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Environment & Climate

A Disney World of pollution in a California town

Communities with the worst air pollution in the United States are often home to predominantly Hispanic populations.
19 Jul 2016 – 06:31 PM EDT
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Wilmington, a south Los Angeles enclave, could be used as a Hollywood movie set for an average American neighborhood. Its homes have tidy green yards and front fences with car gates. It would be the dream of any immigrant family were it not for the surrounding area, the noisy Interstate 110 Freeway on one side, the sprawling 424-acre Phillips 66 refinery complex full of belching smokestacks on the other, and two major ports nearby.

And there's the smell.

“The smell can be so strong that you have to run inside and close the windows," said Gonzalo Castañeda, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in Wilmington and breathed its foul air for 21 years. "It smells bad, like a rotten egg. It makes your nose burn and your eyes water."

Because of high levels of ozone and fine particles, Los Angeles and neighboring Long Beach rank among the worst metropolitan areas in the United States for air pollution, according to the American Lung Association's 2016 report. But not all neighborhoods have unhealthy air; minority neighborhoods tend to be more polluted. Case in point: 86.6 percent of Wilmington's 54,600 residents are Hispanic.

In spite of air-quality improvements in Los Angeles in recent years, there's an intense concentration of pollution sources close to residential areas on this strip of the West Coast. The roughly nine square mile area of Wilmington contains two of the biggest ports in the United States, which are the largest fixed emitters of pollution in southern California; the huge Phillips 66, Valero and Tesoro refineries; several major highways; power plants; chemical plants; and a vast web of pipes and pumps that draw oil from under many area homes.

“Well, I got used to living here,” said José Luis Muñoz, who lives on Wilmington's Arabic Street. For 28 years he has lived next to what he calls a “time bomb” and has witnessed several explosions.

“What haunts me is my grandson, because almost every day he tells me, 'I can't breathe, Pa, I can't breathe,'” said Muñoz. He acknowledged that he has no idea what comes out of the smokestacks near his home or how it could affect him. But he says he counted five children who died of cancer in the 12 houses on his block.

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“If I could, I would have left this place. But unfortunately, we have to stick it out here," Raúl López, a Mexican who has lived in Wilmington for more than 12 years, told Univision. He said that his granddaughters “get agitated, can't breathe normally, and the parents have to rush them to the hospital at all hours of the night.”

Each year, 493,248 tons of nitrogen oxide, 132,375 tons of sulfur oxide, 336,069 tons of carbon monoxide, 177,603 tons of reactive organic gases and 230,544 tons of total suspended particles (TSP) are emitted by Phillips smokestacks.

That's not all. There are also 234 pounds of butadiene gas, 5,057 pounds of sulfuric acid, 2,219 pounds of acetaldehyde, 78,196 pounds of ammonia, 784 pounds of benzene, 1,834 pounds of formaldehyde, 4,806 pounds of hexane, 3,405 pounds of toluene and 2,885 pounds of xylene. The refinery reported those numbers online through the South Coast Air Quality Management District ( SCAQMD), the air pollution control agency in charge of the region.

There are parts of Los Angeles county that have higher levels of ozone or fine particle pollution, according to SCAQMD. But the agency acknowledges that the sections of Wilmington closest to the seaports are part of the area with the highest cancer risks, based on a 2015 study. While SCAQMD maps indicate that the worst areas have a cancer risk higher than 1,200 cases per million, there are places in Wilmington that surpass 2,500 cases per million.

“Are you asking me if the areas of Wilmington close to the port are areas with unacceptable risks?” said Sam Atwood, SCAQMD's director of media relations. “My answer is yes.”

Near the port areas and the smokestacks, a sign in Spanish and English says, “Thank you to the Phillips refinery for its support.” It's at the entrance to Wilmington's Hawaiian Avenue Elementary School.

“Asthma is a serious problem at my school. Many children have it and have to carry inhalers to breathe,” said Linda Basset, a teacher at one of the Wilmington schools with predominantly Hispanic students. She's seen more than one student have an asthma attack in her classroom.

“It's a little scary when the students can't breathe,” she said.

As a result of the health issues, Basset added, budget priorities at her school are clear: first the nurse, then the library. “Every year we have to decide how we're going to spend our money, and all the teachers agree. First, we want a nurse every day. Asthma is one of the reasons,” she said.

Bassett noted the schools lack equipment to measure air pollution, but pointed to the sheet of black dust that covers almost every surface. “It's like working in a coal mine,” she complained.

Not far from the school, next to the John Menendez baseball field and a giant oil pump that taps crude from one of the country's biggest oil fields, Ashley Hernández runs her finger over the windshield of her car, leaving a black smudge on her hand.

“This soot is in the homes, the windows, the floors, and it gets into our lungs,” said the young activist from the Communities for a Better Environment organization, which sometimes organizes “toxic tours” of Wilmington.

“This happens only in minority neighborhoods. If this can't happen in Beverly Hills or Palos Verdes, we don't want it here either,” said Hernández, who gets more worked up about pollution than most of her Hispanic neighbors.

Multiple studies have shown that Latinos make up the majority in U.S. neighborhoods with the worst air quality. Raoul Liévanos, a researcher at Washington State University published a report showing that poor immigrants with weak English skills were three times more likely to live near sources of air pollution.

His study showed the clearest links between those factors in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale region in California, the New York City-White Plains-Wayne area in New York and the Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine region in California.

“Wilmington sends millions of dollars to the city of Los Angeles, but that money is spent on wealthy neighborhoods,” said Sofia Carrillo, an activist with the Coalition for a Safe Environment, which wants more spending on reducing toxic emissions.

“It's sad what's happening in neighborhoods where Latinos live. There's a lot of discrimination,” said Carrillo. “Here in Wilmington, there's not even a shopping mall, not a single movie theater.”

Wilmington doesn't have a pollution-monitoring station. SCAGDM acknowledged the nearest monitoring station is in Long Beach, around six miles away.

“Everyone wants to know why there is no monitoring station in that neighborhood. It's tough to answer the question, but basically, putting a station somewhere involves a lot of federal government requirements,” said Atwood. “[It's] not just the location - the types of instruments we use are very expensive. We have to place the monitoring stations in places that are representative of the entire region.”

Meanwhile, some of Wilmington's residents simply accept the pollution they deal with every day.

"We're worried, but what can we do?" said Castañeda. "I don't have small children anymore. We're old, so it's all the same to us. What difference can it make now?"