Tamara Keith of member station KQED explains what happens to a local politician when a rural region comes to terms with its air pollution problem. And what's at stake when one of the causes of that pollution is also a prime economic driver.
CURWOOD: Fresh tomatoes, grapes, lettuce and other produce have dominated the economy and politics of California's vast central valley for years. But now, due in large part to pollution from agricultural practices, residents there are coping with some of the dirtiest air in the nation. As Living on Earth reported last year, children in the central valley are being diagnosed with asthma at nearly three times the national rate. Tamara Keith of member station KQED reports the prevalence of respiratory illness is starting to change politics in this part of California.
|California State Senator Dean Florez (D)||
KEITH: Forty-year-old state senator Dean Florez doesn't fit the profile of an environmental crusader. He's a conservative democrat representing a district where agriculture is king. In his first four years in California's statehouse, Florez consistently voted against environmental legislation. Lately, though, he's been hearing from voters about the region's polluted air.
[SOUNDS OF RESTAURANT]
FLOREZ: Whether it's school district officials that tell us that our children are missing more days today than they were ten years ago because of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, whether it's the kids themselves that tell us breathing in this kind of air is like sucking through a very narrow straw— all of the stories that I hear in this air battle come from real people.
KEITH: Health officials estimate 300 thousand children here suffer from asthma. Florez's two kids don't have the disease, but he's seen the affect it's had on one of his son's friends, a boy named Michael Tuck.
FLOREZ: He's stayed at our house. We've seen what it's like for him to have an asthma attack at two in the morning and have his mom come to our house to pick him up because we can't take care of it. And you know those memories are in my head every single time I do a hearing and I think about his breathing and his ability to live in the valley and not having to move away. He's a real living example of the reasons we're doing this.
[SOUNDS OF RESTAURANT]
KEITH: What Florez is doing is taking on the region's powerful farming interests with a package of legislation more aggressive than anyone would have predicted. Florez's ten bills would end an exemption from air quality rules enjoyed by agriculture for decades. As he explains that farming contributes 25 percent of the valley's air pollution, he sits in a country-style family restaurant in his hometown of Shafter, near a display of plastic potatoes and onions. Florez admits he is now waging a battle that he and other California lawmakers have spent years avoiding.
FLOREZ: There's the saying, do nothing and say nothing and therefore get nothing done. That's been our model thus far. We have allowed the industries here to really dictate to many of the politicians exactly what they should be doing.
KEITH: Florez's sudden vigor for improving air quality surprised many in the state capitol. Last year when he was in the assembly, environmentalists criticized Florez for missing a key vote on a bill that made California the first state to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. Bill McGavern is a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.
MCGAVERN: In December we sat in this office and talked about who was going to be our champion for central valley air quality, and wasn't it a shame that none of the elected officials from that region were willing to take the lead. And not long after that Dean Florez emerged as someone who was willing to take the lead, and was willing to do that even when it alienates the powerful agricultural interests in his district.
KEITH: Fresno air quality activist Kevin Hall says he used to be disgusted with Florez's positions on environmental issues. Now he can't help but compliment the senator.
HALL: It's hard to describe or to understand this kind of turnaround other than to say I know he's a very intelligent, well educated person. I think he gets it. I think he understands it.
KEITH: Florez's turnaround marks a shift here in the Central Valley. The region seems to be coming to terms with the fact that despite its rural lifestyle, it now faces environmental problems worse than most major cities. In a recent poll valley residents listed air pollution as their top concern. And with one in five kids carrying asthma inhalers to school every day, Kevin Hall says it's no wonder people are demanding change.
HALL: Everybody knows somebody who suffers. If it's not you or a relative of yours, it's an immediate friend. And as people get more and more in touch with this as being common place, the anger grows.
KEITH: The scope of Florez's legislation also caught farmers and their representatives off guard. The bills would not only make farms obey clean air rules, they would force farmers to change the way they do business and cost millions of dollars. One bill would ban the practice of burning agricultural clipping and other waste in the fields. Another would force dairies to go through a strict approval process before being built. Even the state farm bureau was oblique in its criticism of Florez. California Farm Bureau environmental affairs director Cynthia Cory.
CORY: I'm just afraid with this many different issues on the table at once, it makes it more complex. And I'm worried it may not be as thoughtful of solutions.
KEITH: Behind the scenes, the industry is lobbying hard against the Florez bills, and other farming groups haven't been so careful with their words. Off-mic, one prominent valley ag leader angrily called Florez's legislation an ambush motivated by political ambition. Florez, a Harvard MBA, has said he may want to run for state treasurer and someday possibly even governor. Barbara O'Connor is a political scientist at Cal State Sacramento.
OCONNOR: The machiavellian observers argue that he's picked the issue because it's a salient issue, people really care about it, it polls well. I would like to give him a little more credit than that.
KEITH: So far Florez's package of air quality bills has done well in the state legislature, but they still have a long way to go before landing on Governor Gray Davis's desk. And even if they are signed into law, these bills are only the beginning of what will likely be a long process. The American Lung Association ranks the valley’s cities of Fresno, Bakersfield, and Visalia as the second, third, and fourth smoggiest in the country. For Living on Earth, I'm Tamara Keith in California's Central Valley.
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