Community activists encourage Stan State students to get involved.
June 06, 2024

According to the American Lung Association, the Central Valley has the worst air quality not only in California but the entire country. Valley Improvement Projects (VIP), a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Modesto, is trying to bring awareness to the issue with its documentary “Burning Injustice,” which is currently being shown around the world.

A screening of documentary was held on April 18 in the J. Burton Vasché Library at Stan State, inviting students, faculty, staff and members of the community. The film highlighted the environmental and community impact of a local waste incinerator. Following the screening, VIP and local community organizers discussed the impact of poor air quality on members of the community.  

“They picked this location because it is near the Latino farming community,” said VIP Co-Founder and Project Director Bianca Lopez.

The last garbage incinerator, called Covanta, is located in Crows Landing (near Patterson). It is a concern for many people so the activists are bringing attention to the racial injustice of the location. Another incinerator in Long Beach closed in January of this year due to increased environmental regulations which made it no longer economical feasible to continue operating.

The documentary exposing the incinerator’s environmental impact was produced by The Story of Stuff, a Bay Area team that exposes the connections between environmental and social issues to create a more sustainable and just world. It follows the journey of Latino activists, John Mataka and Bianca Lopez. It took a year to produce the documentary, and the screening event was co-sponsored by Stanislaus State’s Student Leadership, Engagement and Belonging, the Office of Sustainability and Eco-Warriors.

One goal of the film is to permanently close the last remaining trash incinerator in California. The film exposes the devastating health consequences of incinerator pollution in California’s Central Valley and amplifies activists’ calls for environmental justice and a safer future for their community.

“Environmental racism is so close to us, but a lot of people don’t see it,” said Joy Ok, a Stan State English graduate student.

The organization hopes for the same outcome in Stanislaus County. Not only are community members worried about the air quality, but they are also concerned about the toxic ash that is being buried in the ground.

“Our community has neglected this issue, so we strive to make the community a better place,” Lopez said. “Covanta is emitting a harmful chemical called dioxin.”

After waste is collected, it is burned. The heat is then collected and turned into energy, but harmful ash can seep into the water supply that residents drink.

“This definitely opened my eyes to environmental racism,” Ashley Mendez, a Stan State English student, said. “It was beneficial for me to learn about what is going on in the community so I can find time to help address it.”

Lopez was stunned to learn about the presence of the incinerator near her home when she first heard about it years ago.

“A lot of people don’t have the ability to live somewhere else,” she said.

Activist John Mataka raised his family in the small town of Greyson and did not realize all the problems that existed there until he moved there. There were no parks in the area, so children would often play at the local cemetery.

His late son, Emiliano Mataka, was also a local activist and he motivated him to take action.

“Because of him, we are inspired to do more,” Mataka said.

Stan State Assistant Professor of Public Health Promotion David Veloz, who teaches environmental health, said the water and air quality in Turlock are a growing concern and need improvement to meet the public’s priorities and expectations regarding pollution.  

According to Veloz and other experts, polluted air gets trapped in the Valley, which puts residents at higher risk for adverse health outcomes. Agriculture and road dust in the region, along with other sources, are also contributing factors to particulate matter pollution.

“Some pesticides bond to soil dust particles and certain chemicals that are being applied may continue to impact the environment for several years,” Veloz said.

He told students that they are the future.

“Who else is going to worry about your health?” he asked.

Veloz said that his parents were ag workers, and he worries about having been exposed to anthropogenic pollutants as a child. He thinks there must be more pollution and pesticide awareness, especially for people who live close to agricultural fields or major freeways or highways.

“Some people are afraid to make noise, but people have rights to voice their concerns,” Veloz said.

The speakers said that studies have shown there are increased asthma rates and low birthweights associated with increased pollution. There are also more cardiovascular disease and cancer patients in the Valley.

Mataka said he thinks students can do more and hopes they are encouraged to speak up to change the quality of life for community members.

The documentary opened the eyes of graduating English major Carlos Palmeno who moved from Los Banos to Turlock 15 years ago.

“My allergies are terrible, probably in part because of the bad air quality,” Palmeno said.

A useful tip the activist gave was to wear face masks on bad air quality days and avoid vigorous exercise outdoors. Another proactive approach is to buy air filters for inside your home.

“Nobody knows if what they are doing in Crows Landing is safe and we are the experiment,” Mataka said. “They are not being forthright about what they are doing and that is the danger — not knowing.”

Stan State Sustainability Specialist Jennifer Daniels shared how students can get involved in the community by listening to what is being decided at the local level.  

“Pay more attention to politics, because money is being allocated but voices are not heard,” she said.

Lopez said she encourages different ways to get involved, such as sharing important information on social media or supporting letter-writing campaigns.

VIP launched in 2012 and is looking for volunteers. Those interested may follow VIP on Instagram and sign up.