Sierra & Tierra: It Reeks of Injustice in Wasco, CA

By Javier Sierra

Very close to the city of Delano, CA, where Cesar Chavez conducted a great deal of his work for justice, it reeks of injustice.

In Wasco —in the San Joaquin Valley where tens of thousands of farm workers toil— a local ordinance has approved the expansion of a railroad coal depot right next to an overwhelmingly Latino barrio.

Every year, the terminal would receive 1.5 million tons of coal to run a proposed coal-powered plant known as Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) in the neighboring Kern County. The terminal would further poison what already is the country’s worst air quality. The proposed terminal lies right next to a barrio housing some 220 Latino farm-working families who were never notified of the project.

“Industries take advantage of the most vulnerable, of those who can’t fight back,” says Ana Martinez, an organizer of Green Action for Health and Environmental Justice, who works to mobilize the community against the expansion. “We already have the worst air in the country. And the air in the barrios is worse than the air in the white neighborhoods.”

During the Wasco project hearings, there were no Spanish-language announcements, and therefore no Latino residents attended the proceedings.

“This was done in typical fashion to keep the victims unaware of what was going on. This exclusion is racism,” she denounces.

The project would exponentially increase the diesel pollution from trains and the relentless truck traffic hauling the coal from the Wasco terminal to the plant. Even without the expansion in place, the already existing smog and potentially deadly particulate matter pollution is costing over $2 billion in health costs to the residents of Kern County.

Also, the coal would arrive from New Mexico in open railroad cars. This would translate in the loss of some 500 pounds of coal dust per trip and car, a dust loaded with mercury, arsenic, chromium and other heavy metals that would end up in lungs and crops.

“Not even the farm owners support this project because they fear the coal dust would ruin their crops,” says Martinez. “This agreement between farm owners and workers is very unusual.”

A comparative study of the air quality in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley, where Wasco lies, and China, the country with the worst air quality on the planet, illustrates the severity of the pollution problem.

In a three-week period during December and January, the air in the valley was worse than that in China 2/3 of the days, and never, in those three weeks, did the Valley’s air quality reach the safe levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

The Wasco City Council, however, approved the expansion in March without having conducted any health or environmental impact assessments. A month later, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the City Council to stop the expansion.

“Enough is enough!” says Martinez. “Injustice happens in communities of low income and communities of color. These industries need to put people’s health first and then profits.”

Cesar Chavez dedicated his life to fight injustice, to protect the most vulnerable. Ana Martinez is following his steps and has committed herself to clean this air of injustice.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC