Slideshow: The faces of public participation

As part of my second research trip to Los Angeles, on Saturday I attended a hearing at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). At issue was the Exide Technologies battery recycling facility in Vernon, and the lead and arsenic it is emitting into the air. The decision-makers heard from lawyers on both sides of the case, and then opened the hearing up for testimony by residents and other interested parties.

Public participation is a key part of much environmental decision-making, and over time advocates have convinced many decision-making bodies to provide translation services. This helps the many Spanish-speaking residents who live near polluting facilities to participate in the environmental decisions that profoundly affect their lives. Being able to participate in environmental descision-making does not necessarily mean that that their voices will actually influence decisions, but it is an important first step.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

See coverage of the hearing by the Los Angeles Times here, and its broader coverage of the company here.

Field trip to Los Angeles

On Wednesday night I got back from a week spent visiting some of the most polluted parts of southern California, and in some cases the country. These are communities surrounded by ports, refineries, freeways, train tracks, warehouses and other industrial facilities.  They live with air pollution, asthma, cancer, dust, flares, the constant rumbling of machinery and trucks, and bright lights at night. Over the course of the week I heard stories of what it is like to live in these communities. I heard about explosions, fires, police checkpoints, and the not-so-distant history of the Klu Klux Klan. But I also heard stories of improvements made, lawsuits won and protections put in place.

My dissertation research covers the growth and changing nature of environmental justice advocacy in California over the past three decades. Although I’ve been working loosely in this field for much of the past 14 years, my prior work has focused on the San Joaquin Valley and the international arena. And as a dedicated northern Californian, I find I have little knowledge of the southern half of my home state. So, this trip was an important opportunity to expand my understanding of environmental justice advocacy, and to connect across the gentle rivalry that sometimes divides north from south.

I’ve included photos and a description of my trip here in the hopes that through my eyes you too might better understand my state and the problems we face.

César Chávez National Monument

Day 1: Instead of driving south over the I-5, I went up and over the mountains that divide the Central Valley from Los Angeles through Cajon Pass. I wanted to visit the César Chávez National Monument in Keene, which President Obama dedicated just last year. Environmental justice advocates in the San Joaquin Valley have rich ties to the United Farmworkers of America, and César Chávez continues to be a potent political symbol there.  The national monument houses his grave, a garden, and a visitor’s center that was showing a photo exhibit of the 1965 Delano grape strike the day I visited.

National monuments are administered by the National Park Service. Because I associate the park service with national forests and camping trips, it was jarring to see their familiar signage next to images of César Chávez, farmworkers, and artifacts from the picket line. I’m pleased to see César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement get this level of attention and legitimacy, but also uneasy to see a memorializing process that makes it easy to think the problems they worked on are things of the past.

César Chávez National Monument

César Chávez National Monument

The drive through the rest of the mountains was beautiful. The Santa Ana winds had blown the air pollution away so I had an uncommon view of the stunning desert vistas around me. I wouldn’t see them again for the rest of the trip.

I ended the day happily in Riverside at a 35th Anniversary Gala Event for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ). CCAEJ got its start through a fight against the Stringfellow Acid Pits above Glen Avon. The site contaminated local groundwater, and on several occasions released liquid hazardous waste into a canyon that carried it into the streets of Glen Avon. Activism around the site led to the creation of the California State Superfund Program and to the birth of CCAEJ. It is still being cleaned up.

Day 2: On Friday I woke up to soak in the beauty of a nearby desert rock formation visible from my motel. Then I drove to the Los Angeles Port to attend the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation‘s public meeting in San Pedro. The LA Port is the largest industrial port in the country, and the diesel exhaust from the ships, equipment and trucks that operate there are the largest source of air pollution in the region. The Foundation was funded by the port after years of activism by local residents and a lawsuit over the negative impacts of the port on the surrounding communities. The day I visited the board was discussing the $506,000 worth of grants they were giving to support local community initiatives.

The view from San Pedro

The view from San Pedro

After leaving the port I drove north to Pacoima, where I had a great time interviewing Veronica Padilla and Yvette Lopez from Pacoima Beautiful. They’ve offered to drive me around Pacoima to see their work in person, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again on my next visit!

My car

Day 3: Saturday was a welcome day of rest.  I organized my notes and audio files, scheduled more interviews, and hung out with my cousin at his office in Glendale (where I slept for the majority of the trip). I had it on my list to clean out my car too, but didn’t quite get to it.  You know you’re a Ph.D. student when you open the car door and books fall out!

Day 4: On Sunday I headed back to the area around the Los Angeles Port to interview Jesse Marquez from Coalition for a Safe Environment. Jesse grew up in Wilmington and works to protect his community from the pollution released by its neighboring ports, refineries and other industrial operations. While he printed out reports and campaign materials for me, I poked around his office. There were water samples and soot in jars, maps of the area with callouts pointing to the various projects of industrial expansion, and lots of books. I always find it instructive to peruse people’s bookshelves, and Jesse’s were no exception. The vast quantities of highly technical environmental impact reports spoke volumes about the maze of government regulations and science that he navigates in his day-to-day work.

Wilmington

The bookshelves at the offices of Coalition for a Safe Environment.

After leaving Wilmington, I headed to Maywood to sit in on a meeting between residents and their lawyers at the local Denny’s.  Maywood residents have been engaged in a long battle against a polluting battery recycling plant run by Exide Technologies. The plant has been repeatedly cited for releasing lead and arsenic into the air above legal limits. See coverage by the Los Angeles Times here.

Downtown Huntington Park

Day 5: On Monday I made my first trip to Huntington Park and strolled through the downtown, which was bustling with activity. I met with Strela Cervas from the California Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of six California environmental justice groups. We discussed the challenges and opportunities of scaling up local battles into statewide policy work in Sacramento. I heard more about their campaign to pass a Green Zones initiative and their support of AB 1330, which would increase enforcement of environmental law in communities overburdened with pollution, and also channel more resources to them. I also learned more about about their “Solar for All” campaign to provide clean energy and jobs in low-income communities through investment in rooftop solar energy production. The need for environmental clean up as well as jobs in the communities in which environmental justice advocates work was poignantly underscored when I passed by long lines of people outside the Social Security Administration building on my walk back to the car.

Line at the Social Security Administration building in Huntington Park

The Los Angeles River

I had a bit of free time before my next meeting, so I drove by the Los Angeles River to take a few photos. It looks more like an industrial flood channel than a river, but I found it strangely attractive nonetheless and enjoyed taking photos of it. Check out long-term plans to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the river here.

The Los Angeles River

My next interview was with Felipe Aguirre from the Comité Pro Uno in Maywood. Over the din of the trucks passing outside, we spoke about his many years of activism, his role on the Maywood city council, and the air pollution and contaminated drinking water faced by Maywood residents. Felipe told me that he first got involved in environmental justice advocacy when he found out that pollution where he lived was so bad that an administrator at a local school made a habit of referring the kindergarteners from his neighborhood to doctors who screened them for lead poisoning.  

Day 6: On Tuesday I joined a visiting group of environmental justice activists from Houston on a tour of the ports, railroads, freeways and warehouses in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.  This transportation system moves a vast quantity of goods every day. The neighboring communities suffer the consequences through air pollution, asthma, cancer and sometimes even fires and explosions. Over the course of the day we:

Picket line in front of Green Fleet Systems

Teamsters Local 630

Truck drivers taking a break from the picket line (names withheld by request)

Tracing the infrastructure of the global “logistics industry” from sea to mountain was daunting.  I already knew that environmental injustices are deeply embedded in global commerce, but watching the massive quantities of goods moving through the area brought it home in a concrete way I’ve never felt before. These lists of exports and imports through the area give a taste of just how deeply entrenched our society is in the international flows of goods:

Top imports coming through the LA and Long Beach ports:

  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Auto parts
  • Electronics
  • Shoes
  • Crude oil
  • Plastics
  • Chemicals

Top exports exiting through the LA and Long Beach ports:

  • Food
  • Scrap metal
  • Scrap paper
  • Animal feeds
  • Cotton
  • Resins
  • Petroleum coke and other petroleum products
  • Coal
  • Chemicals

Cargo ships at the Port of Los Angeles

The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports

Railroads cary cargo inland from the ports

Over the course of the day we used the buddy system to make sure nobody got left behind when we got back on the bus after each stop.  My buddy for the day was Juan Parra of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. We discovered we had a few friends in common, and I enjoyed hearing about the early days of environmental justice advocacy in Texas and the Southwest from him. We also spent part of the drive looking at the Google Map on my smart phone.  We used the satellite view to zoom in on the port of Houston and the neighborhood of Manchester where some of his group lives. Juan pointed out a house that we could see was surrounded on three sides by oil tanks and other industrial facilities.

The irony of spending the day driving and using electronics to learn more about environmental justice problems that result in part from pollution due to driving and electronics manufacturing was not lost on me. But although we’re all implicated in the planet’s environmental crisis, some of us are less implicated than others.  Low-income communities of color usually contribute less to the problem while suffering its impacts more. And like all advocates, we do the best we can with the tools at hand while working towards something better.

Day 7: On Wednesday I joined the group from Houston again as they met with an array of local environmental justice advocates and scholars.  After our morning meetings concluded, we went on one final “tour.”  Alicia Rivera from Communities for a Better Environment drove us through Wilmington, mostly to parts of the town I had not seen before. At one of our stops Francisco Vargas saw us and came out of his home to talk with us. He lives next to the Warren E & P urban oil-drilling site we were looking at. Francisco described how the drilling shakes the earth and has cracked his home’s windows and foundation. He told us that in response to his requests for financial help fixing the damage the company offered him vouchers to get his car washed instead.  In spite of his hardships, Francisco shared a few laughs with us before we went on our way. See page 6 of this report for background information on the drilling site.

View from the car in Wilmington

DSC_0033Francisco Vargas and Alicia Rivera at the Warren E & P drilling site in Wilmington

The immensity of the powers arrayed against communities trying to protect themselves from the pollution I saw in LA and the Inland Empire was staggering.  That’s why it was so inspiring to learn about the issues alongside the group of advocates from Houston, who are anticipating port expansion projects of their own. They were here to get a sense of port expansion can mean, trade ideas, and learn from what California advocates have been able to accomplish. Although I’ve lived in California since I was five, the fact that I was born in Houston made me feel a special kinship with this group.  I’m grateful to them for sharing their learning experience with me, and to the Los Angeles environmental justice community for their hospitality and warm welcome.

The Houston group

Link roundup: Resources for teaching environmental justice

I’ve come across a variety of intriguing online resources in past months that I keep meaning to write-up into a variety of teaching tools. But time is short so instead I’m posting them all here, with a few short ideas on how they might be used in the classroom. Happy teaching!

Race and the outdoors

  • Stuff white people like: camping A tongue-in-cheek send-up of camping, camping culture, and the disproportionate participation of white people in camping. Could be a great way to stimulate classroom conversation about outdoor activities and race. I could see reading the post aloud and asking the following kinds of questions to get the conversation rolling: How many of you like camping?  How many of you don’t? Does this post ring true to your experience of camping or not camping? Does this post seem like an accurate representation of camping? Does this post seem like an accurate representation of who camps? Why do you think white people are the dominant participants in so many recreational activities in the outdoors?
  • Diversity and the outdoors - google hangout with Allison Chin (Sierra Club), Audrey Peterman (Legacy On the Land), Javier Sierra (Sierra Club en Español), Juan Martinez (Children and Nature Network), Rue Mapp (Outdoor Afro) and Rusty White (surfer). People of color outdoor-leaders discuss how they got interested in the outdoors and how to get more people to join them. This video would be a good follow-up to the “Stuff white people like” blog post described above because it contradicts it in some ways. You could ask students to consider how the leaders featured in the google hangout might respond to the “stuff white people like” blog post.  Would they agree or disagree with its content?
  • America’s forgotten black cowboys This article could help students question racialized narratives of the American West, as well as to consider the historical experiences of people of color in the American outdoors.

Race, Nation, and Agriculture: The “God Made a Farmer” Videos 

I could imagine showing the first video without any introduction and asking the following questions at the end of it:  Did you notice anything odd about this video?  Was anything missing? If the students can’t think of anything, show the second video and ask them the question again. The point would be to launch into a discussion of the video’s startling use of white people to represent farming in America, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people working in this industry are Latino. This could be a fruitful jumping off point for discussion about framing, narrative, representation, race, the history of farming in America, or any number of other juicy topics. Be sure to discuss what the difference between a “farmer” and a “farmworker” is. Child labor could make for an interesting and relevant topic for a follow-up conversation too.

Data

Other data sources. See this activity for ideas on how they could be used.

Multimedia 

I’m not sure how I would use these in the college classroom, but wanted to post them here for future reference.