Environmental Watchdogs Failed Neighborhoods of Color During Pandemic

A nationwide study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health links a higher rate of death from COVID-19 for people living in areas with high levels of air pollution. Contamination from refineries and trucking in Los Angeles County and Long Beach, California, are exposing communities to an alarmingly high risk of respiratory infection, and laying bare the disproportionate effects of air pollution and environmental racism in the region.

The East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in Commerce, California, is raising awareness of the detrimental effects of heavy industry, where 40 percent of all U.S. goods arrive in neighboring ports. Laura Cortez and Cindy Donis of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice discuss how they are fighting back.

Laura Flanders: Cindy, tell us who you are. What do you do?

Cindy Donis: The work that we do is across different parts of Los Angeles. That includes Boyle Heights, East L.A., Southeast L.A. and Long Beach. And we’re working around environmental justice issues. These communities are overburdened with industrial contamination and the impacts of that exposure. The health impacts include asthma, cancer, cardiovascular [and] other respiratory illnesses. And so we’re helping folks understand and create the link between those health impacts that they’re dealing with and the things that surround our communities and are embedded with our communities. And we’re giving them the tools to be able to advocate, to create a better world and a better community that they’re residing in.

Laura, let me bring you in. How has COVID-19 affected your community?

Laura Cortez: Everything has changed. And yet nothing has changed for our communities. We still have a bunch of truck traffic coming through our neighborhoods. That has not stopped. The ports have not stopped. The refineries don’t stop. There are continued operations because these businesses are labeled as “essential.” Even though they’re continuing to pollute, which leaves our lives as not essential as we’re sheltering in place at home. We continue to have to breathe these toxins in, whether it’s air pollution, soil pollution. And our activities are being removed or reduced, but these companies continue to operate full force and are actually getting a lot of passes from the government, whether that’s regional, whether that’s state, whether that’s federal.

We’re fighting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we’re fighting South Coast Air Quality Management District, because these agencies that are supposed to protect us are actually doing rollbacks to not protect us — to do quite the opposite and allow these industries to continue functioning. And they’re doing this without any public processes. So COVID-19 is definitely a double-edged sword … we are more likely, racially, [to contract COVID-19] because we’re communities of color. And reports state — there’s a study called Race Counts, which is really important. And it directly correlates our race to the fact that we’re more likely to have COVID and we’re more likely to die from COVID. Although the curve is flattening, [it] is flattening for the white affluent communities in the L.A. area — that does not apply to us. And what’s happening with the racial trajectories is increased by the fact that these industrial polluters continue to get these passes.

Many people in the mainstream media — and frankly, some of our mainstream environmental organizations — have been saying that environmental improvement and reduction in emissions is the great silver lining of this pandemic. That’s not what I’m hearing from you. Cindy?

Donis: Yeah. Thank you for this question. We also see images of nature coming back to its original places, but here in L.A., for low-income communities of color, because we’re surrounded by industry, that’s just not the case. And so there have been preliminary studies that have been conducted that correlate air pollution and contamination and then the impacts of COVID. And this data that’s coming out is revealing that for people who were exposed to higher levels of contamination — in particular, there’s one study that connects particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), which is what diesel is — that there’s a higher chance of you to get COVID and for COVID to have a deadly impact.

If you are already exposed to PM2.5, which is all the communities that we listed earlier, thinking from the ports and all the neighborhoods that are along the 710 freeway are already at a higher exposure prior to COVID coming. And now even during COVID being here, it’s a big reality. And it’s a big fear that our community members have around COVID in general, but it’s another layer of it, because of the air pollution that they’re exposed to.

What companies are there in East L.A., if you were to name names?

Cortez: Well for Long Beach, the big one is the Marathon refineries, and then there’s also Tesoro, there’s also Phillips 66. And so it’s a conglomerate of different refineries that are there. And from there, we have the ports, which a lot of the machinery in the ports also run on diesel. There are a few that are zero emissions, but not enough. And for the 710 freeway, it’s between 40,000 to 60,000 truck trips that happen every single day. And that 710 freeway parallels Long Beach, it parallels with Lynwood, with Compton, with Bell Gardens, with Bell, with Maywood, Cudahy, Commerce.

And in Commerce, that’s where we have a lot of warehousing and a lot of food distribution centers as well. And so thinking about people’s access to food, where right here we have community members who don’t have access to food or are having to barter between paying for rent or paying for food. We have all these warehouses here so that this food is coming through our communities, but our community members here lack the access to it.

What sort of change are you working for? And can you work for that in these times?

Cortez: Yeah. I think we talk about this a lot at East Yard and it’s really twofold. One, is we’re trying to address the needs of our members now because there are so many needs. The needs that already existed around housing, around food, around justice, around our criminal justice system. All of these needs already existed. But they are so much more augmented and magnified through COVID-19. And so when we’re trying to meet those needs and also our vision for the future, which is not what we had, we do not want to go back to normal. That is not the way it should go. It was never okay for us, what was normal for other people.

This capitalist system does not work. It is not functional. We need a different system, one that takes into account race equity, one that takes into account gender equity and all these other different forms. Migration as a form that is natural and fluid, that should not be criminalized. So all these different issues. But in the immediate, we’re also just trying to make sure community members have food. We’re also just trying to make sure that community members have mental health and well-being. And so we’re trying to make sure that we have social cohesion within our group.

The effect of these rollbacks is not well understood. Can you elaborate at all on any of the changes that have gone into place and what effect they’re having now or you fear they will have?

Donis: Yeah. I can speak to the federal stuff, and then Laura can speak to some of the more local things. We are, as East Yard, part of a national coalition called the Moving Forward Network (MFN), and they’re keeping us in tune and informed around the EPA rollbacks. We do have a sign-on letter that folks can sign onto to push the EPA to stop the rollbacks. And so at a federal level, that is what EPA has done. They’ve rolled back on enforcement for some crucial federal and environmental regulations. So it’s allowing agencies themselves or corporations themselves to be their own regulators. And that just means that there’s going to be poor regulation at hand happening. And so with MFN, the Moving Forward Network, that’s what we’re currently pushing — that the EPA essentially just do their job… To not let COVID be the reason to rollback, to not use it as an excuse.

Laura, and the local picture?

Cortez: Yeah. So regionally we have our South Coast Air Quality Management District that’s supposed to regulate our air quality, but instead what this agency is doing is prioritizing and expediting the permitting process for these polluting facilities. Meanwhile, they announced that they are delaying or postponing quite a few, I believe it was 10 policies, that would be regulating these polluters. So they have more than enough time to be able to expedite the process that polluters go through.

But they do not have enough time, they do not prioritize these policies that are supposed to protect our air quality and ensure our well-being in a time where we’re already disproportionately at risk of contracting COVID. Because it does impact the immune system and respiratory system, we are already immunocompromised. We already have respiratory deficiencies. And so what the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the feds are doing is completely contrary to what we need in our communities right now.

How can people help? Laura?

Cortez: There’s so many levels of help. I think folks who have financial needs or financial abilities need to support financially. Whether it’s to East Yard, to an immigrant coalition, to whatever that group looks like, you need to support our folks. This is not charity. This is social solidarity that has been needed for generations and that our communities have been in a deserving mode for generations.

In terms of policy, we need these policy makers to get it together and prioritize us. Just because we’re not in that council meeting with them or that agency meeting to hold them accountable, doesn’t mean we’re not watching. It doesn’t mean we’re not lifting our voice, and doesn’t mean we’re not going to hold them accountable. And so we need them to get it together before we end up in an even harder disarray and dissonance. For us, for Mother Earth, this is not sustainable.

Thank you. Is there anything you would add to that, Cindy?

Donis: There’s an array of petitions going around also. We have two in particular. One is around our Southeast L.A. communities having access to homes. So making sure that rent and mortgages are forgiven right now so that they don’t have to pay and also don’t have to worry about having somewhere stable. Because financially, our committee members are struggling. In addition to that, the petition is also asking our city council members to stand up against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because earlier on, in particular with the stay-at-home ordinances, we did see ICE come through our neighborhoods, particularly in Bell Gardens, and kidnap some of our community members, just straight up here in our neighborhoods. And so our demand is also to have city council members from the various small Southeast L.A. cities to make a statement. And additionally, to improve access to food in our communities and access to health and wellness, particularly COVID testing places. Which we’ve seen improvements on, but it could also still be better in our neighborhoods.

We’re all connected. Thank you so much, both of you. I appreciate so much you taking the time.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.