“To pretend that the world is a garden is … a turning away from the woes that keep it from being one.” —Rebecca Solnit.
Environmental justice organizations in Los Angeles recently launched a Clean up, Green up campaign to reduce existing toxic pollution in neighborhood suffering from heavy toxic burden and to encourage investments in new green businesses.
The campaign draws upon the findings of community members who conducted “ground truthings” of pollution sources in Boyle Heights, the Fugueroa Corridor, Wilmington, Pacoima, Commerce and Maywood. By “truthing,” they mean walking the streets and using mapping tools and hand-held sensors in an effort to verify the accuracy of government databases of major pollution source such as oil refineries, chemical companies, and chromium plating facilities. Their research results are summarized in a report, “Hidden Hazards: A Call to Action for Healthy, Livable Communities,” issued by the Los Angeles Collaborative for Environmental Health and Justice. Occidental College professors Martha Matsuoka and Jim Sadd helped community organizations conduct and analyze the research.
The community surveyors found that there are more in-the-real-world facilities emitting toxic substances than show up on state and federal databases. This is because government right-to-know and toxics inventory programs exclude facilities that use, manufacture or release less than a minimum threshold of chemicals or that have a small number of employees. The problem is that many of these smaller sources of pollution cluster in neighborhoods that also have a few larger emitters, resulting in higher cumulative impacts on people working in or living near such small facilities.
Eagle Rock is a primarily residential area. There are no major chemical factories or power plants located in Eagle Rock proper. But there are smaller potential sources of toxic substances, including auto body shops and gas stations.
Close to Eagle Rock, for example, along the Los Angeles River, are light manufacturing and warehouse zones and rail yards. The neighborhood is also bordered by the 134 and 2 freeway and is close to the 5 and 210 freeways. Wouldn’t it be great if students from Occidental or Eagle Rock High—or, indeed, concerned residents—conducted some “ground truthing” of our own in Eagle Rock and surrounding areas?
I checked out some of the existing databases of pollution and toxic releases—which, for all their imperfections, are valuable sources of information—to see how clean is the air we breathe.
Baseline data from state monitoring sites in Los Angeles, Burbank and other areas allows scientists to estimate the cancer risk from a lifetime of breathing the air in the L.A. region. (See the map image in the photos section.) In Eagle Rock, for example, the cancer risk is between 800-900 per million, somewhat lower than the average risk in Greater Los Angeles. If the entire country had air as contaminated as we do in the 90041 zip code, there would be more than 260,000 cases of cancer from breathing the air in Eagle Rock.
Moving to specific sources of air pollutants, the California Air Resources Board maintains a Community Health Air Pollution Information System. The three largest sources of reported air pollutants (particulate matter, benzene, and chromium 6) within a 3-mile radius of Eagle Rock are power plants operated by the City of Pasadena’s Pasadena Water and Power, the City of Glendale’s Glendale Water and Power and PRC-de Soto International, a manufacturer of sealants and coatings used in the aerospace industry.
A query of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s “Toxic Release Inventory” program, the main national right-to-know database, shows Baxter Bioscience and Mission Kleensweep products as major local emitters of thousands of pounds of glycol ethers, which the EPA lists as solvents having “unknown” health effects, and methanol, a form of alcohol used as a feedstock for formaldehyde and other chemicals. The blue markers in the attached map from this database shows facilities that are required to report their emissions. The grey markers indicate facilities that are not required to report, but which may release toxic substances and are part of other EPA programs. You learn more from the EPA about your “Right to Know” of emissions from nearby facilities by clicking here.
The California Air Resources Board also administers an Air Toxics Hot Spots Program. My employer Occidental College is the only registered emitter in 90041. I asked my colleague, Bruce Steele, who works on campus health and safety compliance as well as sustainability, about the college’s major emissions. He told me that much of the reported substances, including ammonia, toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde, mainly come from exhausts from the fleet of campus vehicles, from natural gas combustion, or from evaporating vapors from the college’ underground fuel storage tank.
Even though Eagle Rock is not a toxic hotspot, as some communities definitely are, there is room to identify and reduce emissions from major facilities, smaller companies, and cars and trucks. I hope that some of the students at Oxy, not to mention other educational institutions in areas where pollution is relatively more pronounced, will advance the cause of green chemistry after graduation, helping eliminate the need for many toxic substances currently in use.