Special Reports

December 28, 2013

Shafter farmer helps bring focus to Valley environmental issues

Living in a Toxic Land: Farmer and whirlwind activist Tom Frantz highlights Kern County as a dumping ground.

Last year, almond farmer Tom Frantz shot a video of an oil company illegally spilling fracking fluid laced with chemicals into an open pit at the edge of town. Within months, his video had inspired stories from the New York Times to the British Broadcasting Corp.

The open pit -- next to another farmer's almond orchard -- has since been covered with dirt. A fence now blocks the public's view. But state water authorities saw enough. They issued a notice of violation.

Vintage Production LLC, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, agreed to a $60,000 fine. Later, state officials scuttled a longtime waiver that had allowed the oil industry to discharge less-offensive drilling muds into open pits.

Despite protests and lawsuits over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- the injection of water and chemicals into shale to loosen oil reserves -- state water authorities weren't intensely involved in policing it.

Suddenly, Frantz, a 64-year-old former high school math teacher, forced state action. And fracking quickly came into focus in California.

"Tom's video showed this issue in a way that hadn't been done before," said Patrick Sullivan of the national nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, a consistent critic of fracking. "Here's an ordinary guy showing what's really going on when nobody is looking."

For Frantz, who grew up in Shafter, northwest of Bakersfield, it's about time the media noticed Kern County. Kern is California's ground zero for fracking. Hundreds of wells have been fracked here in the last three years.

But fracking is only one corner of a broad pollution landscape here, says Frantz. He would know.

Over the last 15 years, he has become the face of environmentalism in the southern San Joaquin Valley. He's equal parts native son, farmer and whirlwind activist. Name the issue in Kern, Frantz has been there, lately carrying a videocamera in his pickup.

Frantz often takes visitors on Kern tours, pointing out things like sites where thousands of tons of treated sewage and garbage are being sent from Southern California.

He drives past the hazardous waste landfill at Buttonwillow -- one of only three such sites in the state. His tour also passes huge dairies that moved into the county from Southern California. Another popular spot on the tour is the rail delivery site where coal has arrived for many years to supply a power plant.

On a shorter version of his tour, he stopped at an oilfield flare belching a 20-foot flame at the edge of Shafter. An oil company burns off unwanted natural gas, but the flare spews ozone-making gases around the clock into one of the country's worst air basins, he said.

"Kern County is a major dumping ground," he said. "It's almost unbelievable what goes on here."

A reason for activism

Like many other places in the Valley, the rich agricultural heritage in Kern coexists with big-city waste and industries not readily accepted in Southern California and the Bay Area.

Indeed, Kern may be the Valley's biggest hot spot for these unwanted industries -- sewage sludge disposal, wood waste burning in biomass plants, dairies, coal energy production and hazardous waste. The Valley's dirty air drifts south and often collects down here.

Over the past year, the Valley's health risks from these activities have been highlighted in The Bee's "Living in a Toxic Land."

The series broke the news early this year about community rankings in a new environmental health analysis from the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Based on 20 factors, including air pollution, pesticides, asthma, birth weight, water quality and poverty, the state calculated how risky it is to live in each of California's ZIP codes. West Fresno is the riskiest place in the state.

Another study, "Place Matters" from California State University, Fresno, calculated mortality rates in each Valley ZIP code. The study shows that people who live in West Fresno and other similar ZIP codes will die younger than most other California residents.

In Frantz's hometown of Shafter, the ZIP code ranks among the 10% riskiest places in the state EPA analysis. The same is true in Arvin and parts of Bakersfield.

Frantz began fighting for a healthier environment more than a decade ago when large dairies moved into the Valley from Southern California.

Thousands of cows occupied dairies near Shafter and Wasco, forcing him to hang fly traps in his high school classroom to keep the insects from distracting students.

He worried about massive ammonia and reactive organic gas plumes as well as possible underground water pollution from dairy cow wastes.

Frantz began organizing with others from Valley counties, later forming the nonprofit Association of Irritated Residents. The acronym AIR is linked to the fight to clean up the Valley's notorious air-quality problems.

The group's pressure and legal action helped persuade lawmakers to revoke a historic farm waiver for many air-quality rules.

Frantz says he thinks the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has not passed tough-enough rules. The Valley ranks alongside the South Coast Air Basin with the worst air quality in the country.

"There are stronger regulations in South Coast on many sources," he said. "We need to move faster to protect people."

A voice of opposition

This year, air district officials say the Valley appears to have achieved the federal one-hour ozone standard -- a landmark celebrated here. Frantz said he doubts the data and does not believe U.S. officials should approve the cleanup.

Frantz and Seyed Sadredin, Valley air district executive director, have publicly clashed many times on these subjects. However, Sadredin said he does not criticize Frantz, adding that environmental advocates fill an important role.

He also commended Frantz as one of the few advocates who remains dedicated to the mission over many years.

But Sadredin said the conversation with the environmental community needs more depth. In short, it needs more than Frantz's naysaying, he said.

"The message is too simple," Sadredin said. "They say the air is not improving, and the air district isn't doing anything about it. It's frustrating. We need to build relationships with the environmental community to continue the good progress that we've made."

Frantz's allies disagree. They say his voice is needed to hold decision-makers accountable.

"I think Tom Frantz is an incredible advocate," said Caroline Farrell, executive director at the Delano office of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. "He's the ultimate watchdog."

His instincts have taken him to a coal delivery site in the Shafter and Wasco area. On a drive this month, he stopped along a railroad track and picked up pieces of coal that fell from rail shipments.

Coal energy production has largely stopped here, he says, but the Kern County Board of Supervisors has agreed to remove farm preservation status on 72 acres near Tupman to open the door for a proposed coal and petroleum-powered electrical power plant.

The Hydrogen Energy California project still needs state approval. Frantz has joined environmentalists and area farmers to fight the idea.

"It makes no sense at all to burn coal in a place with the air quality problems we have here," he said.

Back to his roots

Frantz lives in the Shafter farm house where he was born, he says. He farms 36 acres of drip-irrigated almond trees.

But he says he is nothing like the folks he grew up with here.

In the 1960s, he questioned the war in Vietnam and traveled the country with friends in a Volkswagen -- the profile of a counterculture hippie.

Later, he spent 10 years abroad, working with low-income farmers in East Africa and Jamaica. He was a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee.

In 1998, Frantz, his wife, Aletha, and their two children returned from Jamaica to Shafter so they could be closer to their extended family. In the process, he said, he wanted to farm, teach math and help people take more control of their environment in Kern.

Working with low-income farmers in other countries, he said he learned a lot about challenging the system.

"I was exposed to trade deals that excluded some farmers and subsidies that favored some people over others," he said. "I think we all need to ask more questions."


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