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Tracking the Polluters

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Byline: Michele Prichard

Hidden Hazards is a new report prepared by the Los Angeles Collaborative for Environmental Health and Justice which is made up of L.A.-area community groups working for environmental justice, academic researchers, and Liberty Hill Foundation. The report provides important new data that will help community organizations advocate for greener businesses and a reduction of pollution in their communities. As part of my work at Liberty Hill, I’ve been a leading partner in this important research on environmental justice.

The collaborative has previously published research documenting the clear relationship between the elevated risk for asthma, cancer and respiratory illnesses in low-income communities of color and the close proximity of these communities to air pollution sources such as factories, freeways and goods movement facilities such as railyards. That research provided scientific evidence to corroborate the first-hand knowledge of residents that they are disproportionately impacted by air pollution.

Hidden Hazards goes deeper and shows how the official record, based on data collected by public agencies, does not tell the whole story of air pollution in our communities.

California’s regulatory agencies have recommended protecting residents from air toxins by establishing buffer zones between pollution sources and "sensitive population" centers such as schools and hospitals. But there are big differences between the official record and what local residents find when they go into their neighborhoods and measure the distance between pollution emitters and places where vulnerable people gather.

To research the hazards that are hidden from the view of regulatory agencies, community members, guided by academic researchers, used scientific tools and techniques to locate polluting facilities, measure buffer zone compliance, and measure air pollution. Teams from Union de Vecinos, Figueroa Community Land Trust (now known as TRUST South L.A.), Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Pacoima Beautiful and Coalition for a Safe Environment fanned out over Commerce, Maywood, Wilmington, Pacoima, Boyle Heights and other parts of Los Angeles to map locations of hazardous facilities and to measure actual air pollution levels using the same type of monitoring devices used by state air quality regulators. We call this research work "Ground Truthing."

Isella Ramirez, Co-director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (and a Liberty Hill 2011 Grassroots Leader to Watch) was a Ground Truthing team leader in Commerce, where she and her family have lived for decades. Among the team members on the 2008 project was Nathen Mata, who grew up next to the railyards and factories and had then just graduated from high school. He's now a student at East Los Angeles College and an organizer for East Yard. Other team members were Maria Becerra, Marta Becerra, Edwin Cervantes and Miguel Ortega.

The Ground Truthing team first went through three days of in-depth education and interactive workshops. The workshops covered the environmental hazards facing the East Yard communities, the health impacts of the pollution affecting the neighborhood, and the science of documenting environmental impacts. The seven member team did additional training in the use of GPS, aerial maps, and devices like the P-Track monitors  which measure ultra fine particles that can penetrate deep into lungs.

"We were pretty ambitious in terms of the area we chose to cover and we had one of the smallest teams," says Isella, "but within a month we’d finished it up.... If we were where there were a lot of homes, then we were on bikes or walking. If we were in an area not so friendly to pedestrians, then one person would drive while another wrote everything down."

The teams made detailed location notes, took pictures and gathered as much information as they could about each facility. For example, they might measure the distance between a church day-care room and a dry cleaning faciliy or auto-painting shop. They also measured air pollution levels in a loading area while counting the number of trucks or school buses idling. 

"Our community members know how to use a couple-thousand-dollar machine and are really comfortable with collecting data," says Isella. She and Nathen and the other team members assessed their findings and saw they could quantify the anecdotal evidence offered by their neighbors.

The Ground Truthing team found that when you compare air quality at a particular location over six days, three times a day and compare it to air quality at other locations in other neighborhoods, a pattern emerges. "It’s like a staircase. You can see that the closer you are to the industry, the higher the density of harmful air toxins."

The Hidden Hazards report not only presents findings but also outlines measures that local governments can take to lessen the health hazards faced by their residents. It offers recommendations for specific actions that can be implemented using tools already available to city planners and agencies. 

The East Yard Ground Truthing team took its comparisons between air quality at home in Commerce and air quality in Pasadena (which was much better) to the Commerce City Council. Community members asked the city to create a "green" buffer zone between residents and pollution sources.

Says Isella, "This kind of buffer zone doesn't mean we’re going to push away businesses. We would like to see companies, especially locally-owned ones, that contribute to the job base of our community. But, we want to see clean, green and sustainable businesses that are not harmful to the health of our residents." 

The Hidden Hazards report led to the formation of a campaign to "clean up and green up" Los Angeles. Learn more.

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