We tend to see public health crises as inevitable. However, that is not always the case. For example, in Flint, Michigan, more than 100,000 residents have been exposed to lead-contaminated water, including 12,000 children, since 2014. Lead poisoning can have lifelong impacts on the health of young children, long after the source of contamination is removed. But if we look back, there was a moment that could have prevented this ongoing crisis. In April 2014, city and state officials decided to temporarily switch the city’s water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River as part of a plan to pay less for water. Flint’s city leadership took a gamble on the community’s health when it decided to save money by forgoing the appropriate tests and treatment of their new water supply. It’s a gamble that local families have paid for dearly.
We don’t have to look as far as Michigan to find examples of officials looking the other way as families consume contaminated drinking water — it is happening right in our backyard. In the nearby community of El Rio, hundreds of families were recently advised against drinking their tap water, after elevated levels of nitrate — a byproduct of agricultural fertilizers — were found in local water wells. Nitrate can interfere with the ability of blood to carry oxygen to vital organs and is puts infants especially at risk.
Here in Oxnard, we are also at a crossroads regarding the safety of our water. In February, scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) found that groundwater near the Fox Canyon aquifer system in eastern Oxnard was contaminated in an area of steam injection oil production (also known as steam fracking). The USGS found thermogenic gases — byproducts of oil drilling — in groundwater wells near oil operations. USGS scientists indicated that further research was needed to determine the exact relationship between oil drilling and the occurrence of thermogenic gasses, as well as the potential for these gases to move into the Fox Canyon aquifer system. As a result, county supervisors recently ordered a moratorium on new oil drilling in Fox Canyon until the end of this year.
For decades, Oxnard residents, 85 percent of whom are people of color and the majority of whom are working class, have been treated as expendable and forced to bear the brunt of industrial pollution. For example, the city generates electricity for the region using gas-fired power plants that create toxic emissions that our community is forced to breathe. Many Oxnard families live near, or work on, pesticide-laden agricultural lands. And Oxnard is home to the Halaco Superfund site, the former location of a metal smelter, that is rife with toxic pollutants. Too often, as working class people of color, our bodies are treated as sacrifice zones.
Families living in a mobile home park just 1,600 feet from the proposed oil expansion by Renaissance Petroleum are especially vulnerable. They already breathe in pesticides from nearby strawberry fields and residents have high rates of asthma. Renaissance Petroleum’s expansion would place these families at further risk from carcinogens like toluene and solvents used in oil drilling. Food & Water Watch has knocked on dozens of doors in the area and many neighbors did not even know of the planned drilling expansion. Those most directly affected by toxic pollution are rarely asked their opinion. And when they speak out, they are often ignored.
Let’s use this six-month drilling moratorium to work on the prevention of disasters and to guarantee that our water and air are safe. Failing to do so would ultimately perpetrate violence against our community — a slow violence that is hidden from plain sight until it is too late, creating trauma that can last for generations.
The first step is often the hardest, but our elected Supervisors have made a bold and welcome move with their unanimous votes in favor of the 45-day moratorium in April and their six-month extension in June. To continue to do the right thing for our health and our children’s health, let’s make this moratorium the first step in a permanent ban on new drilling permits. Our community has suffered the health and environmental effects of oil drilling for decades. It is much more expensive to try and fix a crisis than to take the early, sensible measures that can avoid it in the first place.
Let’s acknowledge our community and the supervisors for prioritizing our health over corporate profit. Call your supervisor and urge him or her to not to cave to pressure to reopen our community to drilling. Let’s not become the next Flint.
Ana Rosa Rizo-Centino is a senior Central Coast organizer with Food & Water Watch and Oxnard mom of two daughters.
Amaru Tejeda and Jéssica Coyotecatl are PhD students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and part of the Energy Justice in Global Perspective Mellon Sawyer Seminar.
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