A Win For Environmental Justice
By Dianne Anderson
In pollution ridden parts of San Bernardino, crusaders have chipped away at policy change for over 20 years, but it’s finally happening.
Some got tired, others passed away, and many continued to carry the baton for a safer Westside.
The victory this week belongs to the enduring community, especially the early mothers who never gave up on pounding the pavement with candlelight vigils, shouts of protests and environmental justice – Jan Misquez, Marilyn Alcantar, and Teresa Flores-Lopez.
Through the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, Misquez galvanized local parents against the Omnitrans facility, which had 60,000 gallon LNG storage tanks on-site located near residents and the elementary school.
Ericka Flores, a resident of San Bernardino and community organizer for CCAEJ, said that gas safety and pollution impact concerns for the West 5th Street area residents started in the 1990’s when teachers and parents noticed local kids were always sick at Romona Allesandra Elementary School.
“Many, many years, a lot of organizing, a lot of strategizing through our own personal meetings, speaking at public comment meetings, being laughed at, being ignored, trying to meet with officials,” she said.
It has all led up to a safer underground pipeline that the community counts as a win, but she said the community has more work to do.
CCAEJ has consulted with SoCal Gas, the current Omnitrans vendor, who explained how the system works, and how it is similar to the underground pipeline that residents already have under their homes, just on a much larger scale, she said.
“Is it safer? Yes, it’s safer than tanks of Liquefied Natural Gas sitting on the corner of their facility across the street from homes,” she said. “We still have questions.”
Last week, Omnitrans announced its “new state-of-the-art CNG fueling systems” for facilities San Bernardino and Montclair, to replace the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) equipment used by the company since 2002.
“This is a significant milestone in our commitment to be a good neighbor, a leader in clean fuel technology, and a good steward of public funds,” said Omnitrans CEO/General Manager P. Scott Graham said in a statement.
The company states that the change from LNG to the new CNG compressors are estimated to save the company $1.6 million a year. The new system also features 24/7 safety local and remote monitoring systems, daily inspections by Omnitrans staff, methane detection, automatic and manual emergency shutdown, along with other safety features.
However, CCAEJ and community members are still curious about the safe delivery of gas. In a tour of the facility, she observed how the pipeline comes up from the ground through the side of the walls of the bus company, eventually fueling the buses. She feels that while the new changes are a good start, it’s not 100 percent of what the residents want.
For years, Jan Misquez fought the bus station’s above ground gas tanks around community fears that undetected leaks could make the community sick, or worse, blow it up. Activist moms testified before local officials and Sacramento legislators about the bus station, along with pollution from the nearby rail yard. One university-based study also showed higher cancer rates in the area where Misquez had lived most of her life.
It’s also where she became a statistic.
Doctors discovered a fast-spreading cancer, and in less than one year at a young 48, Jan was suddenly gone, leaving behind seven children. Today, her good friend, a fellow activist mom — from the same neighborhood — is also now on chemotherapy for several cancerous tumors. Tragically, their fight is not so unique.
She said that the early mothers have given much, their contribution has been massive, and Jan Misquez organized and paved the way for the rest to help get it to this point.
“I know she knows of this victory, Jan was instrumental in making sure that elected officials at the local and at the state were aware. To this day, when people hear of this victory they always bring up Jan,” she said.
In the coming year, CCAEJ is drafting its vision and requests of Omnitrans. They want the community at the table, along with the school district, and SoCal Gas in agreement as to how the community would be notified of a plan of action in the case of an emergency.
“We can’t be calling and say we saw some of your employees running out of the building. Is everything Okay?” she said.
Flores, whose family moved to the Westside neighborhood 15 years ago, said that her young brother now has cancer. He was five years old when they moved. He’s 20 now, diagnosed with leukemia two years ago, and is also currently on chemotherapy.
She said both sides of her family were healthy for generations, and both of her siblings were diagnosed with asthma almost immediately when they moved to the Westside.
“How do you make sense of that?” she asked
Next up, CCAEJ is researching to find out more about typical methods of delivery for systems like this new one, and if the pipes are typically inside the walls. If there is a gas leak, she said the new sensors and automatic shut down is reassuring compared to the safety measures of the past.
Gas leaks would require the facility to evacuate, but she said the community will continue pushing for a better way to notify the area of evacuations.
“Maybe Omnitrans assumed that our lower-income community of color, which often lacks resources, didn’t have the power to stand up to a facility that put our children’s lives at risk,” says Ada Trujillo, a homeowner in Westside San Bernardino. “They assumed wrong. We made our voices heard until our kids were safe again. Now, thankfully, we can sleep more easily.”
For more information on CCAEJ, contact firstname.lastname@example.org