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Paul Towers

Justice delayed for Latino schoolchildren

The phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” has real meaning for children living near California farm fields. Since the first lawsuit was filed seventeen years ago, Latino schoolkids are still being disproportionately impacted by agricultural pesticides — many linked to cancer and neurodevelopmental harms. And now parents are taking on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remedy violations of the Civil Rights Act.

Standing up for kids

Let’s start at the beginning. In 1999, Marcia Garcia and other parents filed suit on behalf of their children, who attended Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard, California — a town surrounded by heavy use of harmful agricultural pesticides, like fumigants. Fumigants, in particular, are known to drift from where they’re applied to nearby homes and schools. The lawsuit (Angelita C. v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation) stressed the disproportionate pesticide exposures for Latino children and sought meaningful protections. 

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act makes it clear that, intended or not, EPA’s rules and programs must prevent disparate impact based on race. And that includes exposure to hazardous pesticides. A suit, like Maria’s, triggers an investigation.

It took some twelve years of investigation before the Angelita C. suit was settled between the state DPR and federal EPA — without any new protections put in place. Instead, state officials agreed to place air monitors near a couple of schools. What’s more, children and their families were specifically kept out of the negotiations.

In response to the inadequate settlement, Maria brought suit again — this time against the EPA (Maria Garcia v. Gina McCarthy) for it’s failure to remedy or seek meaningful protections for her son David and others. Lawyers were in court again last month, continuing to fight for the basic civil rights of Latino schoolchildren.

Disproportionate pesticide exposure

In 2014, the California Department of Public Health found that fumigants still make up the top five pesticides used near schools. And all five are linked to cancer or neurodevelopmental harm. Latino children are nearly twice as likely than their white peers to attend school in close proximity to heavy use of hazardous pesticides, drastically increasing their exposure to these chemicals. And that’s on top of the unfair burden of pesticide exposure children already carry.

The problem continues. Nearly 29,000 pounds of pesticides were applied next to Rio Mesa High School in the last year on record. Maria summed up the ongoing situation succinctly:

“Latino children are still attending these schools, the strawberry fields are still there, the growers are still spraying fumigants, and now my grandchildren attend the same schools David did.”

Caught in the act

In a report released just days after lawyers were in court again last month, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE) revealed a trove of internal emails from federal officials.

Right Without a Remedy details how, over the course of EPA’s 12-year investigation, politics and omissions prevented justice. In particular, EPA ignored its own data and acknowledgment of the harms of pesticides, ignored the reality of the toxic combination of these fumigants, and stalled the investigation, as well as the proposed settlement with Marcia Garcia and the other families.

CRPE Legal Director Brent Newell, and author of the report, said:

“EPA does not pay attention to the discriminatory impacts that environmental laws have on communities of color and ignores the Civil Rights Act’s demand that no person shall be subjected to racial discrimination.”

Among other things, the report recommends:

  • EPA and DPR should end the discriminatory effects of fumigant pesticides, including providing necessary protections;
  • Disclose all the findings and documents from the Angelita C case; and
  • Dedicate additional resources to civil rights enforcement.

The courts will decide on Maria’s suit in the coming days, which could fix some of the systemic problems — and more will likely need to be done to protect familes from fumigants.

In California, officials have an opportunity to heed the call of justice with the soon-to-be-released rules dictating use of hazardous pesticides near schools. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the process to ensure these new rules do a much better job of protecting all kids across the state.

Picture of Paul Towers

Paul Towers

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