A tour through one of California’s polluted port cities

Port of Long Beach, Calif.

Photo by Alison Yin

This week, as I rode a tour bus around the streets of the working-class, 51,000-person port town of Wilmington, Calif., past oil refineries and yards stacked with shipping containers and along busy freeways, I couldn’t help but think of West Oakland, Richmond, and the Bay Area’s industrial corridor.

I was struck by how many schools and playgrounds were right off the freeway, a short distance from the main sources of air pollution. One of our tour guides, Wilmington native and USC grad student Anabell Romero, told us about an explosive fire that raged in a junk yard for 32 hours in 2010, right by a school; children played outside, she said, while firefighters worked to contain the fire.

When she went to UC Santa Cruz for college, she said, “I was like, `The air is so fresh here — too fresh.'”

Romero and her friends started a blog, the Wilmington Wire, about these issues and others, and she has done reporting for KQED. While her reporting has brought to light the toll that heavy industry has taken on her community’s health — USC studies have linked diesel emissions to asthma, underdeveloped lungs and cancer — she has a nuanced perspective. Workers at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles make $30 to $50 hour, she said, and — ironically — have some of the best health benefits. Romero’s fiancé works at the port.

Two employees for the Port of Long Beach characterized the department (which, though government-owned agencies, operate just like businesses) as a national leader on air quality improvements. They said recent investments in cleaner technology — an estimated $2 billion in LA and Long Beach in the last five years — have resulted in a reduction in air pollution, and that the goal is to stop burning fuel altogether.

But David Freeman, a former commissioner on the LA Board of Harbor Commissioners (appointed by the mayor at the time), said the ports only responded to community pressure and lawsuits. Everyone’s talking about the planned improvements, he said, but there is no reason for them to not be in place. The technology is there, he said, and the ports are solid, financially; there needs to be a clear timetable.

“There’s no sense of urgency,” he told me. “Left to their own devices, the port will be like any other business.”

I need to learn more about how the Port of Oakland and other industries are responding to community pressure to clean up their acts, as well as the politics involved. I see that the Oakland City Council might replace two new port commissioners at a meeting tonight — right now, actually.

I’m on a plane heading back to Oakland, so I’ve got to sign off. As I start the project I told you about on Monday, on childhood asthma and air quality in the Bay Area, I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas on the subject. Post them here, or reach me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nontcair

    The Port of LA/LB should be relocated to upper Santa Monica Bay.

    Malibu Canyon Road should be widened to 10 lanes, like the Long Beach and Terminal Island Freeways.

    Those big oil refineries in Carson, Torrance, and Wilmington should be relocated to Pacific Palisades, Beverly Hills, and Bel Air. The former sites should be cleaned up (using SuperFund money) to this nation’s strictest standards. They should then be preserved as wetlands for migratory birds.

    LA County should impose a $1 per gallon excise tax on fuel to build new schools far from the sources of air pollution and the mass transit solutions necessary to get the kids to and from those new schools.

  • Marsha

    Hi Katy,
    What’s the latest in Dr. Chavis/AIM Schools?
    -Former AIM teacher