By Deirdre Francks '20
Before I arrived at Stanford, I was warned about the Stanford bubble; a phenomenon where people on campus feel removed from the outside world. Though I haven’t been a student here for long, I can confirm; the bubble is real. Although it’s great to feel comfortable and at home on campus, I want to make a conscious effort to engage with the outside world and with neighboring communities in the Bay Area during my time at Stanford.
Just weeks into fall quarter, I had the opportunity to interact with an organization in East Palo Alto called Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) that strives for social and environmental justice on a local level. Founded in 1994, YUCA is a grassroots organization that has been heavily involved in local issues of environmental regulation. Their programs focus on teaching leadership skills to local adolescents and empowering them to be engaged with the social, political, and environmental issues in their community. One Friday afternoon in October, YUCA gave me and other members of SSS’s Environmental Justice team a “Toxic Tour” of East Palo Alto.
YUCA led us to various sites with a history of environmental injustice, including the site of a formerly-operating hazardous waste facility called Romic. I was appalled to learn that located just steps from EPA homes, Romic operated without a permit for years, committing countless health and safety violations. The adult leaders of YUCA recounted with great pride the story of their 14-year campaign to shut down the facility, culminating with its closure in 2007.
Their campaign drew attention to the pollution coming from the plant, both in the air and in the soil surrounding the facility. YUCA demonstrated that the rates of both asthma and cancer in the immediate neighborhoods surrounding the plant were much higher than those of the rest of San Mateo County. They also pointed to numerous safety violations including two cases of tragedy; one man was severely burned while working with a tank of highly flammable liquid and his manager refused to call 911 for hours. Another man suffers from permanent brain damage due to oxygen deprivation caused by wearing a safety suit that had been repaired with duct tape. It was heartbreaking to learn about these workers in the EPA community, devastatingly affected by the carelessness of a single company.
Romic’s continuous display of negligence and incompetence affected not only their workers, but also the community at large. In one case, a chemical leak from the plant created a vapor that one of the YUCA leaders described as a “bright green cloud” surrounding the facility. Furthermore, occupants of nearby houses are still advised to not eat anything grown in their yards due to soil contamination from Romic nearly ten years after its closure.
The hazardous operation at the Romic facility is a textbook example of environmental racism, a term used to describe “the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments” (Eligon). Unfortunately, many marginalized communities in the Silicon Valley area are all-too-familiar with this kind of environmental racism and injustice. Many of the hazardous materials dealt with at Romic, for example, were byproducts of the tech industry and yet, the communities that have the least access to these technologies are those that bear the burden of their creation. What’s more, regulation is often ignored in these locations.
My time spent with YUCA was not only informational but inspiring as well, and took me beyond the Stanford bubble. The “Toxic Tour” brought to my attention the environmental challenges faced by just one community, and I can only imagine how many communities face similar struggles here in the U.S. and around the world. How can we end this kind of environmental injustice on a global scale? As demonstrated by YUCA, it can begin on a local level, with the voices of youth who demand change for their communities.
To learn more about YUCA: http://youthunited.net/
Eligon, John. "A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Jan. 2016. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.
Jayadev, Raj. "Uproar over Romic's East Palo Alto Plant." News & Culture in San Jose, CA | Uproar over Romic's East Palo Alto Plant. Metro Newspapers, 03 Jan. 2007. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
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