Salton Sea

Valley Voice: Salton Sea communities needed relief long before coronavirus

Olivia Rodriguez and Ryan Sinclair | Special to The Desert Sun
As the coronavirus spreads and leads to respiratory illnesses across the country, families in the Eastern Coachella Valley need more than masks, hand soap, and 6-feet of physical distancing. Communities with disproportionately higher rates of asthma and respiratory complications — our families — are fighting two battles. For years, the evaporation of the Salton Sea has led to higher concentrations of contaminants in the air, and we’ve watched our families and loved ones grow increasingly sick.

As public health advocates in the eastern Coachella Valley, we are tragically too familiar with the reality of people staying indoors and monitoring their breathing. Many in our community are already impacted by respiratory issues.

We must act now to prevent the worst damage from the coronavirus crisis, and increase our resilience to fight public health crises in the future. Dust suppression, an effort delayed for years — and not even started near any communities in close proximity to the Salton Sea — must be an utmost priority to protect our health today and in the future. The time to finalize a plan for these projects that ensures they’re placed in the most high-risk communities is now. A new Harvard study quantifies this risk: Small increases in long-term exposure to poor air quality leads to a large increase in COVID-19-related deaths.   

The Salton Sea’s pollutants and the demographics of the eastern Coachella Valley make us particularly vulnerable to this pandemic. Many of our community members do not have the ability to shelter in place, nor physically distance at home due to overcrowded living situations. Many are part of the essential labor and agricultural workforce — farming food that is sustaining lives across the country, even as they work in polluted air and in close proximity to one another. Nearly 25% of residents in unincorporated communities such as Mecca and Oasis live without health insurance — compared to 8.9% in Riverside County.

At the same moment that this virus sweeps the nation, the Trump administration has relaxed air pollution controls, and is allowing major polluters to get away with releasing more contaminants into our communities. We in the eastern Coachella Valley have already experienced the health impact from an excess burden of pollution and we know that relaxed regulation is not a solution to our problems.

Air pollution rollbacks during this time are unconscionable and put everyone at heightened risk of respiratory complications. They are particularly dangerous to our communities where people struggle to breathe in normal times. In North Shore, Mecca, Oasis, Thermal and Desert Shores, many children suffer from bloody noses, allergies and other respiratory issues from environmental contaminants that may be associated with a shrinking Salton Sea. Those with chronic respiratory issues are in a compromised position to fight new coronavirus infections.

In some places across the country, while protective measures and decreased traffic have significantly reduced air pollution in urban areas, we have seen the Eastern Coachella Valley’s air quality unchanged. This is a deadly threat, as the Salton Sea’s dust is already choking our communities. Even before the coronavirus, Imperial County had the highest rate of asthma-related emergency room visits for children in California.

Years of delay and neglect have left our community exposed to the Salton Sea’s undescribed contaminants. We are rightfully worried about what happens next when one event —  in this case a global pandemic — places us at a greater disadvantage.

When so many do not have the privilege of staying home, and have to breathe already-compromised air, we need more answers and action to suppress the Salton Sea’s dust.

Gov. Newsom must provide us with the urgently-needed resources that were neglected before and further aggravated by the pandemic, such as immediate economic, health care, housing, utility and food assistance as well as efforts to clean up the Salton Sea’s contaminants. Any plan must include adequate input from the people directly being harmed by the sea’s dust.

As our neighbors bind together to protect people and provide much-needed supplies, we ask that our leaders do the same. We need plans to suppress the Salton Sea playa dust that can be implemented as soon as it is safe for workers. We must increase health safeguards for our vulnerable populations like infants, elderly, undocumented, immuno-compromised individuals and center the concerns of our communities so we have a fighting chance. We cannot let the damage dealt by this health crisis and environmental injustice reach a point beyond repair.

Olivia Rodriguez is a community activist who co-produced "Estamos aquí," a documentary about the Salton Sea and local communities. Dr. Ryan Sinclair is an assistant professor at the Center for Community Resilience at Loma Linda University School of Public Health.


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