As dust swirled around the outskirts of the
controversial Lamont composting facility Thursday, a group of concerned local
residents tried to describe the area's foul-smelling odors.
"Feces" was the response everyone
quickly agreed on.
"There's something else, though,"
said Denny Larson, sniffing the hazy air as if it were a glass of fine wine.
"It's not quite rotten cabbage."
Larson, a Bay Area-based expert in grassroots
air monitoring efforts, joined Arvin residents and air advocates on what they
called a "toxic tour" of southern Kern County. The so-called Arvin
Bucket Brigade, which is receiving $130,000 from The California Endowment to monitor
their own air, wanted to highlight the region's possible polluters -- from
dairies and fertilizer suppliers to auto repair shops.
Their hope is that their sampling could
persuade government agencies and regulators to pay more attention to Arvin, home
of some of the worst air in the country.
"The issue is there, but the problem is
that the data isn't," said Gustavo Aguirre, the director of organizing for
the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. "This will give us
tools to advocate for change."
The first stop on Thursday's tour was
Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. The company has been in hot
water with the county and is being investigated by Cal-OSHA and other agencies
after the October deaths of two brothers who apparently inhaled fatal doses of
toxic fumes while working there.
At Community Recycling Thursday, the group
members gathered their first gas sample even as a man in a large truck pulled
up, locked the property gate and yelled that they were trespassing.
The group was not deterred -- it was standing
on the public easement on the side of the road -- and instead opened its clear,
plastic bucket and started pumping air into its special 10-liter inner bag.
The group sent that sample overnight to a lab
in Simi Valley that can test for more than 75 volatile organic compounds and
about 20 sulfur gasses.
"Sometimes you find strange
things," said Larson, whose organization Global Community Monitor has
helped residents test the air in many U.S locations as well as in India,
Thailand and South Africa. He said Kern County's stench was comparable to odors
he'd encountered in India and Africa.
But the real proof will come from the
samples, not the nostrils. The bucket brigade will compare the levels found in
its local sampling with health-based standards and see how they stack up. If
they are high, it'll pass the results onto health and environment agencies in
hopes that more official testing will follow.
After the recycling center, the rest of the
"toxic tour" simply scoped out seven other area locations that may be
included in future testing. The official training on how to use the bucket
testers will be conducted in January.
"We're going to find out a lot more
about what you guys are breathing," Larson told the handful of residents
What they were breathing Thursday seemed
pretty dire to air activist Kevin Hall: "It's worse than I thought. The
stench is shocking."
But for Sal Partida, the head of the resident
group pushing for better Arvin air, said Thursday wasn't especially bad; he's
smelled much worse.
Partida said he hopes the self-monitoring
efforts will lead to change.
"We need all the help we can get,"
Partida said. "We're going to get somewhere with this."