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This past Saturday, I had an opportunity to see parts of our county that I had never visited in the 28 years I have lived in LA. The Toxic Tour led by Communities for a Better Environment took me to Huntington Park, Vernon, Maywood, South Gate and Wilmington, areas where many of the polluting industries I fight as an environmental activist are operating right in the midst of houses and schools.

Toxic Tour

About 40 of us met at the CBE office in Huntington Park where we heard from organizer Roberto Cabrales about the history of CBE. Like many organizers, Roberto grew up in the community but had an opportunity to go to college and learn about these issues from a macro point of view, learn organizing skills and then return to his community to try to make change.

As we were driving through Huntington Park, Roberto gave us a brief history lesson. We learned that the city was founded in 1907 when much of the community was made up of ranches and dairy farms. He pointed out the electric power lines for the trolley cars, a clean transportation system that was dismantled after extensive lobbying by the auto, tire and oil industries to build freeways and get us into our cars, where we are now trapped.

Sylvia Arredondo, an organizer with CBE talks about her journey as a resident of a toxic community to an organizer trying to turn things around.

We learned the difference between a brownfield, an empty lot that is contaminated with toxic chemicals, and a Superfund site, a site which is on the EPA priority list for clean up. We drove by one brownfield, a former petrochemical recycling facility. And we drove by the former site of "La Montana," named for the mountain of concrete that was sent from the 10 Freeway that collapsed in the Northridge earthquake. A local activist named Linda Martinez knocked on doors and organized the community against this pile of rubble spewing toxic dust and eventually the site was cleaned up. We passed her home and the school named after her.

Then we drove to Vernon, a city composed entirely of industry. In fact, there are fewer than 100 people who actually reside there. We passed the two cul de sacs where residents live. Vernon made the news because they hadn't had an election in 30 years; and the mayor was paying himself more than what the President of the United States makes.

Vernon was founded in 1905. It used to be mostly dairy farms but transitioned into manufacturing in the 1940s. Alcoa Steel used to have a plant there. Now there are a lot of small industries. We passed buildings owned by Gavina Coffee, Anayas Cutting, VN Apparel, Jaya Apparel, Paco Paper, General Bearings and more.

We learned how many large factories had paid decent wages and, for the most part, followed environmental regulations. But in the late 70s, many large manufacturers, like Firestone Tires, closed and the community lost good paying union jobs. Many of the small and medium sized businesses that replaced them are paying sweatshop wages and ignoring environmental regulations. There is a lot of cutting of corners and illegal dumping. They are fined. However, the fines are low enough that they can continue to operate.

Roberto also told us of the ugly racist history of the unions which kept black and brown folks from joining the unions and getting the good paying jobs. He relayed how people of color could not cross Alameda without being harassed. When the good jobs left, white flight ensued. And now the community is 90% Latino.

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toxic tour

(Photos: Joe Galliani)

We passed the Exide battery recycling plant which CBE and their coalition partners were able to shut down last year after decades of releasing lead and arsenic into the air and sickening the neighbors. Then we passed the Burlington Northern Railway yard, which we were told took over Japanese gardens when Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.

The railroad cars and the trucks driving on the freeways are taking freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and delivering them to the rest of the country. This is another huge source of pollution for those who live in these communities. In fact with trade expanding due to NAFTA, CAFTA, KORUS, the WTO and other so called "free trade" agreements including the pending TTP and TTIP agreements, this rail and truck traffic will only get worse.

CBE and other coalition partners have so far stalled a proposed expansion of the 710 Freeway. As we drove on the 710, we counted 20 trucks that passed us by in one 60 second time span. It is far worse during the week.

Then we hit the Port of Los Angeles in Wilmington. We stopped at the end of one residential block and stood in front of a wall and a line of trees that were built to "protect" the residents from the pollution. We learned how the oil companies, which have refineries there -- Tesoro, Valero, Phillips 66 -- have funded community organizations and given gift cards to residents after toxic events like spills and leaks to buy them off and keep the people from suing over the resulting illnesses. These were the same companies that tried unsuccessfully to roll back AB 32, the Global Warming Solution Act, that will limit the amount of greenhouse gases they can emit.

Our final stop was lunch at a public park overlooking to the Port. It took the people of Wilmington 40 years to get this park. Over sandwiches, fruit and cookies, we had an opportunity to talk with each other about what we had seen.

toxic tour

I talked with one of the students from the group from Fuller Theological Seminary about.about my work fighting the TPP and hers fighting human trafficking. The presence of these students reminded me that environmental justice is one of the big moral issues of our time. Our capitalist, consumerist lifestyle is not only killing the planet, it is poisoning a lot of people, mostly working class people of color. Chris Hedges calls these neighborhoods sacrifice zones. People are literally sacrificed, so we can get new clothes and a new iPhone every year.

I would highly encourage everyone who is unfamiliar with these neighborhoods and the people who sacrifice their health for us to take this tour when CBE offers it again next Saturday. And please consider environmental justice just as important as social justice and economic justice when fighting for change.

As Timothy Murphy from Progressive Christians Uniting said in a benediction before embarking on the tour, "Open our eyes, ears and hearts to be moved by what is happening in these communities and be inspired by the struggles people are engaging in to make these places of peace, health and justice."

Lauren Steiner

Lauren Steiner

Lauren Steiner