial Irrigation District (IID); Paul Reisman Acting Superintendent, Salton Sea State Recreational Area; Jason Low, SoCal AQMD and Phil Rosentrater, Economic Development Agency (EDA). Jose Angel was the moderator, from the Regional Water Board. Dr Raul Ruiz was there to present the panelists and provoke thought into the current situation.

This was my first experience at being a panelist. Normally I am in the crowd, listening and trying to understand what is happening with the restoration project of the Salton Sea. Nervousness aside, it was an honor to be there, voice my opinion and to be able to pass on what other members of the community have been passing on to me over the years.

Most of the questions to the panelists were based around the needs of the local residents, and the needs of the Salton Sea. What do we each think are the most pressing issues? What is the highest priority? If nothing is done, what is your biggest fear? And what about the efforts at making a viable plan to restore the Sea? 

Topics discussed included how we need to prevent the toxic dust storm from becoming a reality; how we need to prevent another Hydrogen Sulfide event, aka the Big Stink; how we need to focus on health issues; how it would be nice to have a thriving recreational area again, or at least a sea that will not turn into a toxic semi-dust bowl while emitting hydrogen sulfide burps that stink all the way to Los Angeles.

Dr. Barnum addressed the fact that one of the major issues the restoration of the Salton Sea faces is that there are many, different, not necessarily mutually inclusive problems. A solution for one problem might be to the detriment of another. In no particular order, here are some of the problems we face:
- Rising Salinity
- Selenium
- H2S - Hydrogen Sulfide, aka Big Stink
- Evaporation
- Fugitive dust
- Nutrients from the agricultural run-offs, i.e. pesticides

There was mention of how the geothermal, algae, solar, wind and other renewable energy industries might be the key to finding the funding so essential to saving the sea. The Salton Sea area is second to none in the U.S. for potential renewable energy.

The focus has to be on ‘keeping the Salton Sea wet” was a quote I used, taken from my favorite Salton Sea activist, Norm Niver (an activist since 1974). I spoke about the disconnect between the community and the agencies, and how there needs to be more opportunities to work together. This summit was a great start. Often, the residents do not feel as though they have a voice. They are not listened to. Residents have been complaining about health issues and high asthma rates for years and have feared the demise of the Salton Sea for decades. There have been various plans to save the Salton Sea since 1974! So to say that the residents are having a difficult time trusting the local agencies to do something about this is an understatement. The current representatives of the government agencies will have to work diligently to earn back this trust.

Several members of the audience voiced those very concerns and frustrations. A few people spoke of their disappointment with the State Oversight Meeting the previous day, conducted by Manuel Perez, where the public was given the opportunity to come forward and voice their opinion—but they had a single minute to do so. A single minute. Many agreed that this is not good enough.

My hope? That we all work together. That the man in the audience gets the information as to why the Sea-to-Sea plan will not be implemented. That there will be future summits like this one where all who enter, enter equally and all leave as leaders.

The overriding reason why this summit must continue to take place is for environmental justice. What is environmental justice? I go straight to the source and am sharing just a few of their principles.

Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.

Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.

Environmental Justice
demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.

For more information on the summit please visit
Videos from the workshops, keynotes and presentations will be added to their website in the upcoming weeks. There will also be updates on another summit that will be held in Imperial County, currently scheduled for the end of April, 2013. The summits are free to attend, but you need to register prior to the event.

Bea Gonzalez, Mistress of Ceremonies

I would like to give special note to the following presenters from the summit.

I highly recommend having a look at Simon Silva’s art work:
And if you see that Roy Dorantes is performing near you, I highly urge you to attend. His one-man-show is brilliant and never heavy-hearted, though dramatic. He focuses on very serious subject matters, such as immigration, substance abuse, relationships and teen problems.