Environmental justice, community development and solidarity economy

The example of Kettleman City, California

Yvon Poirier, November 2006

In other languages : français - Español - Português

Kettleman City is a community of 1400 inhabitants in Kings County in the Central Valley of California. Its population is 90% Latino, 70% of residents are primarily Spanish speaking, 40% are monolingual Spanish speakers.

It is home to the largest toxic waste dump west of Alabama, and is run by Chemical Waste Management (Chem Waste). Kings County receives up to 1/6 of their tax revenue from this company.

In 1988, Chem Waste proposed to build a toxic waste incinerator to burn over 100,000 tons of toxic waste per year. Local residents formed a group, El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water) in response to this dire threat.

After 5 years of mobilization throughout California, Chem Waste announced the withdrawal of its application to construct the toxic waste incinerator. Furthermore, El Pueblo sued Chem Waste for PCB contamination. An out-of-court settlement provided money for the construction of a community centre and the establishment of the Kettleman City Foundation.

A battle won, but is the war being lost?

Since 1993, changes have occurred. Many of El Pueblo’s founding members have since moved away from the area. There has been an influx of seasonal workers who come and go. Chem Waste has gained influence in the community by stepping up charity work, sponsoring local school activities, holiday gifts. It has quietly gained support of Kettleman City Foundation Board of Directors.

Chem Waste is now proposing a major expansion of both the municipal and hazardous waste landfills (a 140% proposed increase in the hazardous waste landfill alone). Some 6 km from the municipality, 500,000 tons of toxic sewage sludge from treatment plants in Los Angeles will be mixed annually with green waste to make compost. It will be spread onto adjacent agricultural lands, which surround Kettleman City.

Confronted by this situation, El Pueblo with the support of the organization for environmental justice, Greenaction, has renewed activities in order to raise public awareness and fight these new impending threats to the health of the community.

Existing Challenges

The situation in 2006 has major challenges:

  • Fewer permanent residents, more seasonal residents

  • Loss of continuity from the past struggle of 1988-1993

  • Chem Waste has gained support in the community by its charity works.

  • Chem Waste supplies up to 1/6 of Kings County’s tax revenue.

  • Lead organizer, Maricela Mares Alatorre, has been virtually blacklisted from gainful employment with the county and cannot obtain work in the community. Thus, in order to live she is thinking of settling down elsewhere.

  • Some of the members of El Pueblo have family members who work for Chem Waste, which significantly limits their willingness to participate in campaign work.

  • It is difficult to find funding for base building activities.

Fundamental questions for our movements

In order to establish a strategy addressing these local challenges, it is necessary to understand that the total global context has evolved. Neo-liberal globalization has degraded the living conditions of the residents of these poor communities. These people are obliged to accept to move, or take on any work to earn a living, even if detrimental to their health.

Isn’t it necessary that the movement for environmental justice consider a change of paradigm in its approach? Indeed, it is not enough to make a population aware of the health dangers of projects such as this one, so it may mobilize appropriately.

Overall the Environmental Justice Movement risks losing if the campaigns are:

  • Limited to single-issues

  • Reactive rather than proactive

  • Not addressing economic root causes of environmental injustices

  • Not putting into question the direction of economic actors

  • Not accompanied by work on the ground with communities, forced to choose low road jobs over their own health

New strategies?

The current context encourages us to redefine another strategy for the environmental movement: an Organisational Strategy articulated around a New Economic Development, which articulates social justice, economic justice and environmental justice.

The vision must change to propose practical and positive alternatives for a given community, region, state. In summary, it is important to make the shift from reactive to proactive, instead of anti.

Thus, we must demystify the economy and the business world, learn how to develop our own businesses, share experiences, build relationships and alliances with networks of social and solidarity economy, from the local level to the international level. We must actively seek the support of unions, specific local businesses and locally elected officials, so that the culture of the area and the safeguarding of the future of the inhabitants and resources of the territory are taken into account. It would be important to seek inspiration from the examples of economic models developed in Argentina, Mondragon in Spain, the network of co-operatives in Émilie-Romagna (Italy), as well as many others.

The Impact for Kettleman City

Such an approach would enable us to include into our strategy of alternative approaches situations like that of Kettleman City. How is waste management itself approached in other countries? How can this industry better serve the community in employment and revenues, while decreasing the negative impacts for pubic health and ecology?

Sources :

Article by Erica Swinney, Community Organizer for Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, San Francisco.

The article is available on the blog: International Newsletter on Sustainable Local Development