pesticide use, asthma rates and contaminated bodies of water give Brawley the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted areas in California, according to a recent report by a state environmental health agency.
Pesticide use in Brawley, for instance, places it in the 91st percentile in the state. Asthma rates are higher than nearly 97 percent of the rest of California. And with a percentile of 99.66, Brawley’s rivers and streams are more contaminated than other waterways in California, according to the first draft of the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, compiled by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
As alarming as these numbers are, officials cautioned that environmental health hazards are just one component that was used to rate California’s environmental health.
“Equal weight is given to health outcomes and socioeconomic factors,” said Sam Delson, spokesman for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
“Some communities are more vulnerable to pollution (than others),” he added.
Brawley’s median household income of $36,233 is significantly lower than the state’s median household income of $61,632, and 26.2 percent of its population lives below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 to 2011 statistics.
Ventura, a seaside city between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, was ranked in the 51st percentile for asthma rates and in the 84th to 99th percentile for pesticide use, depending on which of the area’s three zip codes are examined. Ventura’s bodies of water rate in the 14th percentile or 97th percentile for contamination.
Ventura’s median household income is $66,226. About 10.5 percent of its population lives below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Brawley is not the only agricultural producer whose numbers look alarming.
Bakersfield’s zip codes ranked anywhere from the top 1 percent to 20 percent of the most polluted areas in California. Its poverty percentile ranges from 65th to 93rd. Pesticide use as a percentile ranges from 58th to 97th.
Bakersfield’s median household income of $54,656 is also below the state average, but not as low as Brawley’s. And 18.2 percent of Bakersfield’s population lives below the poverty level.
“We know we have air issues. We know we have the New River,” said Brad Poiriez, director of the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District. “Proximity to other areas are not factored in, like Calexico to Mexicali.”
The New River carries municipal waste and agricultural runoff north from Mexicali through the Imperial Valley before it ends in the Salton Sea. It has been called the most polluted river in the United States. Signs along its banks warn against swimming in it.
Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner Connie Valenzuela cautioned against taking these numbers out of context.
“You can’t draw these broad sweeping conclusions on raw data without understanding what went into the data,” she said.
Sulfur dust, a naturally-mined mineral, is used as a pesticide in the Imperial Valley, Valenzuela said.
“Basically it’s ground-up rock and it’s very, very heavy,” she said.
“Because of things like that we show lots of pounds of pesticides,” she added, noting that sulfur dust is used as a pesticide in organic fields.
Pesticides are regulated, and don’t get airborne if applied correctly, Valenzuela said.
For instance, metam sodium is applied while a field is being flood irrigated.
“It’s metered in under the water, and it doesn’t stay,” she said. “When done properly, it doesn’t get into the air.”
While the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool gave Brawley an unenviable rank, there is a silver lining.
The report will be used to identify disadvantaged communities for investment, Delson said.
“The governor is going to announce his budget revision and that’s going to include his investment plan, which requires 25 percent of state greenhouse gas (reduction fund) to benefit disadvantaged communities,” Delson said.
But, in the meantime, what is the biggest environmental issue for local officials?
“Probably the biggest issue on our plate is how we’re going to address the Salton Sea if it becomes an environmental disaster,” Poiriez said. “We’re trying to ensure we don’t become the next Owens Lake.”
Staff Writer Antoine Abou-Diwan can be reached at 760-337-3454 or firstname.lastname@example.org