‘Green Zones’ Proposed For Pollution-Burdened Spots In Los Angeles

City may come up with planning strategies and financial incentives to lessen health impacts in Boyle Heights, Wilmington, and Pacoima.

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

A new initiative to transform three of Los Angeles’ most polluted communities into environmentally sustainable “green zones” could have a profound effect on Dina Cervantes and her family.

Cervantes’ family runs Triumph Precision Products, a metal machine shop in Pacoima, started by her parents, some partners, and an uncle.

“Everybody [in my family] works there,” she explains. The daughter of immigrants, Cervantes said at a recent press conference that like many businesses these days, their family business is struggling. Cervantes and her sister Karen decided to step in.

“We said ‘oh, we’ll help them with the website and things…’” she said now that they’ve gone to college, they can help them out with things that as immigrants they didn’t necessarily know about.

Both Cervantes and her sister are active on environmental and other community issues. So as part of their effort to “help their business progress,” they talked to their parents about reducing their metal machine shop’s impact on the environment, and to help them transition into the much talked-about green economy.

It turned out their parents “also had the same values as do we,” Cervantes said. But after getting them excited about cleaning up their operations, they learned that resources were not so readily available. She is hoping some help is on the way.

A new Los Angeles city initiative promises to tackle the effects of polluting industries like theirs in Pacoima, and others in Boyle Heights and Wilmington, all considered low-income communities facing a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution.

The new “Clean Up, Green Up” initiative introduced last Friday rests on work that is 10 years in the making by “residents of the communities, environmental justice organizations, academic partners and researchers,” said Leonardo Vilchis, co-director of Union de Vecinos, a community organization in Boyle Heights, at the same Jan. 21 press conference.

Concern for the health of their communities prompted organizations like Union de Vecinos, Pacoima Beautiful, and Communities for a Better Environment to call on their elected officials.

“Our communities also have a high risk of cancer, asthma, chronic lung disease, heart disease, pre-term birth, and low-birth weight babies,” Vilchis said.

Young supporters of the proposed "green zones" display their plans for their communities. (EGP photo by Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou)

Using the Breed Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights where the press conference was held as an example, he said, “For people to come to the school today, they have to walk under a freeway, right next to a gas station, next to a body shop and a smog checking place. This is not a healthy place to walk through to get to school.”

“Estamos cansados de contaminacion,” said Boyle Heights resident Blanca Espinoza during the press conference, explaining they are tired of the contamination.

Well before the new initiative, members of the three communities canvassed their streets, identifying numerous sources of pollution, many of which they say are missed or not fully recognized by official governmental agencies.

They documented the concentration of these sources in a single area, dubbing this phenomenon “cumulative impacts,” to distinguish from the piecemeal approach that they say many governmental agencies take in interpreting data and regulating pollution sources in these communities.

The problem that many environmental justice-oriented organizations say they face are governmental agencies that work separately from each other, not recognizing that the places they are regulating are all concentrated together and may pose a greater threat than each agency imagined.

There is some recognition of this issue at the state level. Vilchis said the California Air Resources Board actually recommends that sites like schools, daycare centers and parks be located at last a 1000 feet away from sources of pollution.

Polluting businesses are not necessarily the enemy this time around with the Clean Up Green Up initiative, however. “We’re not here to attack each one of these places. We’re here to change the way planning is done,” Vilchis said.

Residents in these communities have long struggled to bring attention to their health issues, one fight at a time. But this new green zone approach is a departure, according Gideon Kracov, the attorney who helped draft the new policy-driven initiative.

“In the past, a lot of the environmental justice movement has been about fighting things sort of facility by facility, fighting this power plant, fighting this chrome plating facility,” he told EGP. “And that is valuable and very important work, and there have been a lot of victories, but this is a more comprehensive approach.”

The biggest change will be in having the city look at proactive questions like “what do we want these communities to look like, instead of being reactive and fighting this permit or that permit,” he said.
Often the environmental impacts of a planning decision will only be seen many years down the line.
The same issues faced by communities today will continue to “plague the next generations,” if they don’t take a long-range approach, Kracov said.

The four legislative authors, Los Angeles council members José Huizar, Janice Hahn, Richard Alarcon and Tony Cardenas, represent the three communities that will serve as the testing ground for this green zones initiative.

“With this legislation we’re not going to play defense, we’re going to play offense,” Huizar said at the press conference. He said a group of activists came to his office one day and presented the “creative and innovative” idea for this initiative.

“I jumped on it right away,” he said.

Hahn said the new initiative will not pit clean air against jobs.

“We can have both. We can have clean air and we can have good jobs,” she said. “If you don’t have your health, you have nothing else and all the economics in the world will not balance the fact that your children have asthma or other respiratory diseases.”

A motion was introduced at the Jan. 21 Los Angeles city council meeting. If it gets through committee, city staff will be instructed to report back in 90 days on ways the city could employ land use and planning principals, economic development strategies, financial incentives, and enforcement methods to further the goals of the green zones.

The Chief Legislative Analyst, Department of Planning, Community Redevelopment Agency, Department of Public Works, and Building and Safety Department would provide analysis and consultation on the 90-day report, according to the motion.

“It’s not going to die in committee,” promised Huizar’s spokesman Rick Coca.

Both committees assigned to review the motion include co-authors, he said. Alarcon heads the Jobs and Business Development Committee and Huizar is part of the Planning and Land Use Committee, which is chaired by Councilman Ed Reyes.

Another type of assurance was also given from an even higher source, the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency, which is looking to Los Angeles to provide the model for the rest of the country.

“I know the ‘Clean Up, Green Up’ effort is just beginning today, and I’m sure that many across the country will be watching these efforts to see how you develop the innovative framework and implement the policy to achieve healthy and sustainable communities,” said Steven John, director of the EPA’s Pacific Southwest regional office.

Environmental justice goals are a “top priority” for EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, he said. The local regional office of the EPA is “exploring ways” they can help, such as giving “technical assistance on clean up, providing enforcement and inspection efforts, and also to help leverage federal resources,” John said.

Some environmental justice activists who have already attempted to address cumulative environmental and health impacts through local planning, often proposing them from the bottom up, hope this interest from the top will bring renewed activity on the issue in their own communities.

In the City of Commerce for example, the residents are surrounded by industrial buildings and railyards that have expanded right up against people’s backyards, where there used to be Japanese farms.

The city’s Environmental Justice Task Force has looked at establishing a buffer zone between industrial sites and residential areas or places where children are likely to play or live.

The idea, similar to another stalled effort attempted by the Los Angeles Planning Commission several years ago, has not yet been presented to the city council.

Kracov says that it might actually be easier for cities like Commerce to do what Los Angeles is doing. “It’s a more manageable situation for smaller cities. It’s not easy for anyone, but if folks are committed to it and stick to it, we think it can be done,” he said.

Commerce-based environmentalists agree. The Los Angeles initiative is “a good example of how it could happen in Commerce. We’re just waiting for the [city] council to step forward,” said East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, EYCEJ Co-Executive Director Angelo Logan, who sits on the Commerce task force.

Members of the Commerce based East Yard were at the Los Angeles city council members’ announcement of their Clean Up Green Up initiative.

“Everybody thinks we’re crazy. We get involved in things and we don’t get paid,” Enrique Arriola said of his involvement in the environmental justice cause.

His wife Anna Arriola had an explanation ready. “Maybe we get paid in different ways. Clean air would be a good one!”

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January 22, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


One Response to “‘Green Zones’ Proposed For Pollution-Burdened Spots In Los Angeles”

  1. YJ Draiman on September 21st, 2011 10:25 pm

    Draiman’s vision for Los Angeles

    World class renewable energy innovation enterprise zone revealed for Los Angeles – Proposed by YJ Draiman – rev.2

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