Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Connecting the Dots

Lockheed Jet Propulsion Company rocket engine test at the Potrero Ranch site near Beaumont, California. 
Photo Courtesy of Banning Library District

In 1966, when I was eight years old, my family moved to a small agricultural town just s few miles from the Mexican border. Holtville was a small community, a mix of old buildings, civic offices, small businesses, a movie theater and a few tracts of new homes. All this was surrounded by farms. This was the Imperial Valley, Imperial County, California.

The crops on the farm at the end of our street were regularly dusted with chemicals. Many Saturday mornings I woke to the buzz of a biplane as it pulled up to make another pass over the fields, spraying what I now assume was DDT.

After eighteen months we moved again, this time to the San Bernardino Valley, specifically Redlands, the heart of California’s citrus industry. Our new home was in a tract of houses built on the ground of a cleared orange grove.The groves were giving way to housing, but many citrus ranchers were hanging on. Redlands boasted five operating citrus packing houses which employed many of our neighbors, the parents of many of my friends and eventually my mother.

To combat the winter frost citrus ranchers routinely burned crude oil and kerosene in smudge pots creating a thick black smog that would warm the air and insulate the trees and fruit from the cold and descending frost. Many mornings friends would arrive late to school with singed eyebrows and missing eye lashes. They had been out from midnight to 4:00am helping their parents light smudge pots. We’d listen to the radio for the frost warning so we could make sure windows were closed on nights we knew they would “smudge.”

A few miles away in the village of Mentone was the Lockheed Martin plant, another employer of many of my classmates’ parents. Lockheed Martin had a government contract with NASA to manufacture solid rocket fuel. Growing up in Redlands we were used to drawing water from the tap and having to let the glass sit a few minutes while the bubbly, milky cloud dissipated.It was air in the city’s water lines, we were told. The water in the glass would slowly clear and we would drink the water.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the California Department of Health Services found trichloroethylene, a solvent, in four out of twelve groundwater wells supplying drinking water to the population of Redlands. In 1997, ammonium perchlorate was discovered in a number of the wells. Drinking water as far away as Loma Linda was contaminated. For years Lockheed dumped spent rocket fuel and other byproducts into unlined dirt pits to be burned at some point as allowed by federal policies. In 2003 the California Supreme Court ruled that the citizens of Redlands had no grounds for filing a class action “toxic tort lawsuit” against the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

In 2007 I was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, a blood cancer. It’s time to start connecting the dots.