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Toxic town

By Menaka Fernando

Feb. 27, 2005 9:00 p.m.

During her internship in northern California this past summer,
fifth-year political science student Karen Salazar asked a group of
kids in her East Bay Area hometown to draw their neighborhood.

More than half the kids drew a large oil refinery in the
background as if it was a part of the scenery, like a tree, Salazar
said.

They, like Salazar when she was younger, accepted the polluted
air from the two refineries near their homes as a normal part of
life. They also didn’t think much of the rampant asthma that
plagued the neighborhood.

Salazar developed asthma when she was 7 years old. When she
moved to Westwood to attend UCLA five years ago, her asthma
subsided and she no longer needs medication or an inhaler.

“I never really made that connection” between the
asthma and pollution until “six months after entering UCLA,
my asthma was gone,” she said.

Salazar belonged to a handful of UCLA students who spent half
their Sunday immersing themselves in the sights and smells of one
of the most polluted areas in the nation: Southeast Los
Angeles.

The students, from the offices of the president and external
vice president of the Undergraduate Students Association Council,
took a “toxic tour” Sunday, offered by the
environmental justice organization, Communities for a Better
Environment. Salazar worked at the organization’s Oakland
office over the summer.

The tour is provided once to twice a month to different
community leaders and organizations to shed light on the importance
of environmental justice, said Jesus Torrez, a community organizer
for CBE.

Since its establishment in the late 1970s, CBE has been
influencing state policy by advocating community
organizations’ tackling issues of environmental justice.

The organization has undertaken dozens of campaigns to rectify
the harmful impact of industrial facilities and curb further
building of these facilities in low-income communities, which
mostly consist of minority populations.

“We’re not against industry,” said Robert
Cabrales, another CBE community organizer, standing in front of an
industrial yard in the city of Vernon. “We’re against
dirty industry being brought here.”

Government agencies maintain incorporating environmental justice
into policy has become a priority in the last 10 years, and that
Los Angeles is at the forefront of ensuring industries follow
environmental regulations.

As a response to community organizing, the federal government
became more involved in environmental justice and helped create the
infrastructure for it to be implemented, said Romel Pascual,
program manager for the environmental justice program in the
Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair
treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of
race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the
development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws,
regulations, and policies,” according to its Web site.

Still, community organizers say the government has a long way to
go in ensuring justice for all communities.

The toxic tour

When taking the Alameda exit off the 10 East freeway to get to
the CBE office in Huntington Park, the drastic change in air
quality from Westwood becomes apparent. A brownish haze colors the
sky and sparse shrubbery is scattered in between pavement. The
neighborhood is a staggered mix of power plants and smoke stacks
bordering residential pockets, retail complexes and fenced-off
schools.

It is in these neighborhoods that residents have become ill with
asthma and forms of cancer, experienced miscarriages, and given
birth to babies with birth defects for decades, according to the
CBE.

It is Sunday and the school yards are empty. So are the industry
sites across the street, and the Alameda Corridor that accommodates
freight trains for distribution of imported goods from the ports
coming into Los Angeles bears no signs of life for now.

But these sights are deceiving, say the CBE tour guides. During
the weekday, hundreds of thousands of workers fill the factories as
trucks constantly pass through the busy streets.

In front of Tweedy Elementary School in South Gate, the diesel
smell of a passing truck is unbearable for some of the students.
They scrunch their faces and quickly bring their hands up to cover
their noses.

That’s just one truck, Cabrales says as the students
grimace. Imagine hundreds of those trucks going by while school is
in session, he says.

The tour travels through what is termed “asthma
town” in Vernon and then through “La
Montaña”, a 30-foot mountain of rubble that consists of
remains from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Only a 10-foot fence
separates the mountain of dust and debris from a row of houses on
Cottage Street.

On this early Sunday afternoon, two young boys kick a soccer
ball down the street and a large group of children emerge out of a
van carrying McDonald’s Happy Meals while a mountain of
rubble looms in the background.

After the collapse of the Santa Monica freeway in the
earthquake, dump trucks relocated chunks of the freeway into this
residential area. The neighborhood on Cottage Street changed
overnight, say CBE organizers. Suddenly residents found a thick
coat of fine white concrete covering their houses and cars.

The owner of the land was sentenced in criminal court for
creating a “public nuisance” in 1998 and clean-up of
the 5-acre mess began in November 2004.

The tour ended with the guides describing “one of the
saddest stories” they’ve undertaken as a campaign,
Torrez said.

Standing in front of Suva Elementary School in Bell Gardens,
Cabrales points to the chain fence separating the school yard and a
shutdown chrome plating facility.

Ten years ago, it was determined that the carcinogenic chemical,
hexavalent chromium, being handled at the facility was a factor in
the death of over 25 students and teachers, and the miscarriages
and birth of defected babies for five pregnant teachers. The
facility has since shut down.

“Not tree huggers”

When Cabrales tells his friends he works for environmental
justice for a living, he says they think he works to save animals
and plants in the environment.

But, “we are not talking about saving the fish, it’s
(saving) … human life,” he says. “We are not tree
huggers”

Instead, environmental justice focuses on the effects of
pollution on people’s health and well-being in
communities.

The movement was rooted in the civil rights movement of the
1960s and began when people, mostly from communities of color, came
together to speak up about public health issues resulting from
pollution in their neighborhoods, according to the EPA.

In 1994, former President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order
12898, which “directed federal agencies to develop
environmental justice strategies to aid federal agencies identify
and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or
environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities
on minority and low-income populations,” according to the EPA
Web site.

With the order came the realization that to achieve
environmental justice, various agencies and infrastructures needed
to work together, says Francisco Arcaute, EPA press officer.

“Environmental justice is not just an environmental
issue,” he said. It also includes issues of transportation,
housing and public health. “We cannot compartmentalize the
way we look at environmental issues.”

It also considers collaboration from scholars and academia for
many environmental justice campaigns successful, CBE officials
said. And universities have increasingly begun to offer resources
to conduct environmental studies in low-income communities.

CBE works with scholars from UCLA, USC, UC Santa Cruz and
Occidental College in its research, Torrez said.

Martha Matsuoka, a UCLA doctoral student in urban planning,
believes UCLA has been playing a huge role in promoting
environmental justice in Los Angeles.

There are “pockets in UCLA” that provide resources
to community organizations, Matsuoka said, citing the UCLA Labor
Center as an example.

“UCLA is pretty historically partnered with these
(low-income) communities,” she said.

Salazar believes she’s lucky she didn’t live in a
community as polluted as Southeast Los Angeles.

She emphasized the importance of privileged communities
continuing to promote environmental justice ““ “for
really basic human rights, the right to play as a kid.”

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Menaka Fernando
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