Clean air is a luxury not everyone here can afford

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

Black and Hispanic people breathe more polluted air and drink dirtier water. Now, one of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods is standing up against “environmental racism.”​

Man in wheelchair on street

Paco and Teo step out of their truck and push the doors closed behind them. The two men, both of Mexican origin, have just collected a load of horse manure from nearby riding stables and hauled it across southern Los Angeles. They are already sweating from driving with the car window open, but the work is only just beginning. With pitchforks in hand, they shovel the horse manure from the bed of the truck and onto the lawn in the center of the “Florence-Firestone Community Garden.”

For the residents of Watts, one of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods where Black and Hispanic people make up 98% of the population, the community garden is a small, green oasis. They can grow pumpkins, cabbage and edible cacti as inexpensive food, come together on weekends for celebrations and forget their everyday troubles.

Gazing beyond the garden and over the fence, it becomes clear why the residents like it here. Not far off, loud, abrasive freeways stretch out in all directions. Thick power cables dangle mere meters above the vegetable patches, while, on the horizon, drilling rigs rise and fall to the beat.

The correlation between environmental hazards and minority communities is not only endemic to South L.A. — also known as “Black L.A.” — but to the entire USA. From Seattle to Miami, from New York to San Diego, people like Teo, Paco and their neighbors all experience the same phenomenon. It is one that has existed for decades but has only recently been given a name: “environmental racism.”

As it is often the case when social inequalities come to the attention of society, defining the concept brings awareness to the problem, and this awareness creates resistance.

Black lungs matter!

Environmental racism does not strike its victims using open hostility, such as hurtful comments on the bus or offensive names at school. It is more subtle and materializes in the four elements. Black and Hispanic people in the USA are more likely to be exposed to unclean air and drink contaminated water than the white majority. The ground on which they live is more likely to be polluted than elsewhere, and they must be especially wary of the forest fires that are often burning across California.

Many studies have demonstrated a link between ethnicity and environmental pollution. Most recently, a branch of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has come under fire from the Trump Administration, conducted a nationwide study in which researchers showed that the Black population in the US, on average, is exposed to 1.5 times more particulate matter in the air than white people. For Hispanics, it is around 1.2 times more. For other air pollutants, the difference is even more striking. For example, Hispanics face rates of chlorine exposure that are more than twice those of white Americans.

It is important to remember that particulate matter is carcinogenic, increases the risk of lung disease, heart attacks and high blood pressure, and therefore reduces life expectancy. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement, the hashtag #blacklungsmatter was created. But why is there so much more floating in the air in neighborhoods like Watts?

Particulate matter pollution in Los Angeles

Share of minority population

The elements are against minorities

Traffic, smog, power plant emissions, fracking and oil drilling rigs, and construction are among the manifold sources of microscopic particles that can settle in the alveoli, deep in the lungs. And many of these sources happen to be more commonly found in areas where minorities reside.

More than 1,000 oil wells dot the City of Los Angeles

The map of Los Angeles is dotted with oil stains. More than 1,000 small oil drilling rigs are spread throughout the city and are clearly visible from the sprawling residential areas. Here, masses of cancer-causing chemicals are used, and poisonous gases often enter the airways. Many oil wells are less than 550 yards from the nearest school, nursing home, or family home. Eleven of the fifteen neighborhoods most affected by oil production are structurally disadvantaged neighborhoods like Watts.

Watts also lies under the inbound flight path for the Los Angeles International Airport and along the routes for trucks and freight trains on their way to the industrial port. There is a lot of heavy industry in the area. Thanks to the large electrical substation across the street, Paco and Teo can afford to grow their cacti. They rent the little green area for $100 a month from the electricity supplier who owns the land under the outgoing lines.

Cactus, a Mexican specialty, is considered very healthy due to its anti-inflammatory properties (and thus has the potential to become the next superfood). Yet, Teo and Paco have so far been powerless to change the fact that the life expectancy in Watts is around 12 years lower than in Brentwood, a very affluent neighborhood of Los Angeles located some 20 miles on the other end of the city. Their harvest must anyways be consumed with caution: Many soils in the area are heavily polluted from years of industrial use. In the nearby Jordan Downs housing project, children were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

The chicken or the egg?

These oil wells are partly responsible for the haze that often hangs over the city
Environmental racism is a dilemma of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Minority communities and pollution often go hand in hand. Poor air quality and other problems push down property and rental prices. Cheaper housing in turn attracts low-income people — and in the US historical context, Black communities are often low-income. It is furthermore easier to set up controversial facilities such as drilling rigs or garbage dumps in low-income neighborhoods, because they possess fewer resources and have less political sway. Communities often lack the necessary knowledge and funding to take legal action against illegal pollution. Coordinated resistance is therefore the exception.

In concrete terms, this means that an oil company wishing to drill for oil on a property belonging to two white medical professionals and their three children can expect much more resistance than from a single Latino mother living below the poverty line. Polluters therefore specifically target minorities in order to be able to pursue their business undisturbed.

An example of this can be found some 1,240 miles east in the Eagle Ford area of Texas, where new methods of fracking have led to a small oil boom over the past 10 years. Oil reserves that previously could not be exploited in an economically viable way have suddenly become lucrative. However, there is also a downside to the story: The mixture of water and chemicals that is blasted into the oil-bearing rock layers to release the valuable oil must be collected in large basins and stored for treatment.

Black and Hispanic people make up 98% of the population in Watts

A group of researchers took a closer look at what was happening in Texas and noticed that these toxic pools are not evenly distributed, but — surprise, surprise — are more commonly found in areas populated by Black and Hispanic people. Areas with a more than 80% minority population, which in Texas is most commonly Latinos, were more than twice as likely as areas with a less than 20% minority population to live near these toxic lakes.

Back to California. We drive south from Watts, past closed-up storefronts. Homeless people have taken up residence in the bus stops. The sidewalks belong to tent dwellers, and anyone who can drives by car. In ten minutes we are in Compton. Nestled on the border of Los Angeles, the city is famous most notably for violence and rap — and brown water. Brown water has been flowing from the taps for years now, despite promises of improvement. “I can’t wash my children in this water,” one resident commented to a local TV station, “we can’t clean our teeth, we can’t wash ourselves.”

And as if unclean air, soil and water were not enough, in California the next battle is already looming on the horizon, one which the poor must face alone: fire. The fierce forest fires that have been burning through California for weeks now at first affect residents indiscriminately. But there is a difference between those who have insurance and those who will suddenly find themselves standing in front of the ruins of their existence. This difference is above all a matter of money. Rapper Kanye West and his wife Kim Kardashian are a good demonstration of the way things are going; they had private firefighters protecting their $50 million mansion.

But although the problem seems insurmountable, there is hope yet for Watts.

Watts rising

Due to environmental factors, children born in this neighborhood weigh less than children born in other areas.
The problem has been identified on a political level. Many federal laws that were implemented under Barack Obama to protect against environmental racism are currently being dismantled by the Trump Administration. For example, tighter emission standards for cars, environmental regulations for oil production and limits for contaminants in drinking water have since been loosened. As neither understanding nor support can currently be expected to come out of Washington, local communities depend on the government of California and initiatives by their own people.

And just like that, Watts is rising.

A diverse group of educators, medical providers, city officials, religious leaders, business leaders, and lawyers — a total of 400 people from Watts — have come together to forge the New Green Deal for their neighborhood. Watts Rising will make the neighborhood climate ready, improve healthcare provision and boost the local economy. The group was able to secure close to $300 million in funding — not a bad sum for a neighborhood of around 35,000 people.

Of the $300 million, $35 million is a grant from the state of California and the remaining sum of approximately $260 million is from private investors. The Transformative Climate Communities Program supports community-led development, exactly like the project in Watts. Californian Assemblywoman, Autumn Burke, stated, “This is a time in California’s history that we can truly make a difference in communities that have been heavily polluted and repeatedly marginalized.”

In Watts, the money is to be put towards such things as:

  • more than 200 new, affordable homes;
  • ten electric buses;
  • more than 4,000 trees;
  • solar panel installations on 300 homes;
  • more than 4.5 miles of bike paths;
  • more than 300 jobs and 500 training opportunities.

Even though the need is great in Watts, we have never had significant investment in our community.  We are finally getting a chance to make our community all that it can be after being overlooked for so long. Watts is worth it and Watts is rising!
–Perry Crouch, member of the WATTS GANG TASK FORCE BOARD.

The NGO California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), which was involved in the planning stages, praised the program. Co-Director, Amy Vanderwarker, in a statement to the press, said that in order to find real solutions for the various problems in marginalized cities “we need these programs to be directly connected to and led by the residents most impacted. Transformative Climate Communities accomplishes this, while helping California achieve our climate goals.”

Teo and Paco would gladly share their knowledge and there are more than enough garden plots to go around. The oasis can keep growing. If Watts can do it, why not the rest of the country?

The research trip for this article was funded by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America.

The original article “Saubere Luft kann sich hier nicht jeder leisten” was published in German at Perspective Daily, on November 29th, 2018.

The text was translated from German into English by Viktoria Theimann.