OXNARD, California – It was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first and only preliminary finding of discrimination in a civil rights case. The agency saw it as a clear victory for people like Maria Garcia, who’d complained about pesticide spraying on strawberry fields near her children’s school.
In 2011, after a decade-long investigation, the EPA negotiated a settlement that required the California Department of Pesticide Regulation to add a site to a trio of farming communities — including Oxnard — to be monitored for airborne chemicals. The agreement showed the EPA’s “steadfast commitment to protecting and advancing civil rights,” the agency said in a press release.
Garcia, however, was unimpressed.
“It was as if we hadn’t made the complaint,” she said.
Garcia and her husband, Reuben, both retired farmworkers, raised their six children in a house near Colonia and Roosevelt Streets, in the heart of La Colonia, a low-income, predominantly Latino community in central Oxnard. She said her children, now grown, were exposed on a routine basis to toxic chemicals, such as the fumigant methyl bromide, sprayed near their schools. The spraying has continued, and Garcia worries about her grandchildren.
“I don’t want anything to happen to my babies because they’re going to go to these schools that are surrounded by strawberries,” she said.
Garcia is one of six complainants in a case known as Angelita C., after the first name of one of the parents who filed the complaint. The case is both EPA’s biggest success and one of its most notorious failures.
The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights is tasked with investigating allegations that agencies receiving federal funds are acting in discriminatory ways. The finding, the agency said, showed the agency was taking the complaints seriously. “EPA is committed to ensuring that all Americans receive equal environmental and health protections,” the office’s then-director, Rafael DeLeon, said in a press release announcing the decision. “Environmental protection is public health protection and everyone, especially children, deserve the opportunity to live, play and learn in healthy communities.”
Current office director Velveta Golightly-Howell declined to discuss specific cases during a 30-minute telephone interview with the Center for Public Integrity and NBC News but said that since she came to the agency in 2014, she has focused on ensuring “complaints are resolved promptly, effectively and thoroughly.”
But in many ways, the Angelita C. case remains a symbol of public disenchantment. A Center analysis of 265 complaints submitted to the civil-rights office found that settlements are rare, investigations often cursory and findings of discrimination all but non-existent.
In Oxnard, the EPA’s highly touted settlement with the state took a decade to hammer out. Activists say the deal was weak and negotiated under a cloak of secrecy. Garcia is suing the EPA to try to get the settlement overturned and force the agency to redo what she believes to be a bungled investigation.