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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 fianc√© 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. Continue Reading

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A new project, on childhood asthma

Every so often, reporters have the luxury of stepping back from the routine of our daily beats and consider ways of doing work that is more ambitious, wider-reaching — to learn about what we’re not covering, but should be, or, maybe, a fresh take on an issue we’ve been following closely.

For me, that’s happening this week. Photographer Alison Yin and I are teaming up on a project for the Oakland Tribune about childhood asthma and air quality. We’ll be at USC for the next few days with other ¬†journalists whose work is being supported by a National Health Journalism Fellowship.

The project, which the Tribune is also supporting, will explore the rising asthma rates among kids in the U.S. and its strong grip on parts of the Bay Area, particularly among African-American children. We want to look at the role of air quality (indoor and outdoor) and, in general, what’s known about the causes of the disease. As we continue to brainstorm ideas, we’re open to yours. If there are angles you think we should pursue, or people we should talk to, email me! I’m at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Tomorrow, we visit the Port of Long Beach, which is especially relevant to our story. I’ll be tweeting occasionally from the sessions, which began last night, if you’re interested or want to add your thoughts. I’m at Twitter.com/katymurphy (or @katymurphy), and we’re all using the hashtag #nhjf12.

I look forward to hearing your ideas!