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In Our Backyard

By Natalia Ruvalcaba

Often when we think about water crises in the United States, Flint Michigan or the Gulf Spill come to mind, but what about our hometowns?  We often fail to reflect on the issues happening in plain sight, when the news focuses on major events that seem so distant and make us feel disconnected.  The thing is, though, that water crises are happening everywhere, even our own neighbors, such is the case of my hometown, San Jose, California.  Admittedly, even my own awareness of this issue was blurred by the multitude of distant water inequities plastered on the news.  It wasn’t until I learned of a petition calling for the shut down of a small airport, located four miles from my home, that I realized the injustice within my own community.  

I grew up in East San Jose, a neighborhood that is predominantly Latinx and Asian.  While the Eastside is often characterized by low-income neighborhoods, underfunded schools, and a lack of access to resources, I never fully realized the extent of inequality in my life, let alone the existence of environmental injustice.  Though, it is unsurprising now, that a community of low-income people of color would be the subject of neglect and reprehensible, environmental harm. 

The issue I am talking about in particular is the water contamination caused by the Reid-Hillview Airport, in San Jose.  This airport was constructed in 1939, at the time of its opening, the 180-acre plot was encompassed by orchard farms.  Inevitably though, with the development of the city came the establishment of homes, schools, and a plethora of consumer sites.  Now, more than 50,000 individuals live within a mile and a half of the airport and have been the victims of it’s neglectful actions(Angst, 2021).

In 2008 a study was conducted, tracing the amount of lead emanated from airports across the nation, and the results were shocking.  Out of the 3,414 airports discussed in the report, Reid-Hillview was ranked 25th on the list, releasing an estimated 1,279 pounds of lead annually(MountainDataGroup, 2021).  By the National Ambient Quality Standard, Reid-Hillview’s annual emissions of lead exceeded well beyond what is permitted.

Undoubtedly, there have been complaints of the airport’s toxic emissions, but advocates are facing a lot of pushback. The main opposition comes from private pilots, flight schools, and the aviation program at San Jose State University(Angst, 2021).  These individuals and organizations are predominantly recreational pilots, thus there is genuinely no crucial need for the airport as it does not serve traditional, commercial flights.  However, opponents of the petition  are fighting for the airport’s continued opening, insisting that its closure would cause great strain.  If the airport does close, then the recreational pilots will have to make their way to the next nearest airport that permits recreational flying.

Advocates for the airport’s closure are mostly those affected by the airport’s water contamination.  One Eastside neighbor, Gloria Guiterrez-Lechuga, is taking a tenacious stand on the proposed closure saying, “I’m very frustrated.  Why do we have to live with this just because we live in a poor area? Our children are not able to defend themselves, and now they’re just condemned to the toxication of lead”(Angst, 2021).  This sentiment is widely held by the thousands of residents affected by the airport’s lead pollution, but little seems to have been done.  A group of county leaders drafted a proposal, in 2018, that advocated for the closure of Reid-Hillview Airport, and it passed but the airport would not be closed for another 13 years.  While this promises the airport’s cessation in the long run, immediate action is imperative. Lead is a neurotoxin with the capabilities of inhibiting physical and cognitive development, young children in the surrounding San Jose neighborhood are in precarious positions of harm.  Notably  for children six years and younger, damage can take the form of  “lower IQ, decreased attention span, and academic underperformance”(Angst, 2021).

The health consequences of Reid-Hillview’s negligent actions are devastating, it is not just a serious issue, it is an urgent issue that needs to undergo immediate change.  I bring up, again, the fact that we so often dismiss issues right in front of us when their presence is not found on the news.  These issues are comparable to headlines, but because of the lack of coverage, we fail to recognize their significance.  I briefly mentioned the idea that most individuals will bring attention to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.  The lack of clean water and the ignorance received from county officials has been appalling, but similar is San Jose’s issue.  It was reported that “Children living near East San Jose’s Reid-Hillview Airport are experiencing blood lead levels similar to those of children in Flint, Michigan, during the peak of its water crisis in the previous decade”(Angst, 2021).  So not only are the blood lead levels of East San Jose’s children commensurate with those of Flint’s children, it is comparable to one of the most well-known water crises in the nation, at its very peak. If that is the case, why are we not talking about this issue more?  This further brings into question, how many water crises of this severity are we ignoring?  The answer is most definitely greater than what we would like to think, but it is our reality.  Thus, we must take action into our own hands as our leaders and officials have failed us in securing a clean environment, and the assurance of clean water.

It is the work of East San Jose’s residents that have sparked conversation around the water issue that has mobilized the community.  This water issue is not one only of environmental harm, but the effects of racism.  A community of primarily Latinx individuals is continually being ignored as their physical well-being is threatened by preventable toxic pollutants.  Consequently, residents who live near the airport have contrived a petition that calls for the closure of Reid-Hillview Airport.  In particular, the request examines key issues of the airport’s outcomes, the main being exposure to lead contamination in water sources and its harm to child development.  Additionally, the petition notes that East San Jose has been neglected time and time again as a result of racist policies and that the dismissal of this current issue is simply another example.  The petition asserts that “No amount of lead is safe for humans, especially not children. It causes a number of health issues, lowers intelligence, leads to hyperactivity, issues with attention, etc. 

Read more about lead poisoning here”(Change.org, 2021).  

The crippling effects of lead poisoning are irreversible and thus it is imperative that the airport’s closure is enforced to ensure the safety and wellbeing of East San Jose residents.  While plans have been made to close the airport by 2031, the petition recognizes that immediate action is the only acceptable solution.  Despite the pushback advocates have already received, the petition notes three conciliatory steps of compromise that must be taken if an immediate shutdown is not accepted.  One, there must be a curfew set on the time planes are permitted to fly.  Two, lead-based fuel must be banned from use.  Three, the flight school must cease all of its operations(Change.org, 2021).  Evidently, the petition stands for vital change that would secure not only clean water but environmental autonomy.  With the help from SOMOS Mayfair, Luna, SURJ at Sacred Heart, and the Cassel Neighborhood Association, the petition for the Reid-Hillview Airport’s closure was made into effect.  It is with your help that we hope to be part of this change.  Sign the petition below in working towards environmental justice and access to clean water anywhere.
Petition · Close Reid-Hillview Airport · Change.org

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