Environmental Injustice is Alive and Well in California — And So is the Resistance

by Hannah Strange

August 30, 2018

Greenpeace partnered with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and Communities for a Better Environment to highlight the negative impacts that refineries, oil drilling and storage, and freight transport have on the low-income communities of color that surround it the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Ship-to-shore container cranes are visible in the distance during a tour of the fossil fuel infrastructure in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to demonstrate the health and environmental justice impacts on local communities. Co-hosted by Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Greenpeace USA.

© David McNew / Greenpeace

I have never felt as small as I did last Tuesday, riding into the Port of Los Angeles on one of Greenpeace’s RHIB boats. The scale of the port is hard to fathom until you’re right in the midst of it, passing massive oil tankers and cargo ships by the dozens and feeling dwarfed by the shipping container cranes that offload freight.

The negative impacts caused by the fossil fuel infrastructure and the shipping industry that I saw in the port are hard to fathom, too.  

I was on an environmental justice tour of the port with organizers from East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (East Yard) and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), who work in the surrounding communities of Long Beach and Wilmington, both predominantly low-income communities of color. The stories they shared about the ways local communities are harmed by 4 stages of the fossil fuel industry at the port — as well as the ways they are fighting back — were powerful.

One of the four artificial THUMS Islands, created for oil extraction, is visible during a tour of the fossil fuel infrastructure in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to demonstrate the health and environmental justice impacts on local communities. Co-hosted by Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Greenpeace USA.

Oil Drilling and Extraction

Our first stop on the tour was the THUMS islands — a set of four man-made islands in the Long Beach bay named for the oil companies that originally owned and operated them (Texaco, Humble, Union Oil, Mobil, and Shell). Each of the islands has drilling rigs on them that extract oil from under the ocean, but you couldn’t tell from looking at them. They’ve been cleverly covered up by waterfalls, trees, and towers that have colorful lights at night. One local woman told me she grew up thinking they were restaurants.

Yet the expensive cover-up of the drilling equipment does nothing to stop the harms they cause. Chemicals used during the drilling process cause respiratory illness and cancer in people who live nearby. 500,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area live within a quarter mile of an active drilling site, and 70% of the 1,071 active oil wells in City of Los Angeles are located within 1500 feet of homes, schools, hospitals, or other sensitive areas.

The main focus of CBE and East Yard is to get the city of L.A. to approve a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer zone between active oil wells and homes, schools, and hospitals. This will help protect communities from toxic oil drilling emissions, spills, and explosions.  

A Facebook Live session is held during a tour of the fossil fuel infrastructure in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to demonstrate the health and environmental justice impacts on local communities. Co-hosted by Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Greenpeace USA.

Storage Tanks

From the THUMS islands, we headed into the Port of Los Angeles. As soon as we turned into the channel we were surrounded by clusters of huge gas and oil storage tanks on either side of us.

Alicia Rivera from CBE spoke to the respiratory health impacts of having storage tanks located near local communities during a Facebook live we did during the tour. “All this that is surrounding us here affects San Pedro and Wilmington. A lot of these tanks that we see here emit vapors of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that we breathe — we’re breathing it right now.”

Refineries

One spot on the tour was a view of the Conoco Philips Wilmington Refinery, one of 5 refineries in Wilmington’s small 20 square miles.

“So we’re still fighting the Tesoro Refinery merger expansion,” said Alicia Rivera from CBE. “Just on this side, we can see one of the five refineries that we have in Wilmington — a 90% immigrant population that suffers from the cumulative effects of many sources of pollution. And the Tesoro Refinery wants to merge two refineries into one. The project has already been approved by the Air Quality Management District but we are fighting it. We are in court and we are awaiting a decision, hoping to reverse the irresponsible decision by our local regulators.”

The Hellas Aphrodite chemical and oil products tanker ship is visible during a tour of the fossil fuel infrastructure in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to demonstrate the health and environmental justice impacts on local communities. Co-hosted by Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Greenpeace USA.

As we watched a big oil tanker unload in the Port, Alicia told us that if this merger and expansion goes through, it will mean the volume of oil tankers will not only increase but will likely be Bakken crude or Tar Sands oil which are dirtier and more explosive. With more oil being refined in the area, greenhouse gas and VOC emissions will increase — meaning local communities will suffer increased asthma, respiratory illness, and higher cancer rates.

An interview is conducted while passing under the Vincent Thomas Bridge during a tour of the fossil fuel infrastructure in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to demonstrate the health and environmental justice impacts on local communities. Co-hosted by Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Greenpeace USA.

Freight Transportation and Distribution  

Moving further down the port we passed two major shipping terminals full of containers of goods that would be loaded onto semi trucks and transported out of the area.

Christian, a community member of East Yard, told us: “The transportation and distribution of goods that arrive specifically here in the port — most of the goods don’t actually stay in the communities nearby it. They’re transported by trucks and trains to different communities, so the communities here have to suffer the impact of the diesel emitted from the trucks and the trains.”

Bridge and highway construction is visible in the distance during a tour of the fossil fuel infrastructure in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to demonstrate the health and environmental justice impacts on local communities. Co-hosted by Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Greenpeace USA.

Off in the distance, we can see a maze of bridges and freeways jammed with truck traffic. The communities near the port experience high rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, reproductive disease and cancer from all the truck traffic on the I-710 freight corridor — “disproportionate impacts that other communities don’t face” according to Taylor Thomas, an organizer with East Yard.  

To combat those impacts, East Yard and CBE are fighting a proposed expansion of the I-710 freeway alongside the Coalition for Environmental Health and Justice (CEHAJ). The expansion would increase truck traffic and emissions in 18 communities that the I-710 passes through. East Yard is also working towards a cleaner solution at the ports themselves. “We want to power all the boats trains and trucks that serve the port with zero emissions technology,” said Taylor.  

The Phillips 66 Los Angeles Refinery is visible from the West Basin during a tour of the fossil fuel infrastructure in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to demonstrate the health and environmental justice impacts on local communities. Co-hosted by Communities for a Better Environment, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Greenpeace USA.

How you can take action

Follow East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and Communities For A Better Environment to stay updated on their work on environmental justice in Los Angeles and Long Beach!

And help support these efforts by telling Governor Brown to Commit California to no new fossil fuels and put us on a path to real action on climate change and healthier communities!

By Hannah Strange

Hannah Strange is the director of Greenpeace USA's Movement Support Hub.

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