No Justice, No Piece… of The American Dream, or – “Just Another Stop on the Toxic Tour”

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Welcome to Huntington Park

Yesterday I paid my first visit to the City of Huntington Park.  It was long overdue.

It’s only about 20 miles from my house in Torrance to the offices of Communities for a Better Environment, but it was light years from the privilege and comfort I enjoy.

South Bay 350 Climate Action Group is proud to work with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) on issues like fracking, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the Port of Los Angeles and bringing renewable energy to low income, front line, working class communities.

That’s exactly what kind of community Huntington Park is, and those places are always the toxic dumping grounds where the metal recycling plants, and chrome plating plants, refineries, rendering plants, battery recycling facilities and miles of junk car yards are located.  And where those businesses operate on the fringes of regulation and law because nobody is really looking…

The Mother’s Day weekend crowds were out on Pacific Avenue where CBE has their Huntington Park offices.  And inside about 40 of us gathered to meet each other and get a briefing on what we were going to see.

I was very happy to see Nanette Barragan, a Hermosa Beach City Council member who we had worked with in the fight against oil drilling in her small beach town, joining us for the tour.  Barragan is running for Congress in the 44th District which had 4 of the 7 stops on the Toxic Tour.  The daughter of Mexican immigrant parents, she had grown up near Carson and was on the tour to see for herself what was happening to the people who lived and worked in the District.

There was also a large faith base group from the Pasadena area with us to take the tour, along with well known Los Angeles activist, Lauren Steiner.

We all gathered in the CBE conference room where we exchanged introductions, and met our Toxic Tour guide, Roberto Cabrales, a long term Community Organizer with CBE, who told us the story of his grassroots organization’s first local victory.

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Roberto Cabrales (left in blue cap) gives a briefing to the attendees of the Toxic Tour on Saturday morning (photo by Lauren Steiner)

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Roberto Cabrales of Communities for a Better Environment, talks about the Toxic Tour he’s about to guide us through. Reverend Timothy Murphy, Executive Director of Progressive Christians United, the Toxic Tour’s co-sponsor, stands behind him.

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Nanette Barragan (under Exide sign) and other Toxic Tour attendees at the pre tour briefing.

In 1994 the L.A. area suffered what came to be known as the Northridge earthquake and part of what came tumbling down was the Santa Monica Freeway.  The resulting cleanup operation needed a place to dump several tons of concrete debris and associated crap – and what better place than the low-income, mostly-Latino community of Huntington Park?

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The pile of rubble behind the building became known as La Montana.

When the dust from the giant mountain of debris they called “La Montana” began to make people in the neighborhood sick, local resident, Linda Esperanza began knocking on doors and became an activist.  Soon Communities for a Better Environment joined in, created a winning campaign, and in 1996 “La Montana” was found to be a public nuisance and the crap was finally cleared away.  With that victory, Communities for a Better Environment made their mark and residents understood that the organization was living up to their name on the people’s behalf.

After this inspiring talk at CBE’s Huntington Park offices we all got on the bus to head out on the 4 hour tour.

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On the Toxic Tour bus.

One of the sites on our Toxic Tour that Roberto was most proud to point out was the new Linda Esperanza Marquez High School, named for the local leader who helped rid the community of “La Montana,” which now stands proudly at what once was the site of the rubble.

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The now closed Exide Vernon battery recycling center.

Our Toxic Tour also took us through Vernon and past the infamous Exide Battery Recycling plant that for many years was poisoning the neighborhood and damaging the health and safety of surrounding residents, workers, and the entire Southeast Los Angeles community, while every agency and regulatory body in existence that was supposed to protect the people didn’t. Instead it was community groups like CBE that finally got the lead-acid battery recycling facility permanently shut down.

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The City of Vernon also features meat rendering plants with sickening sights and smells.

It was a huge victory, but as we learned while the Tour continued through the other low income, front line and fence line communities of Bell Gardens, Maywood, unincorporated Los Angeles, Wilmington and the area around the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, there were so many other toxic sites all around us.

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At the end of a cul de sac residential street with the Phillips 66 refinery on the other side of the fence.

Exide may be shut down now, but we saw one example after another, like the Phillips 66 refinery and all the other heavily polluting, dirty and toxic industrial businesses remaining in the neighborhoods – in many cases right next door to homes, or just over the fence – hence the term, “fence-line communities.”

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The off limits, narrow strip of dead grass that separates the houses from the refinery and its many toxic dangers.

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This is distance from a house in a fence line community to the refinery operation.

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Roberto Cabrales talks about his experiences working for the residents on this street and in this community.

At South Bay 350 we know that the climate action that must happen isn’t just about cutting emissions and switching to renewable energy. It’s about providing climate justice to those who suffer the first and worst consequences of climate change. The communities with the freeways running through them, with power plants, refineries, chemical plants, coal operations and every other kind of toxic operations happening just feet from where families live, eat and sleep and where children play.

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A fossil fuel power plant in Long Beach Harbor adds to the air pollution generated by the ships and all the trucks.

We stand with our neighbors – our brothers and sisters who live in these communities filled with brownfield and Superfund sites. We stand with the people who are constantly getting the shaft when it comes to still existing operations that will eventually – if they’re lucky, be closed down and turned into tomorrow’s brownfield and Superfund sites. We will always stand with them and we will fight at their side for justice.

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The phone numbers to call if you smell something or there’s some problem at the toxic facility… After you call it might take many years before any regulatory agency will do anything about it if you live in this neighborhood.

Because we say if there is NO justice for these communities then there is no justice for anyone.  Period.

And we say YOU should go on the Toxic Tour and see for yourself the way people get treated when they’re not members of the Lucky Sperm Club, when their lives are all about surviving and trying to make whatever money last till the end of the month and still pay their bills.  They’re not thinking about where they’re going to go on summer vacation, or what surf camp their kids are going to or what kind of Apple Watch they’re going to buy.

They’re thinking about making sure their 5 year old doesn’t leave home without his inhaler because his asthma is so bad he won’t be able to breathe without it.  And we think that 5 year old deserves the same chance at a healthy, fulfilling and prosperous life as any kid growing up in Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes Estates, Beverly Hills or Santa Monica.

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– written by Joe Galliani, Organizer, South Bay 350 Climate Action Group

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