The first thing I noticed was that although we were just 20 miles south of where I started, the temperature was a good 15 degrees hotter.
The smells of tar and sulfur permeated the air. After a while, my eyes started to burn and itch.
I wasn't in Nigeria or Iraq or Venezuela. My guide, Jesus Torres, otherwise known as JT, had taken me to Wilmington, Calif., in Los Angeles County, just 20 miles south of the L.A. beach town where I live.
Wilmington is home to 53,000 people – 45,000 of them Latino, 24 percent below the national poverty level – living in the midst of oil wells, oil refineries and the Port of Los Angeles. It was one of the stops on the Toxic Tour of Los Angeles that the organization, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) leads. The group advocates around issues of environmental justice showcasing how our dependence on fossil fuels has impacted low income neighborhoods across the country.
Of the more than 2 million barrels of oil refined in California each day, 650,000 of them come from five refineries in the Wilmington area run by BP, ConocoPhillips, Tesoro and Valero.
Along with the oil, they produce 1,600 tons per year of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
Add to that gas flaring, emissions from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Alameda railway corridor, the constant passage of diesel trucks along residential streets as they exit the ports, and the drilling of a large oil field in Wilmington in the midst of a residential neighborhood – Wilmington contains the third largest oil field in the United States – and you have a series of cumulative impacts that wreak havoc with the air quality and the health of the people living here.
Active and abandoned drills take up residence in lots right next to homes and schools.
One homeowner told me that the abandoned drill next to his house has been there for 35 years (right). His elderly father finally started jumping the fence and clearing the lot so that it would not become overgrown with weeds and vermin.
JT explained to me that the oil rigs don't just go up and down, but they drill sideways. Neighbors complain about noise, odor, cracked foundations and walls, and unusually high levels of seismic activity.
When oil prices are high, some of the drills run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, like the drill run by Warren Energy and Petroleum that sits behind the neighborhood little league field (participation fees covered courtesy of Warren Energy). The company, which has frequently been in violation of permit conditions and limits, plans to put in 540 more wells in the area.
After out-going Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo went on the tour, he cited a number of polluters and permit violators in the area. But there still seem to be violations and lax air quality regulations everywhere you look in Wilmington.
Walk down the streets of Wilmington and the smell of sulfur is pervasive. That's in part because many of California's refineries are using crude with high levels of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. That means more incidences of asthma and other respiratory diseases. In fact, childhood asthma rates among 5- to 17-year-olds in the area are 21.9 percent, 6.3 percent higher than the rest of Los Angeles and 7.2 percent above the national average.
The Wilmington Park Elementary School is sandwiched between the Ultramar Refinery, 1,000 feet away, and the Tesoro Refinery, 2,000 feet away. Other schools sit perilously close to the constant spew of pollution from the ports.
In some neighborhoods, residents look down their street to a view of shipping container graveyards – the refuse of America's insatiable consumption of foreign goods. Industrial lot owners were granted general permits for storage at a time when the city had no language specifying the type of storage. Not only are they an eye sore, but they attract rats and other vermin.
CBE's Long Battles for Low-Income Neighborhoods
As we drove through the Alameda Corridor where JT grew up, an area congested with diesel trucks, he told me how he had no idea as a kid how bad things were and that the air quality in parts of Los Angeles might actually be worse than his native Mexico City.
He went to school for urban planning and joined CBE organizing campaigns in Wilmington to fight the oil companies and to force regulators to do their jobs.
As we drive around L.A., he rattles off different regulations and regulatory bodies that he must work with to help the people of Wilmington. He can't imagine doing anything else, and he knows it will be a long fight. But tough battles are something that CBE has always been willing to undertake.
In 1998, the group helped community activists shut down two chrome plating facilities in Bell Gardens, each located next to a school, but only after more than 25 students and teachers had died of cancer and area miscarriage rates had skyrocketed. In 2001 they won settlement forcing oil companies to clean up more than 700 sites contaminated with the toxic gasoline additive MTBE and helped spark a statewide ban. Currently they are fighting the Vernon Power Plant, which is perilously close to the residential community of Huntington Park.
Huntington Park is no stranger to long battles over environmental issues, either. They fought for eight years to get rid of La Montaña, the mountain of waste and concrete rubble that was stored across the street from residents like 85-year-old Linda Marquez after the collapse of the 10 Freeway during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The dust and toxins from the refuse have been blamed for high rates of lung disease, miscarriages and birth defects in the area.
As I spoke to Marquez about the experience, there was a non-stop background whine of a buzz saw at a nearby mill.
"I've lived here all my life," Marquez, whose apartment had been a frequent meeting place for community activists, told me. "We worked very hard (to get rid of the dump site) and didn't give up. Every time they turned us down, we kept going."
She was very proud of the fact that throughout it all, activists never damaged anybody's property, even when the bulldozers would operate at 1 a.m. and keep the neighbors awake. Instead, they marched, went to City Council meetings, and solicited help from Huntington Park's mayor and organizations like CBE and UCLA LOSH (Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program).
When City Councilman Rick Loya went on a CBE tour to see the site, one of his lungs partially collapsed and he had to be hospitalized.
The Montaña site (seen through a bullet hole in a fence at left) has since been mostly cleaned up, but the dust still coats the neighborhood several years later. The site has been mentioned for a new elementary school, but neighbors worry that toxins continue to permeate the area and would rather the city find a safer spot.
JT tells Marquez that he is taking me to Wilmington to see the oil refineries that he is fighting. She pumps her fist in the air and tells us to go help Wilmington. "They helped us in our struggle" she says.
CBE Goes to Washington
CBE's executive director, Bill Gallegos, recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he met with mainstream green groups, other environmental justice advocates and administration officials like green jobs advisor Van Jones and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
I asked him if he was happy with the climate bill that just passed the House.
"We're critical of cap and trade," Gallegos said, "because it's a proven failure with one anomalous exception. Under cap and trade, costs go up, carbon emissions go up and hedge fund managers get rich."
Gallegos would like to see carbon managed through regulation instead.
"Regulation is the most proven, fair and equitable system for lowering emissions," he told me.
Later, though, he added that we also need to democratize the regulatory process. "Most regulatory agencies have no representation from the people impacted by their decisions,"he said. Gallegos is concerned that the people regulating air quality in southern California, for example, live so far away from the communities they're regulating and hold meetings during the day when few people can attend.
"If we're going to transform, people need a stronger voice in the discussion. Corporate America has a lot of power, what about the rest of us?"
"We go to meetings," he added, "but we didn't develop the rules."
Still, Gallegos believes that regulation is superior because it deals with the issue of co-pollutants which cap and trade does not, a problem that some mainstream green groups don't talk about.
"When CO2 comes out of a smokestack, it doesn't come out alone" Gallegos explained. "Sometimes there's nitrous oxide, benzine, sulfides, all of which have immediately harmful health impacts on neighboring communities." The way Gallegos sees it, these co-pollutants are immediately harming what he calls 'our communities': low-income and people of color.
Gallegos is also concerned about who will monitor the cap-and-trade system and the technology transfer to developing countries. "Will it increase the debt transfer to the global north like with the green revolution?" he asked.
Mostly, he is concerned that the bill won't work.
"We don't have the luxury to get it wrong," he said. "NASA scientist Jim Hansen said that we need radical reductions in the next 10 years to survive. These aren't radical." Not radical enough to solve the climate crisis and not radical enough to solve the health crises for the people living on the front lines of America's fossil fuel addiction.
Poverty Near the 'High-Hazzard' Coal Ash Sites (Sierra Club)
(Photos: Leslie Berliant)