How healthy is our air?

  • Above, Sunset over the Grapevine last week. The TriCounty Watchdogs and Global Community Monitor presented their report

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    Above, Sunset over the Grapevine last week. The TriCounty Watchdogs and Global Community Monitor presented their report "Community Exposure to Diesel Air Pollution in California’s Transportation Corridor" to the El Tejon Unified School District on Wednesday, July 18. [Gunnar Kuepper photo]

  • This map of the Lebec Grapevine region along Interstate 5 shows where air samples were taken by a task force of the TriCounty Watchdogs over 12 months with a grant and mentoring from Global Community Monitor and a $25,000 grant from the Rose Foundation.

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    This map of the Lebec Grapevine region along Interstate 5 shows where air samples were taken by a task force of the TriCounty Watchdogs over 12 months with a grant and mentoring from Global Community Monitor and a $25,000 grant from the Rose Foundation.

  • A task force of the TriCounty Watchdogs took air samples across the freeway from El Tejon Middle School in Lebec. Above, Trucks are shown passing along eight-lane I-5 right in front of the ball fields at the school, within 250 feet of the classrooms.

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    A task force of the TriCounty Watchdogs took air samples across the freeway from El Tejon Middle School in Lebec. Above, Trucks are shown passing along eight-lane I-5 right in front of the ball fields at the school, within 250 feet of the classrooms.

$25,000 Lebec air study released

Air quality near El Tejon School called ‘serious health risk’

By Patric Hedlund

As we go to press, the board of governors of the El Tejon Unified School District is scheduled to learn that data collected from March 2011 through March 2012 holds vital news about air quality adjacent to El Tejon Middle School in Lebec.

The beautiful school was built in 1939, before Highway 99 was realigned in 1966 to become Interstate 5, right on the western boundary of the school and the playing fields used by thousands of Mountain Community children.

Interstate 5 has became the principal transport corridor for goods in California, with 77,000 vehicles passing the school each day. California’s Department of Transportation says 18,000 of those are bigrig transport trucks passing just 100 feet away from the school’s playing fields, and 250 feet from the classrooms.

As a source of commerce, the Grapevine freeway has become a publicly subsidized gold-mine for Tejon Ranch Corporation’s industrial complex, ‘inland port’ distribution warehouses, truck stops, gas stations, franchise restaurants and a projected outlet store center.

But what may be good for commerce is not always healthy for children’s lungs, says Global Community Monitor’s Jessica Hendricks. The nonprofit group partnered with the Mountain Community’s TriCounty Watchdogs in a $25,000 grant last year to gather data about the impact of the freeway traffic on air quality in Lebec. A series of monitoring sites [see map, page 1] were selected to test PM 2.5 (particulate matter 2.5 microns— the diameter of a hair— and above) and “EC” (elemental carbon or ‘diesel soot’) from diesel emissions.

The monitor itself is a canister about the size of a loaf of bread which contains an intake fan and a filter. It can use a battery or a normal household, lowvoltage power source for the fan.

Global Community Monitor (GCM) helped develop these “bucket brigade” monitors to use in communities around the world where questions about air quality arise. Arvin, at the foot of the Grapevine at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, has now entered into a Bucket Brigade project also.

Community members are taught to place the monitors, change and secure the “custody chain” for the filters, change batteries for the fan, and to send the filters in controlled-environment shipping packets to a certified laboratory for analysis. The test results are then sent to a third-party scientist for interpretation.

On the mountain, ETUSD Superintendent Katie Kleier said in 2011 that she was opposed to allowing the monitor to be placed on school grounds.

In June 2011, under pressure from members of the board who favored knowing the facts, Kleier, with ETUSD attorneys, compiled a proposed contract containing expensive “deal-killer” provisions, such as requiring TriCounty Watchdogs to secure a liability insurance policy large enough to rebuild the entire school—many millions of dollars.

The contract also said a 6-foot chain-link fence would have to be built around the small monitor and that the nonprofit citizen group would have to pay a school employee to attend them as they changed filters on the monitor, even after school hours, on the same fields where the community regularly gathers informally and for team sports without such provisions.

TriCounty Watchdogs decided to monitor the school site’s air from a location across the street, from the parking lot of the Fort Tejon State Historic Park.

The monitoring period of March 2011 through March 2012 documents levels of unsafe air quality in the Lebec area. This air pollution, said the report, “impacts schools and community centers that provide services to sensitive populations like children and the elderly, which are already at higher risk of negative health effects due to their increased sensitivity to hazardous particulate matter.”

Next week, we’ll report about the school board’s response to the report, and review specific findings and recommendations.

This is part of the July 20, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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