Local Activists Work to Bring Environmental Justice to Santa Ana California
Aug. 1, 2021

On July 27th as part of their four-part speaker series on diversity, equity and inclusion, the Newport Bay Conservancy (NBC) welcomed the founders of Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ) to a live online presentation and discussion. This lecture series is exploring how to include a wide diversity of people in conservation. According to a spokesperson for NBC, OCEJ’s projects align with NBC’s goals because soil and water in Orange County runs downstream to the bay, both groups work with native people, and both include a wide diversity of people in their projects.

The OCEJ focuses on four projects: (1) studying soil lead content in Orange County, (2) documenting areas of water quality concern in Santa Ana, (3) working with native people to save sacred lands, and (4) teaching people in under-resourced areas how to become involved in politics.

The founders of OCEJ, Patricia Jovel Flores, project director; Keila Villegas, community organizer; and Kayla Asato, redistricting campaign organizer, partnered with the University of California Irvine (UCI) to test soil lead content in Orange County. Their study showed that Santa Ana’s soil contains the highest soil lead content in Orange County. These results can be used to raise residents’ awareness of the deleterious effects of lead on health and to consider soil lead when planting a garden or building a playground. After the study concluded, OCEJ advocated for remediation of soil lead to be placed in the city’s general plan which the city agreed to do.

According to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s fact sheet, many natural sources contribute to soil lead. Normal lead amount in soil ranges from 30-40 ppm and is safe up to 400 ppm. This contradicts the presenters’ comments that 80 ppm is the safe limit and calls into question their data that puts levels greater than 229 ppm in the “red zone.” (see map below)

The University of California Riverside (UCR) was enlisted by OCEJ to find natural ways to remove the lead from soil. The founders did not say if these natural ways include plants. Lida Tunesi from Brooklyn College who is not associated with UCR’s work, reported that after studying more than 1,000 plant species, researchers determined plants don’t remove lead from soil, instead they actively avoid it. 

PhotoVoice, OCEJ’s second project, encouraged local people to photograph areas where water quality concerned them. As Villegas described it, “The people take pictures and tell me what chemicals they see in the water.” When asked how people can see chemicals in water she responded, “Mostly visible ones like oils with the rainbow effect. At the moment, they haven’t been tested through OCEJ.” Their next step is to analyze the photographs.

The founders of OCEJ also described several ongoing efforts to regain native lands in Orange County. Their efforts regarding sacred lands has slowed California State University of Long Beach’s plans to build over land that the Acjachemen and Tongva consider sacred. And with OCEJ’s fourth project, they’ve taught political advocacy through storytelling and local organization to two cohorts from under-resourced areas to date.

University of Massachusetts Amherst’s soil lead fact sheet, (https://ag.umass.edu/soil-plant-nutrient-testing-laboratory/fact-sheets/soil-lead-fact-sheet)

Lida Tunesi from Brooklyn College. Burying the Myths About Removing Lead from Soil. Aug. 19, 2020. https://sum.cuny.edu/burying-myths-removing-lead-soil-brooklyn-college/ )