Freedom Breathers

Staff Photojournalist

Manisha Rattu, 16, a junior at Pittsburg High School, speaks during a student protest against the proposed WesPac oil storage and transfer project in Pittsburg, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

Pittsburg is a city of 63,000 residents located on the San Francisco Bay Delta, a stretch of waterfront dense with industry. Home to industrial sites operated by DOW, Praxair, USS POSCO, and K2 Industries, Pittsburg is also located downwind of several nearby refineries. Over the years, chronic exposure to air pollution has had a deleterious effect on the health of residents of this high-poverty California city.

I have been a resident of Pittsburg all of my life. Headaches and breathing problems are symptoms that I’ve had to deal with since I was a child. Only when I was older and able to explore did I realize that having bad air quality and high health risks was not normal; these risks and harmful agents were strategically placed in underrepresented, minority communities where the governing agencies believed they would receive no backlash. Once we were aware of the injustices, the health defects, and the environmental hazards of large, polluting industries in my own community, we, the youth of Pittsburg, stepped up.  

As a group of high school students, we formed a coalition, dedicated to improving our community’s air and stopping a company named Wespac from storing its crude oil in our city and on our Delta. We organized rallies on campus, spoke out at city council meetings, and completed interviews with television and radio stations. We even joined up with Global Community Monitors and conducted our own air monitoring in the community under the moniker, Freedom Breathers. After two years of constantly debating, monitoring, and communicating, our community achieved a very large success: Wespac, and its dirty oil, was no longer entering our community or Richmond’s community. This success was not just for the citizens of Pittsburg, but it was for the county, the Bay Area, and, of course, the world.

Nonetheless, all across the US and the world, low-socioeconomic communities like Pittsburg continue to suffer the consequences of dirty air and a lack of data. Respiratory illnesses caused by poor air quality lead to thousands of premature deaths each year in the US alone, but an inadequate network of monitors and spotty regulation has led to a failure by government to stop these preventable deaths or improve overall quality of life in communities such as Pittsburg.

In order to combat poor leadership and fossil fuel energy, citizens must step up and create a movement. I seized the opportunity to lead a movement while I was sixteen and that has shaped my perspective on government, grassroots organizing, and community for a lifetime. I believe in the power of the people and in their potential to create change. For me, environmental justice is about being raw, honest, and true; this concept applies to both the self and nature: we need both true and just people making policies and we need clean, renewable energy powering the work we do. A shift in balance is necessary, so that our people, especially those from low-income communities, have a voice in government and a healthy life on this planet.

The Freedom Breathers from across the world in small, underserved communities must step up and take action to ensure that they and their future generations enjoy breathable air.

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