If I were a presidential candidate (fat chance!) and someone asked me whom I admire the most, I would answer any of the hundreds of heroes who defend their communities against a daily toxic bombardment.
This siege takes place in hundreds of Latino communities across the country, and one of these heroes is Juan Flores, an organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, in Kern County, California. Flores's fight is nothing short of heroic.
Kern County generates over 75 percent of California's oil output, including 95 percent of the fracking that occurs in the state, more than any other county in the nation. And the price the overwhelmingly Latino population pay for this is heartbreaking.
"We have one of the highest asthma rates in the country, especially among our children," says Flores. "It is sad for a kid to live with the reality of having an asthma attack every other day. They cannot catch a break. That's why we are putting up a fight."
According to a 2014 National Resources Defense Council study, close to 2 million Californians, who already put up with very high levels of other kinds of pollution, are living within a mile of an oil and gas development. Of them, a breathtaking 92 percent are communities of color.
The report also found that in Kern County, 64 percent of people living within one mile of an oil or gas well and in areas facing the worst environmental health threats are Latino.
"We are not organizing against this injustice because we hate the oil industry," says Flores. "We do it because we love our community."
Flores will need every last drop of devotion for his neighbors because the situation may well get worse for the already punished Kern County residents. At the oil industry's request, the County has proposed an ordinance to fast track oil and gas drilling permits for the next 20 years that would shield new operations from environmental review and public notice.
This virtual blank check for the fracking industry would worsen not only the already dire air pollution situation in the area but also threaten the irrigation water supply in a county that, along with the rest of the Central Valley, produces 35 percent of the nation's fruit and vegetables.
"If there is some sort of fracking pollution in the water supply, the whole country would be affected by this crisis," warns Flores. "We want to send a clear message to the Kern County officials: It's time to start protecting the community and not the oil industry."
On Nov. 9th, the Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing to discuss the proposed ordinance, and Flores and his colleagues await "with open arms all residents of Kern County, of California and of the entire country to testify against this injustice," he says.
This mad race to extract every last drop of oil coincides with both our extraordinary clean energy boom and the stern warning from the world's scientists that to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis, we must leave at least 2/3 of the fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
It also coincides with the scandalous revelations that Exxon, the world's largest oil corporation, has known since the 1970's about the potentially catastrophic consequences for the planet's atmosphere of the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.
"If it is true that they knew about all this 40 years ago, then it's true that they don't care about their children or grandchildren," laments Flores. "All they'd care about is how much money they can put in their pockets right now."
Flores's heroic resistance pursuits a different kind of riches: the good health and wellbeing of his community.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_JS