At the Intersection

Luis Olmedo of Comite Civico talks air, water and environmental justice

For the last 30 years, Comite Civico del Valle has been advocating to improve air quality and public health in Imperial County. Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico, talked with the Water Foundation’s strategic partnerships officer, Elizabeth Soderstrom, about the tools Comite Civico has employed to clean up the air in their community and why their sights are now trained on improving water quality in Imperial County.

Elizabeth Soderstrom, Water Foundation: Tell us a little bit about Comite Civico.

Luis Olmedo, Comite Civico del Valle: My father founded the organization. Back in 1987, he was a farm worker. I think his inspiration came from his involvement in the farm worker movement in this area. Imperial County, the Coachella Valley at least in the southern end, is one of the areas where there was organizing around farm worker labor issues. And, my father, he just developed a passion for helping. Comite Civico is—as the name says—a civic committee, based around giving community a voice, giving farm workers a voice, and addressing many issues.

WF: What were those early days like?

LO: It started as a farm worker-led organization. We still have 3 board members who are original founding board members. It didn’t start with people who were experienced running non-profits. I would say that the first 15 years of their existence, they did things the hard way. They fundraised the hard way, going to events, doing sales, doing raffles, whatever they could. And with limited resources they would put together scholarships and had very successful citizenship classes.

WF: How long have you been with the organization?

LO: About 15 years. I came in at a time when the organization was growing its partnerships from volunteer-based to grant-based. My dad was the director and he was ready to pass the baton. He thought the organization needed some new experience. That’s what landed me here, initially as co-director. I’d have to say that emotionally and in terms of my purpose in life, I think I found my place. Whether it’s for Comite or for other organizations I think this is my life’s work, and I’m really glad that I was able to get into this organization and be where I’m at today.

WF: How have environmental justice issues become your focus and what some of those issues that you’re working on?

LO: Social justice has always been a primary focal point for the organization. At first, we didn’t really understand environmental justice, at least not interpreting and identifying the work that we were doing as “environmental justice.” Everything that we were doing was environmental justice; we just weren’t part of the movement. In the early 2000s, we started doing work with the American Lung Association, but it still kind of heavily weighed on asthma and respiratory problems, and just started to scratch the surface of the environment. It wasn’t like one day we proclaimed ourselves to be an environmental justice organization. It was a process over a long period of time, and its earned by evidence of our work and operating by the principals of environmental justice.

WF: Can you talk about some of the issues—you mentioned air quality—some of the other environmental justice issues you’re leading in California and in the Imperial Valley?

LO: It all stems from us addressing a public health issue: addressing the management of asthma. We started trying to build communication with the local air district, with our county, with our elected officials. We didn’t get very far so we started using other tools. One of those tools was addressing air quality through regulation changes locally. We also at one point sued the U.S. EPA for their inaction on the fact that our area doesn’t meet federal standards for particulate matter. We were successful and now we have an implementation plan that wouldn’t be there were it not for our litigation.

We have also innovated on air quality monitoring. We have deployed a crowd-sourcing database. What that does is it allows the community to submit reports in a way that it takes away all the guesswork. We give the government access, and they approve our reports and are able to redirect those reports to other agencies, if necessary.

I’ll give you an example: if someone submits a report into IVAN ( which is the community-based reporting site or database that I mentioned, they go in and answer a very simple questionnaire, give geographical data, upload photos and documents, and then submit it. That report goes to different places including the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC). So we’ve been able to establish a formal partnership with the government, in this case with DTSC. We own the database, it’s a community-owned database, so we can monitor for transparency and accountability, and it is DTSC’s commitment to review these reports. It is not their responsibility to immediately determine that a violation may have occurred at this juncture; it is just their responsibility to make sure that it’s a legitimate report. It gives credibility to our database.

Once DTSC clears that report, it goes live. Then there’s a problem solving process that happens. We have a task force that meets monthly, made up of academia, government, the private sector, community advocates, students—a wide array of stakeholders participate. And we’ve been able to solve everything from less complicated problems like illegal dumping to more complicated issues that have elevated resulted in fines and penalties. We provide support to seven IVAN taskforces throughout California and our problem-solvers come from CALEPA, USEPA, and regional water and air quality agencies.

WF: Do you have a similar system or are you using the same system for water quality?

LO: We use the same system for water. We have been able to address some issues that have to do with both air and water quality through our IVAN taskforces. For example, there were feedlots that were discharging directly into the river, which is a river that carries agricultural runoff, excess water, and it’s also a drainage canal for municipal waste and other waste—all regulated by the regional water quality control board. We shut down some of those feedlots as a result of the community utilizing IVAN and the Regional Water Quality Control Board, who otherwise were unaware of the violations, and who responded to these community reports. There is now 100 percent compliance of feedlots in our area. We have also received reports of residential water contamination resulting from improper handling of agricultural chemicals leaking into residential water supply.

WF: What other water-related projects are you working on?

LO: The New River crosses from Mexico to the Imperial County, discharging into the Salton Sea. But inadequate infrastructure to pre-treat and manage industrial effluent in Mexico lends itself to speculation that loads of toxic materials may be illegally transported in the New River. We are building partnerships and seeking technology to set up a monitoring network on the New River capable of detecting toxic materials in real-time. Toxic materials can then be “fingerprinted” and traced back to the source, which will give government agencies the evidence needed to regulate or begin an enforcement action. There are also U.S. companies manufacturing in Mexico, operating under weaker regulations and contributing to the water contamination. Yet the lack of international cooperation on tracking toxic materials cradle-to-grave has created something of a safe heaven for polluters.

WF: You’ve really done a lot of work on both air and water quality…

LO: There’s a relationship between air and water. What makes it unrelated is government. Government seems to partition their responsibility, and their programs are so compartmentalized. So the air and water—in our area we have 3,000 miles of agricultural water and drainage canals. These canals are constantly assaulted by aerial and land applications of agricultural chemicals. There’s also fecal matter coming from feedlots. All of that stuff is going into our open canals. The water, exposed to the elements, cuts through areas with heavy industry and eventually becomes our drinking water.

WF: How are you addressing that compartmentalization now?

LO: We spoke with Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia this year and he introduced two bills: one is a crowd sourcing and citizen science bill, and the other is AB 891, addressing data gaps in water. Our drinking water is monitored at some of the main entry points, but we have 3,000 miles of drainage and irrigation canals, all transported through gravity-flow, and the points where the water quality is measured are on the outskirts, where the larger bodies of water are diluting the water. But it flows into lateral canals, which go through the very heart of heavy industry in our area. And that’s the closest point to where people are actually drawing water into the home and to the point of use, whether it’s the shower or the sink. So we’re trying to address that through policy and education.

WF: People are diverting water from the canals for washing and drinking…

LO: Well, all of our water comes in from the Colorado River and then through gravity-flow canals it goes into countryside homes. We call them countryside homes—people who are off centralized systems. Both incorporated and unincorporated areas of Imperial have water treatment issues. But a lot of these chemicals that are making it into the water, they’re not being treated. And they’re still making it into the drinking water. This is a huge public health concern. People who are exposed to this contamination cannot afford to treat the water and reduce harmful chemicals to a safe level. Many people don’t even know that there is a concern, so basic education is needed. Dr. Vanessa Galaviz, a CalEPA scientist, recognized this need, and after discussing with it me, incorporated a need to address this important issue in a recently published report to the Governor. Dr. Galaviz and I have been collaborating to find a way to fund a project to collect necessary water quality data and provide intervention and educational kits to residents.

WF: You recently helped lead a tour of the Salton Sea for legislators, state and local officials and the Water Foundation. Can you share with our readers what’s going on at the Salton Sea?

LO: The Water Foundation invited more than 40 legislators and key government officials to tour the Salton Sea and the region. I shared an overview of the region’s history and highlighted our interconnectedness with Mexico. That was very important for us because I think historically the Salton Sea, which is a huge issue in our area, has only been viewed through a lens of habitat and wildlife. As though people don’t live here. And that’s a systemic problem. For the past three decades or maybe even longer—a lot of groups have only been addressing habitat and wildlife [in the Salton Sea]. It took us only one year to bring in the public health perspective and make it a priority. Why didn’t it happen before? Well, because the Salton Sea is one of those issues where you think, “Oh we’ve still got time, we’ve still got time.” But we’ve got so many problems and so few resources, we also have to pick and choose our battles. We knew that we’re running out of time and we need to jump on board with this issue with or without funding, and we started making trips to Sacramento. So we’d go out and try to schedule meetings, and we’d go to key hearings and elevate this issue and say, “Hey what about the people here? What about the community?”

WF: Elevate the issue of public health in the Salton Sea.

LO: Right, because everything was about habitat and wildlife for the Salton Sea. We need to mitigate wildlife. Nobody ever talked about the people. What about public health? We need to give people an opportunity to be able to have the right information. Government has the responsibility to educate its citizens directly or by collaborating with local governments and non-profits. I am pleased to say that this is already happening and both the California Natural Resources Agency and State Water Board are working on collaborating with community on a health education campaign. This is a positive step in the right direction. Being able to protect communities’ health should be a top priority. Being able to have real-time monitoring data is also important. The Salton Sea is a disaster that the state and Federal government are dragging their feet to fix. We refuse to be the sacrifice zone for metropolitan areas—this won’t happen on our watch.

So it all relates. Air, water, real-time information, taking advantage of technology. I think with a lot of these things, we’re going to be able to build good partnerships.

WF: Luis, thank you so much for your time.

LO: Thank you.