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A LONE VOICE
The myth of California as a blue-state bastion of progressive policies dissolves the second it hits the pollution that blankets the San Joaquin valley. In Fresno County, where George Bush won 58% of the vote, environmental activists like Kevin Hall are few and far between.
Hall's interest in climate change and correlated environmental and social issues began with the book, "Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single Child Families" by Bill McKibben. The Firebaugh native says the book forced him to reconsider if Fresno was a desirable place to raise his son, given the environmental concerns.
"Wake up. You have a son, you have to look out 50 years, 100 years to what is his life going to be like, and if he has a kid what is his kid or kids life going to be like? I mean I really believe we're destabilizing the climate of the planet. It's scientifically proven. It's not a question of if, but when, will we trigger the effects," warns Hall.
Hall, as a representative of the Sierra Club, has been a vocal force in the Valley's fight against air pollution and, by extension, the Air Resource Board (ARB) and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the state and local clean air regulators.
"[One] thing I was trying to accomplish- and have- is light this brush fire about this issue and demonstrate that it's unnecessary. And the reason for it is a corrupt Air Board that is controlled by narrow self-interest. The D.O.A. boys I call them- developers, oil, and agriculture. Those are the major industries that control the political scene on the ground in every major city." Hall has shed light on the failings by persuading the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund to take up the Valley's cause.
"I did a presentation and showed them our transportation map and showed them pictures of all the rural sites where the freeways were going to be going through and they said, 'Hmm, that's very interesting.' They were doing a five-year planning period and after six months decided they wanted to focus on valley issues leading with air quality. And then they began to really stretch, and in 2001 said, 'We have never seen worse Clean Air Act violations. This board is off the tracts. Nobody has done it this badly anywhere. We're going to have to just cut this off and file some lawsuits.'"
"In July 2001 we started our first round of lawsuits and we've had 7 lawsuits filed, six victories, one undecided, and another one already in process now."
On the docket is a suit against the Environmental Protection Agency filed by EarthJustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Latino Issues Forum. The Valley Air Resources Control District has repeatedly failed to devise a plan to control particulate matter pollution in the San Joaquin Valley. For more than 10 years the EPA rejected the District's plans to attain particulate matter levels as inadequate. Under federal guidelines, if a District fails to come up with its own plan the EPA must devise one for it. The EPA accepted the most recent plan; EarthJustice alleges it is inadequate.
"What [the lawsuits] accomplished is they've brought pressure to bear on the Air District that wasn't there before. What the pressure brings is sanctions. The Clean Air Act has discriminatory actions and non-discriminatory actions and they were just blowing through them. And until you sue them, the Feds will not enforce the act. The EPA said, 'Sue us please, it's the only way we get the political cover to do our jobs.'"
"What we haven't accomplished yet is the political shift that's necessary, and boy is it difficult to accomplish. The inability [for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District] to pass a simple $2 per car registration fee is ridiculous. So we haven't created the political shift that's necessary to get this board to think regionally. They are locally beholden to the interests I've described."
Hall sees a connection between regional, environmental issues and broader social issues.
"When you address social equity, its very interesting to see that environmental equity follows. It just leads right into it. Because then you're looking at the needs of people with lower income and that leads you to transit and biking and walking. People say, 'Get rid of the gross polluters.' Well, who drives the gross polluting cars? People who can't afford the new cars, and there's no [alternative] transit."
Most people recognize Hall as the chairman for the Save Roeding Park campaign, the quieter, less visible response to the Save Our Zoo campaign. Unfortunately for those opposing Measure Z, the campaign was too, little too late.
"Falling into the zoo tax was a pretty natural thing. If you look at the people it would impact, they are the people least regarded in this community," explained Hall.
Roeding Park is located in an improvised southwest Fresno neighborhood, and not often used by more affluent north Fresno families. David McDonald, the Save our Zoo chairman and Pelco CEO, publicly worried the park would turn into a gang-filled East L.A. The campaign that played out in the media failed to hit on this key issue, in Hall's opinion.
"To me in the end, this comes down to racism. If you just want to sum it all up, that's the word. Maybe we needed to come right out with it right of the bat, with the hardest word we could and shocked people into saying, 'Well we need to look at this.' Shamed The Bee into having to defend the racist implications of this. Looking back, I was running the campaign like I had six months instead of six weeks. When really we should have just thrown all the bombs we could have."
"We should have brought out the animal exploitation thing, you know cruelty at the Zoo. The Zoo Society, with its $3 million in the bank dedicated to only funding capital improvements wouldn't buy a new filter for the sea lions. The filter costs $40,000. They really have been horrible. It's really not about the animals at all. It's a social club. They run lots of nighttime events. According to AZA guidelines, you should not do nighttime events in zoos. It upsets and scares the animals. You should never have live music in the zoo, day or night. They have to take the big cats and lock them into these really small enclosures because they're frightened. They are terrified by all this nighttime activity. It's inhumane. "
Measure Z passed overwhelmingly with 73% of the vote. Despite the clear victory at the ballot box, David McDonald wasn't satisfied. He sent an email to supporters saying he had spoken with Fresno County Supervisor Susan Anderson and had ensured Kevin Hall would not be reappointed to the Fresno County Planning Commission, on which he had served for nearly four years. With a subject line "The good news keeps rolling in," McDonald wrote:
"You will be pleased to know that I have now spoken with Supervisor Anderson, and there is NO chance of Mr. Hall being reappointed."
"He's a sore winner. He's a control freak. He's an idiot. No, he's not an idiot- it's an idiotic move. My reaction was amusement. I thought it was hilarious. To me it's a non-issue. I realized it upset some people who like me and thought this was somehow threatening to me. I was asked by Susan Anderson four years ago to serve on the planning commission. She met me at two Sierra Club meetings and liked what I said and the information I gave her. And I agreed, I took it as community service. I took it as a great opportunity for our movement to at least have a lone voice on at least one body in this whole county. It's been a lot of fun. I'm a decided minority. When the most egregious decisions get appealed to the board, I'm proven right, consistently. It's a bit of a pulpit, but not a very big one."
Hall says he's currently entertaining several different offers for employment. Semi-retired, Hall has supplemented his investment income by teaching Irish dance, something he grew up doing. He says he no longer has the luxury of being a full-time activist and will probably take one of his offers and may not have time for the Planning Commission. Anderson has stated she would like him to stay on.
After all the turbulence in the campaign and his embarrassing email gaffe, did David McDonald ever call to apologize?
"Oh god no. Are you kidding?" Hall laughed.