Cautionary Tales from Deborah Cipolla Dennis: Our Stop in Delano

We are on our way to Los Angeles on a hazy, warm afternoon in the California Central Valley. We just left Kern County, which is known for two things – food farming and oil wells. I am with two men from Colorado, Rod Brueske and Shane Davis, who have been personally impacted by the fracking in Weld County and have been working to bring awareness to the citizens of their state about fracking.

I am from Dryden – a small town of about 14,000 people in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. My town successfully banned fracking using a zoning ordinance in 2011. Shortly after our ban was enacted, we were sued by Anschutz Exploration. We prevailed at the local court level and when the gas industry appealed, Earthjustice stepped in to lead us to victory at the Appellate Court. We are here to share our stories and experiences in the hopes that we can support the communities of Central California in protecting themselves against the harms of fracking.

Last night we had dinner with about 35 Kern County residents concerned about the current impacts of oil extraction and production as well as the future impacts of fracking. We were hosted by Gustavo Aguirre, Gustavo Aguirre, Jr., and Juan Flores from the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment (CRPE). The residents, mostly farm workers, explained their concerns and told us their stories of health impacts that they have already experienced. One woman relayed a story of her daughter being born with only one kidney and no reproductive organs. She required special care and died three years ago. One gentleman expressed that he felt that the politicians did not understand the concept of hard work and that they are disconnected from the people that they represent.

CRPE is a national environmental justice organization providing legal, organizing, and technical assistance to grassroots groups in low-income communities and communities of color. They have a long history of working with communities on issues such as civil rights, climate justice, air quality, and agriculture and industrial waste dumping. As Gustavo explained their history, I was humbled by their vast years of experience organizing and leading residents in making change in their neighborhoods. We have been fighting fracking for a relatively short period of time compared to the multi-generational issues that the Kern County communities have been working on.

I was particularly impressed with their Community Garden efforts, which serve as organizing anchors and leadership opportunities as well as providing participants with a place to grow healthy food. Campaigns may come and go but the gardens are perpetual and positive. Doing something like this in Dryden might help to keep our participants stay engaged–and our visit to Kern county resulted in many lessons like this being shared.

In the morning we met Juan, an organizer with CRPE, who took us for a tour of Kern County beginning with the 40 Acres, where Cesar Chavez led the farm workers to organize and form the United Farmworkers Union in the early 1960’s. California’s Central Valley produces 50% of the nation’s food. It is a vitally important area that is also experiencing a severe drought. The people of Delano, Arvin and Shafter understand the importance of water and are prepared to protect their communities against the new threat of fracking. Dryden and the many towns in New York have banned fracking because we share this same desire – to ensure our community has access to fundamental human rights, safe and clean water, air and soil for our families and our farms.

We then traveled to Shafter and Arvin to see their community gardens where families are able to grow their own organic vegetables. In Shafter, they are concerned about the fracking that is happening only a few thousand feet from their garden. In Arvin we visited a neighborhood where five families were evacuated due to toxic fumes in their homes. The homes were roped off with caution tape and the oil company had created sparging holes in their backyards to vent the gas. Gustavo Jr. reported that one of the families told him that they had been smelling fumes for more than 6 months. As we stood outside the contaminated homes, Gustavo Jr. and Rod talked about best practices for using the Global Community Monitor Bucket Brigades to test air quality–a tool both have used to stand up for communities whose air has been polluted by the oil and gas industry.

While fracking may be a new issue for the communities of Kern County, they are not new to organizing for environmental justice. Gustavo stated that the key to getting people to come together is building and maintaining relationships. One positive thing about this fracking issue is that I have been able to build relationships and work together with people across California, New York, Colorado and other areas that I would never have done otherwise. Our visit to Kern county put my work in Dryden in the bigger context of environmental justice struggles that have been fought for generations. I’m inspired to continue listening to, learning from and sharing with communities around the country which together make one big movement.