Celebratory Tone of Press Conference A Bit Premature

Senator Barbara Boxer speaks to a student from Saul Martinez Elementary School as activist Erin Brockovich looks on.

By Jesus A. Vargas, Coachella Unincorporated

Often times in life you come across situations in which you can’t quite decide whether your prevailing impression is positive or negative. I have found that politics account for a very large portion of these situations. The natural response to such perceptual ambiguity is, of course frustration, but years of political news watching has given me some immunity to that; this makes watching the news much easier, and you can even mine some comedy from it. Recently I found myself in that familiar position of mixed feelings after a press conference given by U.S Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) at Saul Martinez Elementary School in Mecca, CA.

The press conference was called to address the issue of air pollution and the resulting noxious odors in Mecca and the surrounding area. First let me say that this was a problem that has been going on for some time and the fact that it has finally reached the attention of a U.S Senator and the Environmental Protection Agency is unambiguously a great thing. The fact that one of our elected officials responded to the voice of a small, economically disadvantaged community helps bring back some faith in representative government. But the thing that nags at me is that maybe these people were tooting their horns a bit early.

It’s one thing to hold a press conference as a means to give an update on an ongoing situation (as this was purportedly) and another to give a photo op victory lap with adorable local elementary school kids before the problem is truly solved or the cause(s) even accurately identified.

The media event was held in a tiny classroom at Saul Martinez Elementary. The room was adorned with artwork done by children, all with the message to clean up the air in Mecca. Aside from the media and local officials, some 10 school children were invited to attend the press conference as well. Two were even allowed to ask Senator Boxer a question at the end of the conference. Senator Boxer was joined by the head of the EPA for Region 9, the secretary of the California EPA, an executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District and environmental activist Erin Brockovich. After an introduction by Senator Boxer, they each spoke of their respective agency’s role in the Mecca air pollution problem. Some interesting facts came from that.

The head of the EPA for Region 9, Jared Blumenfeld, revealed that, while a pile of waste sediment at Western Environmental had been cut in half from 40 feet to 20 feet high, they can’t conclusively claim that the company is the source of the odor. He talked about enforcing strict environmental laws but then also talked about the difficulty of shutting down pollution offenders because of other business-friendly litigation. The California EPA representative was unsure how to respond to a question posed by a journalist asking how all the waste was allowed to be brought in the first place, only assuring that they would definitely “look into it.” Finally the Air District Control executive, Barry Wallerstein, said that, while air samples were being tested, further odor tracking was needed to prove anything further.

Although the Senator said that there is still work to be done, this was not reflected in the tone of the press conference which was overtly celebratory about what seemed to be only the beginning of a concerted effort to combat air pollution and wasted dumping in the Mecca and Thermal areas.

Maybe I’m just nitpicky and cynical. All in all, it is undoubtedly great that this issue has come to wider attention; perhaps they’re just blowing their trumpets early because they feel that success will come in the immediate future. At least the problem is being addressed, even if the progress we would all like to see has yet to come to fruition.

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