Imperial County: Toxic Capital of the California Desert

Warning sign on the banks of the New River in Calexico | Photo: Jason Carter/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Imperial County town of Brawley is one of the most polluted places in California, according to a new environmental justice mapping tool released last week by the State of California. In fact, ZIP Code 92227 surrounding Brawley ranks in the dirtiest five percent in the state, earning especially bad marks when it comes to pesticide pollution, hazardous waste, and impaired bodies of water.

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ZIP Code 92236 in nearby Coachella and Thermal in Riverside County is less polluted, but not by much. Its ranked score on its residents' exposure to pollutants ranging from ozone and diesel exhaust to hazardous waste and particulate matter are high enough to put it in the top 10 percent of polluted California ZIP Codes.

That's according to CalEnviroScreen, more cumbersomely known as the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, a free online tool released this month by the California Environmental Protection Agency (Ca/EPA) and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).

The agencies sifted through data on a range of environmental hazards in the state sorted by ZIP Code, including concentrations of ozone and particulate matter, diesel exhaust, pesticide use and toxic releases from facilities, dumpsites, traffic density, and a handful of other environmental stressors, and assigned the level of each of these stressors a numerical value for each ZIP Code. They then did the same with each ZIP Code's demographics, including the prevalence of children and elderly in the area, rate of low-weight births, prevalence of asthma, income and education, racial makeup, and linguistic isolation, all of which social factors make people much more vulnerable to environmental illness.

Multiplying the numerical values for the local pollution burden and demographics gave each ZIP Code a "CalEnviroScreen score" that describes that area's environmental health status.

Though this does provide a way of comparing the relative environmental misery of ZIP Codes in different parts of the state, it seems that the scores may well inadvertently mask certain regional realities in the desert. The ZIP Codes that occupy the not-so-coveted slots in the dirtiest 5 and 10 percent are clearly concentrated in an arc between the Southern and Northern California's industrial population centers, with the broad bulk of the arc in the populous agricultural and industrial easten half of the Central Valley:

Blue marks the top 5 percent dirtiest ZIP Codes in the state, brown the 6-10 percent ranks | Screencap via CalEnviroScreen

The most-impacted ZIP Code, according to CalEnviroScreen, is 93706 in West Fresno. Compton, East L.A., and Baldwin Park all make the top 10, with the remainder of the ten dirtiest ZIP Codes in the Central Valley.

By the map above, aside from Brawley and Coachella, the desert looks pretty clean. That's in part because the L.A. Basin, Inland Empire, and Central Valley are far more crowded, and that population boosts the demographics part of the CalEnviroScreen score. But look at this map based on CalEPA's raw data on numbers of hazardous waste dump sites per ZIP Code, uncorrected for population numbers:

The darker brown, the more hazardous waste dumps | Screencap via CalEnviroScreen

Suddenly the desert doesn't look so clean, does it? Imperial County, in the southeastern corner of the state, is clearly delineable by its prominent brown color compared to its neighbors. There are notable "hotspots" in the Blythe-Palo Verde area and around Twenty-nine Palms, and ZIP Codes with slightly less concentrated numbers of dumps dotted throughout the rest of the desert.

Scroll through the pollution maps in CalEPA's Guide to the CalEnviroScreen site and similar patterns emerge, especially with regard to Imperial County. For instance, here's the map for Solid Waste Sites and Facilities (meaning, essentially, landfills and transfer stations):

Screencap via CalEnviroScreen

And here's the map for pesticide use, in which much of Imperial County ranks in the thousands of pounds of pesticides applied per square mile weight class:

Screencap via CalEnviroScreen

The message becomes clear: while there are certainly places elsewhere in California, especially in the stretch between Fresno and Bakersfield, where the sheer scale of environmental injustice might well be greater based on numbers of people affected, slightly less-populated Imperial County is the California desert's toxic capital, with places like the east Coachella Valley and a few other spots not far behind.

That's not news to anyone who's familiar with Imperial County, of course. A network of Imperial activists has sprung up over the last decades to fight for better conditions in the Valley.

And they have a long road ahead of them: even with the population of Brawley being significantly lower than ZIP Codes in Fresno and Bakersfield, the communities at the south end of the Salton Sea are polluted enough that they still made the top 5 percent statewide. Once it sinks in that those figures are based on population as much as pollution, the magnitude of Brawley's burden becomes rather heartstoppingly clear.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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