From Lead to Pipelines, Students Hone Research Skills

Southeast environmental issues serve as research training ground.

By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer

A small group of community-based researchers in Southeast Los Angeles County is searching to find solutions to environmental issues ranging from lead contamination to tainted storm-water runoff, bike safety and oil pipelines, some of the issues in their own backyards.

For nine weeks, 14 researchers and assistants surveyed streets, studied city documents, conducted tests and interviews as part of the Marina Pando Social Justice Research Collaborative – a project of Commerce-based East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, and named for one of the nonprofits most active members who died last year.

According to the collaborative, the program gives first-generation, undergraduate college students of color training to conduct social justice-oriented research in their communities.

“We live in these communities, we sense the urgency in finding solutions to the issues we face,” says one of the researchers, 24-year-old Suzette Aguirre of South Gate.

“It means something different, [more], to the researchers when they are testing the homes of their neighbors,” explains Floridalma Boj-Lopez, a USC doctoral candidate and project coordinator who told EGP she believes the program participants have a better grasp on environmental injustice issues in Southeast L.A. County.

Andrea Luna, left, and Suzette Aguirre, right, compile their findings on the impacts of lead contaminated soil, which will be presented Friday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Andrea Luna, left, and Suzette Aguirre, right, compile their findings on the impacts of lead contaminated soil, which will be presented Friday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Boj-Lopez adds that some of the data they collected could actually be used to inform the community about environmental concerns that have not yet been researched by larger institutions.

Working in four separate groups, each research team focused on a specific area of investigation, ranging from studying the impact of lead contaminated soil in the communities surrounding the now-shuttered Exide plant to the consequences of living near oil pipelines in West Long Beach. They also studied issues faced by female bicyclists traveling through truck-heavy traffic and the quality of industrial stormwater runoff into the Los Angeles River.

Each team will detail its findings during a public presentation Friday at the Westside Christian Church in Long Beach.

One group will detail how they studied the industrial runoff from sites near the Los Angeles River and found grease-like stains running from the facility to the river, East Yards Executive Director Mark Lopez told EGP. The group plans to share photographs and the results of lead level tests near river entry points, which will be handed over to the appropriate regulatory agency for possible legal enforcement.

“Every single project is extending the work of one of our campaigns,” notes Lopez.

Julius Calascan, 23, has been volunteering with East Yards for three years, speaking at community meetings about Exide contamination and plans to expand the 710 Freeway, but told EGP he always thought he could do more.

“I’ve been wanting to have a larger role in the organization and this is a different way of helping the cause,” he said about his research, adding he hopes the data collected will spur further investigation into local environmental issues.

(Left to right): Julius Calascan, Whitney Amaya and Javier Garay work on their reaserch projects that will be presented to the public Friday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

(Left to right): Julius Calascan, Whitney Amaya and Javier Garay work on their reaserch projects that will be presented to the public Friday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Using hand-held, lead detection devices and pH meters, Aguirre and Andrea Luna, 21, of Bell tested the soil at dozens of homes in East Los Angeles, Commerce and South Gate.

They were concerned that the brain-damaging chemicals spewed from the now-shuttered Exide battery-recycling plant in Vernon had harmed their families and neighbors, who were warned by state regulators to avoid contact with the soil around their homes until tests determine it to be safe.

For some, the warning meant they could no longer grow the fresh vegetables they depend on for a healthy diet.

“Diabetes is already prevalent in this area, which lacks fresh food options,” explains Aguirre, a student at Cal State Long Beach studying nutrition and chemistry. “We wanted to change the situation and further explain the health and social impacts caused by Exide,” that have not been talked about, she told EGP.

Aguirre said they asked themselves what residents could do in the meantime to help remediate the problem while waiting for the more extensive cleanup that could take years.

“We wanted to find a short-term solution that could extract metal out of soil,” Luna told EGP, explaining they have compiled a list of plants and vegetables that detoxify contaminated soil which they plan to release when they present their findings Friday. Luna said they also plan to distribute reading material aimed at helping reduce the fear that comes from being in limbo.

Long Beach residents Whitney Amaya, 23, and Calascan focused their research on the oil and gas lines traveling below west Long Beach. They said the project gave them a better understanding of the types of research they could conduct if they choose to pursue graduate school.

“I was looking into going into grad school but had no experience in research,” explained Amaya, who graduated from UCLA last year with a degree in geography and environmental studies.

Amaya told EGP if it were not for the funding and training provided by the collaborative, it’s unlikely she would have conducted this type of research on her own.

Each of the participants were paid to conduct their research. Funding for the collaborative came from a $50,000 CAL EPA environmental justice small grant as well as $5,000 from individual donations.

The program and funding has grown significantly since last year, according to East Yards, which is now looking at how they can take what they’ve learned to further the research and possibly evolve the project into a community-based think tank.

Coordinator Jessica Prieto is a graduate of San Francisco State University and says she hopes each researcher walks away with an understanding of the issue they studied and now   feels confident in the role of community expert.

“Hopefully, they feel actionable and feel like they can do something about it,” she said.

Update: Sept. 16, 2016 3:45p.m. a previous version of this article did not have the correct amount East Yards received from CAL EPA and individual donations. The story updated to clarify how researchers were paid.

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September 15, 2016  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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