A Prayer on Life On the Day of the Dead

Heavy pesticide use in Central Valley means the nation’s breadbasket is far too familiar with death

The Day of the Dead is a somber holiday marking the middle of autumn in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Last week the first rain in close to a year fell on Fresno. The dust that had been collecting on the leaves of Valley Oaks and tacky landscaping plants that line the strip malls was finally washed to the earth. Around this time in 2014, through the passage of October and the advent of November, a major historical event went unmentioned in the US. The name Warren Anderson likely does not trigger a response in the majority of Americans, considering that according to his obituary he died in obscurity in a senior home in Florida, but for thousands of people around the world, and here in California, his name has had an immeasurable impact

Indian women protesting inaction on Bhopal tragedyPhoto courtesy of Bhopal Medical AppealA massive leak of gases used to produce the pesticide Carbaryl, or what American farmers would know as Sevin, on December 2, 1984, has killed more than 25,000 people in Bhopal, India to date and permanently debilitated more than three generations of residents. Sevin is banned in many countries but continues to be used in the US.

Anderson was the CEO of Union Carbide, subsidiary of Dow Chemical, during the single largest environmental disaster in history – a pesticide gas explosion in Bhopal, India three decades ago that has killed over 25,000 people to date. On the night of December 2, 1984, a toxic cocktail of gases leaked from a ruptured pipe at the Carbide plant. The toxic cloud loomed over all of the residences in the vicinity, sending people into violent convulsions and respiratory attacks as the effects hit their systems. They were reacting to concentrated amounts of byproduct gases used in production of the pesticide Carbaryl, or what American farmers would know as Sevin. Sevin is an insecticide that kills every insect it touches, including bees and butterflies, and is banned in most countries that have the wherewithal to regulate their pesticide industries including the UK, Denmark, Sweden, and Iran. Of course it is used widely in the US, the mother nation of such technology, and is one of the most commonly applied chemicals in food production as well as landscaping. In addition to immediately killing over 5,000 people, the gas leak permanently debilitated more than three generations of residents in Bhopal.

Anderson was never tried, and no charges were ever filed against him because Union Carbide claimed that the American company was not under Indian jurisdiction. India was unable to prosecute him and many know him today as the nation’s most infamous escaped mass murderer. It has been nearly 30 years since the incident. According to Indian media reports, when they heard Anderson’s passing in 2014, hundreds of people gathered at the community where residents continue to live on soil heavily contaminated by Union Carbide/Dow Chemical, to spit on his image. Today, two years later, certainly thousands more are burning his photograph and celebrating the death of a man who should have been tried for homicide as was attempted by the Indian government, and whose livelihood and company should have suffered a government intervention to parallel the impacts of the disaster.

Dow Chemical lives on in the blood of Californians

Dia De Los Muertos is a special time in the Central Valley, because in addition to being agriculturally fruitful, this region is far more familiar with death than many of the other places in the state. The Valley’s life expectancy varies from the rest of the state, with some zip codes suffering a 12-year reduction compared to adjacent cities. One neighborhood in Fresno County, in the southwest region, maintains the worst air quality and standards of life of any neighborhood in the state, and one of the lowest human development indices in the entire nation.

central valley landscapePhoto by Miguel Vaca/a> Dow and Shell Oil contaminated drinking water in communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Several cities are now suing both companies for cleanup costs.

In the remote unincorporated town of Del Rey in Fresno County, the community’s entire well system was contaminated by Dow Chemical/Shell Oil. Del Rey is just one of several predominantly Latino farmworker communities across the San Joaquin Valley who have had their water well systems destroyed by the release of 1,2,3, trichloropropane, a fumigant pesticide byproduct, into their waterways. Residents of the town will likely suffer the impacts of this contamination for years, carried in their bloodstreams to their children.

Today Del Rey is supported economically in large part by the presence of Wonderful Company distributing about 90 percent of the nation’s pomegranate juice and products. Del Rey suffers a lack of appropriate governance, a lack of representation, and has been overlooked by policy makers for decades. Communities such as Del Rey and other small towns of the San Joaquin Valley were positioned perfectly for Dow Chemical to lay down a layer of toxics while there was no robust enforcement: It often takes years or decades for state agencies to set regulatory limits on these harmful chemicals, and bring the responsible chemical companies to justice.

The fumigant 1,2,3, TCP is an undetectable, unregulated, and highly carcinogenic chemical. Perhaps the most painful irony is that this contaminant is a byproduct of Dow and Shell’s activities and in fact does not have any agricultural utility as a pesticide. It neither kills pests nor boosts soil fertility and is merely a byproduct of chemical production. After years of advocacy by Community Service Districts such as the one in Del Rey that oversee the provision of water to their small pools of residents, and the work of environmental justice organizations, the California State Water Board is on the brink of finally setting a regulatory limit for 1,2,3 TCP at the most health protective standard of 5 parts per trillion, a huge victory for small towns who have born the burden of California’s food system for decades.

Plastic world

Pesticide manufacturing is married to the production of plastic, petroleum, petrochemicals, and pharmaceuticals, a horrific chain that shackles rural communities of color across the globe and right here in California. Dow Chemical is known for toxic dumping and has made many public statements about how it is simply economically sound, a normal business practice, to incorporate some of their more hazardous gases and chemical byproducts of plastic production into their pesticides and fumigants. Chlorpyrofos, Sevin, DDT, methyl bromide are a few these byproducts. The widespread harm of pesticides is well known today, but their secondary impacts, their concentrations are not studied deeply enough and limits are often not set until it is too late.

What about a world without pesticide factories? Without pesticides altogether? Is it easier to envision endless contamination of our soil, waterways, and lungs than it is to envision a comprehensive ban? What will it take to serve Warren Anderson the farewell he deserved, an actual collapse of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical?

Here in California, the San Joaquin Valley, the food production center of the state, is camouflaged against a backdrop of paradox that makes the absurd sort of mundane, so much so that even environmental activists from other parts of the state seem to gently look away. Yet, as most of us know, the stories of environmental injustice are localized yet global, written on every surface yet entirely invisible, existent in every drink of tap water and every bite of conventionally produced food, yet wholly underrepresented.

Mahatma Gandhi loved to claim that “India lives in her villages.” Today. environmental and political justice activist and writer Arundhati Roy says, “India dies in her villages.” Here in the US, we love to believe in the Gandhia image of villages – a flourishing countryside populated by happy farmers, all beards and plaid and Protestant work ethic. In order to tear off the veil, the US must accept that it dies in its villages too, in particular, in places like the San Joaquin Valley’s irrigation ditches and storm drains where yesterdays rain will carry the pesticides applied on those landscaping plants you buy at the strip mall.

The Union Carbide leak in Bhopal went unaddressed for 30 years, testament to the fact that the system is not created to regulate pesticides; it’s created to support their manufacture and their impacts to communities of color are merely collateral damage. In order to innovate against the most egregious harms of pesticides and chemical intensive agriculture, we require farmers and agricultural researchers whose hearts and minds are aligned with environmental justice.

This injustice is a global one; one tied into each of our very bones. If we dip our clothing in the same contaminated river, we will all wash out white as a ghost. This Day of the Dead I am full of a youthful dream, in honor of those lost and continuing to be lost in Bhopal, and those lost and continuing to be lost in the San Joaquin Valley: We must maintain a world free of chemical pesticides as a long-term goal in order to rewrite history and, little by little, reclaim home.

To get involved support the California State Water Board in setting the regulatory limit for 1,2,3 TCP, sign this petition.

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