Green Tide

Communities For a Better Environment

By Robin Urevich

It’s three to five times more likely that a toxic dump site will be found in an African American or Latino community than a white one. In the Southeast Los Angeles communities of color it’s estimated that there are over 200 toxic hazards there and more than 60 federal EPA designated Superfund sites. A group of urban environmentalists, members of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), say the contamination is making them and their children sick. Last month, they launched a campaign to do something about it called the Campaign for Local Environmental Action and Regional Solutions (CLEARS). It’s a comprehensive effort to force environmental justice issues onto the agendas of regulators and politicians.

Most CBE activists never set out to be environmental crusaders. Take Joe Perales, a 53-year-old printer who says he’d rather be answering reporters’ questions on fishing. It would be easier than discussing the toxic hazards that he thinks caused his youngest son, Alex, to die of cancer last year at the age of 14. “When Alex was in the fifth grade at Suva Intermediate School, he started getting sick on us. We took him to the doctor, but the doctor didn’t know what was wrong. He assumed it was just a virus.” But Perales says Alex didn’t get better. He was finally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and went into remission some 16 months after his diagnosis. Last year, he acquired an acute form of leukemia and died.

After Alex was diagnosed, Perales began asking questions. His daughters told him of friends, neighbors, and ex-classmates who’d had cancer or had relatives who’d had it, and he found that several teachers at Suva had died of the disease. CBE organizer Carlos Porras told him that two chrome plating plants next to the schoolyard at Suva had been emitting high levels of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen that’s also implicated in miscarriages, birth defects, and infertility. The soil beneath the two plants was found to be so severely contaminated that they were designated Superfund sites by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Panic swept the school 10 years ago when 7 of 11 pregnant women on staff had miscarriages. Teachers persuaded the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) to set up air monitors on the schoolyard. Levels of hexavalent chromium were so high that the agency estimated that as many as 7,200 out of a million people in the area could become ill with cancer as a result of the emissions. Under federal air quality standards, one additional cancer in a million is unacceptable. Even under looser AQMD standards that set the threshold at one hundred cancers per million, the results at Suva were frightening. Air District officials assured school staff and residents there was no need for emergency action. Still, they passed new regulations—effective in 1990—that limited hexavalent chromium emissions. They then considered the problem solved. For Joe Perales, it’s still not solved, and painful questions remain. The new rules might have brought down emissions at each plant, he says. But it turns out there are a half a dozen chrome plating facilities in the immediate area. Eight years after the regulations were passed, people in the neighborhood are still exposed to six times more cancer-causing emissions than are considered healthy by AQMD standards.

Even if the air were safe, says Perales, the issue of soil contamination still hasn’t been addressed. And, there’s the question of the community’s right to know what’s in their air, water and soil.

“If we had known that this area was contaminated, we would have never moved here. But, we did, not knowing. The government, the AQMD, whoever’s responsible, has to let the people know.”

“When I had a chance to speak to the AQMD Board in January,” Perales says, “I let them know how I felt as a parent who lost a child. Would they want to send their kids to Suva Intermediate School. Nobody answered. So, I said, doesn’t anybody want to say something? Tell us, would your kids go there? Of course not.

Carlos Porras says the AQMD had largely ignored the environmental justice issues Perales raised until CBE filed a civil rights complaint last year with the Environmental Protection Agency.

CBE charges that Air District policies—like giving oil companies the right to emit greater quantities of benzene and other toxins if they set up programs to take heavily polluting cars off the road by buying them from their owners—burden the mostly Latino communities that surround the refineries with more than their share of toxic contamination.

Since the complaint was filed, the AQMD has been a bit more attentive. They’ve agreed to reconsider key policies that affect health risks, and they’ve committed $750,000 for research to quantify health hazards in communities, an effort that should take 18 months to 2 years.

The CBE CLEARS campaign will enable the group to do independent studies without waiting for AQMD results. Armed with a $1.7 million grant and a team of academic researchers, they’ll be able to get beyond the “not in my backyard” approach that sometimes pits one low-income neighborhood against another, to take a more comprehensive view. “What we’d like to do,” says economist and project participant, Manuel Pastor, “is take these efforts that are emerging around environmental justice issues and say not in anybody’s backyard. Basically, we need to move beyond backyards to looking at a regional approach to dealing with pollution and environmental hazards.” What that might look like, says Pastor, is a proposal to set limits on the total amount of contamination to which an area would be exposed. Once the limit is reached, additional polluters would not be allowed to locate there.

Another priority for CBE, says Carlos Porras, is stepping up grassroots organizing efforts in order to deal with regulators and politicians from a position of greater strength. “If Suva Intermediate, for example, were in Beverly Hills, that chrome plating facility would never have gotten a permit to operate next door. And, if by some freakish event, that type of land use contradiction did occur, I’m sure that because of the political and economic clout in those communities, that facility would have been relocated.”


Robin Urevich works mostly in radio, doing stories on community and labor organizing.