As of this week, American kids are back in the classroom. Some—with summer still on their minds—will gaze longingly out the window, wishing to be anywhere but school. In Kern County, California, where 10 school districts sit less than a mile from fracking wells, that view is often obstructed by a giant metal beak bobbing up and down to extract natural gas.
This sight is a common one to children living in predominantly Latinx Kern County, which is also more than 20 percent foreign-born from Latin America and Asia. In 2015, Kern County approved permits for nearly 2,000 fracking wells in their backyard. Each emits hydrogen sulfide, benzene and xylene, all chemicals that are dangerous to human health. While the problem is concentrated in Kern County, a 2014 study found that throughout California, 352,724 students attended school within one mile of an oil and gas well.
Madeline Stano, an attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), visited Seqouia Elementary School in Shafter, California, in April 2013 to celebrate a new garden on the school's property. While there, she was struck by a well looming in the background. During the party, she could smell fumes emanating from the site.
"It’s really heartbreaking to see young students of color on the playground surrounded by all sorts of industries that are polluting them and influencing what's happening in their lives without anyone choosing or planning that," Stano says.
Those chemical emissions, coupled with diesel truck emissions and other pollutants, gives Kern and the surrounding San Joaquin Valley some of the poorest air quality in the nation. The county suffers from an active asthma prevalence of 10.7 percent among adults, according to the California Department of Public Health. That is 3 percent higher than the state's, while the national rate of asthma is 7.4 percent.
Rodrigo Romo was never an activist—until 2013 when his then 11-year-old daughter started coming home with headaches after attending Sequoia Elementary School. Romo attributed her ailments to the well's fumes—the same ones Stano smelled during her visit to the school. "As soon as the fracking started, my daughter got sick," he says in Spanish.
He will never know with 100 percent certainty that fracking is the cause, but Romo says doctors have told him poor air quality can lead to such health issues in children. In addition, an independent assessment commissioned last year by the California Natural Resources Agency found elevated concentrations of pollution in environments close to these types of wells.
“If a community is near where oil and gas is being produced, they are at a higher risk of being exposed to those types of toxic air contaminants than people who are farther away or in lower densities of oil and gas development,” says Seth Shonkoff, who led the study’s public health work.
Because of this, some may imagine that regulations require a buffer between public spaces and extraction sites. In 2013, 20 of the 31 top oil-producing states—including Louisiana, North Dakota and Texas—mandated the distance a well must be from a building. In Ohio, it is a relatively close 100 feet; in Colorado, the proximity is 1,000 feet or further. California is in the minority, one of the states with no requirement.
“We have wells next to elderly care facilities and hospitals, schools for the mentally disabled,” says Stano. “We have wells all over the place. It’s very much a land use strategy where industry interests come first and then community impacts are not a top consideration of planning that out.”
In a 2014 study, the Fractracker Alliance, which studies oil and gas development globally, published a report in which Stano wrote:
California state law and corresponding regulations do not at all limit where industry may drill and merely require notification that drilling will occur to parties nearby...California regulations do not even require state officials to consider a proposed well’s physical proximity to sensitive land uses like schools in their permit review process. Additionally, community residents, students, and school officials are not provided an opportunity to participate in the process of siting, approving or denying wells in their area.
Yet, "California has the strictest standards in the nation regulating hydraulic fracturing," said Dave Quast, the California director of Energy in Depth, a research campaign run by the Independent Petroleum Institute Association of America, in an email. He continued: “Oil productions is heavily regulated and safe, as Kern County residents know better than anyone." But many would disagree, with medical evidence to support their claims.
Romo spent years protesting, marching and visiting doctors—to no avail. He realized none of that was going to move the wells away from his children's schools and improve their health, so he filed a civil rights lawsuit. With CRPE’s help, in July 2015, Romo sued Gov. Jerry Brown, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, and Steven Bohlen, former supervisor to the division. Romo is claiming that the state’s fracking regulations don’t protect the health of Latinx public school children—like his two daughters. (His other older daughter suffers from severe asthma and "fears for her health and safety because of her school's promixity to well stimulations," reads the complaint.)
"I'm confident that things will come out in our favor, but that takes time," Romo says. "It's a process."
A judge ruled there was no legal cause of action and dismissed the case from Sacramento Superior Court in November 2015. An appeal was launched in December and the opening brief is due September 13. It challenges the judge's decision, claiming that he made an error. If the appeal succeeds, Stano says, then they’ll return to the Sacramento Superior Court and move toward a trial. She expects a decision by the end of 2017 at the earliest.
CRPE is using California Code 11135 to support Romo’s claims. This code, which was enacted in 1977, declares that the state, or any state program or activity funded or receiving financial assistance from the state, cannot discriminate based on race, age, ethnicity or sexual orientation. A second case, brought in November 2015 by California environmental organization Communities for a Better Environment, is using the same government code to claim that Los Angeles is discriminating against its youth of color by concentrating drilling near them.
The center’s ultimate goal is to create a precedent with this code. So far, lawyers have been shy to use it, especially because the conversation surrounding oil and gas development hasn't historically revolved around race. Consequently, there is minimal case law to rely on, says Stano. "People of color are overburderned by oil and gas development in California, [but] it’s [also] true worldwide," she says. "Yet in California, we do have one tool to communicate that and try to address and stop that from happening in the future." If one case wins, more should follow.
It's still too early to know what the chances are of either case succeeding, but Kern residents support it. Anabel Marquez, a community organizer who works with Romo, wants government officials to take the matter more seriously—especially for the kids.
She sees Romo take his now 14-year-old daughter to the doctor for her deteriorating health, which includes severe asthma and epileptic attacks, as well as accompanying psychological stress. While she and Romo feel safe speaking up, many families affected by the drilling are undocumented, so they stay quiet, says Marquez.
She knows personally of two undocumented parents whose children go to school near wells. And they’re frustrated because they can't vote to hold people in power accountable or take their kids to the clinic because they lack basic healthcare. “We want a better world,” Marquez, herself a grandmother, says in Spanish. “That’s our dream, of a world with better families and communities.”
Families can't go in search of that world, Romo says. The majority are unable to move out of the state, the only place to escape the wells. They have to find that better world at home in Kern County. "Every day, we're fighting. We know that our pueblito is small and that our numbers are few, but we'll continue fighting."