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COMITE CIVICO DEL VALLE
Richard Montenegro Brown
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE SUMMITS DRAWS 300 ATTENDEES TO IVC
Panels and Workshops on Lithium Valley, Salton Sea, and More Bring Together Local and State Leaders, Environmental Justice Advocates Academics and Others for Important Conversations, All Organized by Comite Civico Del Valle, Inc.
IMPERIAL — From the welcoming speeches, and the lunch keynote address, to the content of several of the day’s panels and workshops, Lithium Valley and its potential effects on the region figured prominently in the 2022 Environmental Health Leadership Summit at Imperial Valley College on Thursday, Oct. 27.
As many as 300 people attended — and another 50-plus watched via livestream — the 11th annual event put on by Comite Civico del Valle, Inc., the Brawley-based environmental justice organization, which brought back its annual summit of local, state, and tribal leaders, academia, environmental justice advocates, organizers, labor unions, and more for the first time in nearly three years.
The summit, held in IVC’s health sciences building, was opened and closed with remarks from Comite Civico’s executive director, Luis Olmedo.
“White Gold, as it’s been fashionably referred to over the past few years, was part of the national conversation three years ago, but could all of us have fathomed that the Imperial Valley would become the Lithium Valley so quickly?” said Olmedo, explaining how so much had occurred in the three years since COVID-19 put a pause on the summit and lithium extraction gained a foothold in Imperial County.
“This is a historic time … Lithium Valley, if it comes to pass, will mean our long underrepresented home will have a real role in the fight against climate change by being the source of a safe and sustainable supply of a mineral critical to this nation’s future,” Olmedo said. “It will also be the catalyst to bettering the lives of those who have struggled with generational poverty in many cases. You’ll hear from some of the individuals who have played a part in helping bring us to this point today. There is still much to accomplish.”
Olmedo would be followed by a welcoming speech from IVC President/Superintendent Dr. Lennor Johnson and the captivating and inspiring traditional songs of Quechan/Kamya elder and Ah Mut Pipah Foundation President Preston Arrow-weed.
Emcees for the day were Dr. Arcela Alvarez-Nuñez, executive director of Universidad Popular, and Ricardo Martinez, president of Saviendas Strategies. They set the stage for main room’s panel discussions which ranged from “Achieving Climate Equity in the Clean Energy Transition,” to the “Importance of Health Impacts Assessments in Environmental and Land Use Decisions,” which was moderated by organizer Daniela Flores, a co-founder of Imperial Valley Equity & Justice Coalition, and included panelists Dr. Paul English of Tracking English and Candice Youngblood of Earthjustice.
A panel on improving conditions for the Salton Sea Region was moderated by Brawley’s John Hernandez of Our Roots Multicultural Center, who directed a vibrant panel that included Calexico City Manager Esperanza Colio Warren, Dr. Shohreh Farzan of the University of Southern California, who shared some preliminary data from a respiratory health study conducted on the region, and Miguel Hernandez, public affairs officer with the California Natural Resources Agency, who gave a brief overview of the Salton Sea Management Plan’s current and future restoration projects. Lithium Valley Commissioner, representation the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, Manfred Scott was also a member of the panel.
Of course, one of the most anticipated panels of the day was “Lithium Valley: The State of Lithium Policy Initiatives & Precautionary Principles,” moderated by Jose Carmona of Tzunu Strategies. Here some of the individuals involved in some of the high-level discussion that went into shaping some of the policy surrounding the emerging industry were present, including Assembly member Eduardo Garcia’s chief of staff, Carlos Gonzalez, and Lithium Valley Commissioner Jonathan Weisgall, who is also a member of the geothermal-lithium extraction industry as an executive with BHE Renewables. The panel also included Imperial County Board of Supervisors Chair Jesus Escobar and Comite Civico del Valle Special Projects Manager Christian Torres.
This panel was kicked off with a pre-recorded message from California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot expressing his appreciation for the enthusiasm around the efforts to make Lithium Valley a reality, as well as the state’s efforts to do this the right way.
The summit broke for lunch on the lawn and a keynote address from David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission. He spoke on California’s policy initiatives, “Sunrise from the West: Bold Moves by the State.”
The afternoon workshops gave summit attendees a chance move into smaller classrooms and to actively engage, as participation was often encouraged during the sessions. Among the workshops was “Implementing Projects at the Salton Sea,” facilitated by Comite Civico’s Daniel Garcia and participants Mario Llanos of CNRA, Frank Ruiz of Audubon Wetland Project and Sergio Valenzuela of SCS Engineers, and another workshop was “Respiro Sano: Addressing Asthma Through Community Education,” led by Comite Civico’s Isamay Pasillas, Ricardo Romero and Melanie Echeverria. There were a wide variety.
One of the livelier discussions occurred during the workshops on “risks and best practices” of lithium extraction, a discussion facilitated by Comite Civico’s Jose Flores and led by Dr. James Blair of Cal Poly Pomona and Jared Naimark of Earthworks. A lot of back-and-forth between Blair, Naimark, a reporter from Coachella Valley, a couple of participants up front and an official from the Imperial County Public Health Department led to a spirited discussion on pollution and permitting processes.
A fitting end for a day filled with dialogue and growth, the attendees reconvened in the main health lecture hall at IVC for an inspiring discussion titled, “Latinas Changing the Environment,” moderated by Comite Civico’s Janira Figueroa, who spoke of drawing her own inspiration from one of the panel’s participants before introducing her, Yana Garcia, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. She was followed by Martha Guzman, Region 9 administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Andrea Ambriz, deputy secretary for external affairs, California Natural Resources Agency.
All three Zooming in from remote locations, they talked about inspiring young Latinas looking to enter environmental protection fields, they spoke of their own initiatives to watch for, and how they began their own journeys.