Money Can't Buy Health

Out of breath, I chase her down the field at top speed. I catch up to her and retrieve the ball, and she begins to hyperventilate. At first I laugh because I am unaware of the seriousness of the situation. Bent double, frantically searching for breath she's always taken for granted, she pants heavily. I am frightened by the sounds of her fragile body. Reluctantly, I approach her with caution and ask if she's okay. She gasps a few times before responding with a humble nod.

“Let's just talk,” I propose. We slowly walk to the playground and take seats on the yellow slide. Lina, my cousin and close friend, explains her struggle with asthma. She explains how many of her family members have asthma like her mom, two brothers, and of course her. She looks much more peaceful now, compared to the pale, strained face that just minutes before had me scared to death.

Lina lives right down the street from Romic, a toxic waste facility that treats, stores, and handles hazardous waste, mainly from Silicon Valley's tech manufacturing industry. Romic has been in East Palo Alto since 1963 – it’s older than me, Lina, and the community itself.

A lot of my friends and people in my community think that Romic has something to do with people suffering from asthma and cancer. Even I'm cautious about going back behind the baylands where Romic is located because I've heard stories of people who find it harder to breathe back there or get headaches.

Just last week, Romic and the Department of Toxic Substances Control announced a settlement for the amount of approximately $850,000 for past violations committed by Romic. These violations, occurring between 1999 and 2004, and range from storing incompatible hazardous waste, storing excess hazardous waste, taking in unauthorized hazardous waste and stacking unstable containers on top of one another.

Both DTSC and Romic are beaming with pride. My friends and I were reading an article on East Palo Alto in the San Mateo County Times when I read that Charlene Williams, DTSC's grand chief for statewide compliance said, “The agency landed hard.” Romic's director of government relations, Chris Stampolis, announced, “We're glad to be able to turn the corner.” Indeed, Romic's fines ranked among the top ten highest settlements in this region.

Many people may think this to be a great victory for my community of East Palo Alto. I was pissed off when I found out. No matter how high the fine, DTSC and Romic are literally putting our health at risk for the pocket change that this multi-million dollar company willingly gives them. This pocket change does not equal my cousin's health or the health of my community. East Palo Alto has the highest asthma and cancer rates in San Mateo County. In a recent survey conducted by our youth organization among adolescents ages 13 to 21 in East Palo Alto, we found that 1 out of 4 suffer from asthma. This isn't like Mastercard; Romic can't buy our health.

While DTSC thinks they saved they day, they only worsened this already delicate and critical situation. Romic's permit expired in 1991, a year after I was born. DTSC has allowed Romic to continue operating with this expired permit to this day. The violations they recently settled for dated back to 1999. DTSC had the opportunity to revoke Romic's permit then, yet they just tolerated Romic's excuses. Worse, they didn't tell anyone in the community that this was even going on. Sadly, this comes as no surprise to me. DTSC's history with communities like Midway Village in South San Francisco and East Oakland's Chester Street Neighborhood is full of deceit and betrayal, and their relationship with East Palo Alto is no different. DTSC failed to tell Midway Village residents for six years that they had been living on top of a contaminated site, and refused to clean up toxic soil dug up by a freeway construction project close to the Chester Street Neighborhood. In my eyes, DTSC is no different from Romic. They got KKK status.

In my community, asthma is a mark of the beast, and the beast is environmental racism. My cousin, her family, and our community should not continue to suffer from Romic's carelessness and DTSC's lack of courage to protect us.

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