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Reporter collects own data for series on air pollution near LA ports

Reporter collects own data for series on air pollution near LA ports

Picture of Sandy Mazza
A student walks into one of the buildings at San Pedro High School that overlooks the Port of L.A. in San Pedro Wednesd
A student walks into one of the buildings at San Pedro High School that overlooks the Port of L.A. in San Pedro Wednesday, March 14, 2018.
(Photo: Daily Breeze)

One hundred tons of smog is released daily from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Despite billions of dollars spent to curb the hazardous emissions, they continue to compound the region’s air pollution woes.

Six nearby oil refineries, thousands of active oil wells, and heavy rush-hour traffic nearby exacerbate the problem.

This heavy industrial area is one reason Los Angeles’ ozone and particulate-matter pollution levels continue to exceed federal health standards.

Millions of residents live in densely packed communities around the ports, where heightened pollution increases risks for cancers and respiratory and heart diseases.

I chose to focus on particulate-matter pollutants measuring less than 2.5 microns, called PM2.5, around the Port of Los Angeles for the 2017 California Data Fellowship and community engagement program at USC’s Center for Health Journalism.

PM2.5 is emitted by diesel engines from cargo ships, trucks, railyard equipment and other goods-movement industry vehicles.

The tiny pollutants are especially dangerous because they can seep through the lungs and into the bloodstream where they can reach the brain. New research increasingly shows links to dementia and other problems.

Finding the data

Local air-quality regulators and the ports operate air monitors to track pollution levels — providing public data about the toxic emissions.

I filed public records requests to the South Coast Air Quality Management District and Port of Los Angeles for daily monitor readings of PM2.5 from 2010 to 2017. Those came in massive Excel files.

Also, because new low-cost air monitors are now available (thanks to advanced electronics), I used fellowship funds to purchase several $250 Purple Air monitors for residents around the ports. I later installed those in the homes of people who agreed to host them and be interviewed.

My fellowship mentors guided me through the process of collecting, organizing and analyzing the spreadsheets of air-quality readings.

Government and port data revealed that progress reducing PM2.5 has slowed since 2011 — and that became a focal point for one story.

This is the process I followed in gathering my own air-pollution data:

  • I started by working with the Center for Health Journalism’s engagement editor to interview community groups and researchers with experience working to reduce pollution and help those impacted. They helped guide me to areas and people impacted by especially high pollution levels.
  • Finding people willing to host a Purple Air monitor at their home was difficult. The monitors need to be mounted and connected to a power supply. I worked with community organizations, knocked on doors, and contacted nonprofit and educational groups in the area seeking partners.

The human cost

Obviously, data analysis isn’t very interesting to read about. So, while much of my work was focused on reading spreadsheets, the stories focused on the people impacted by pollution.

In some cases, the data pointed directly to human impacts. For example, one Port of Los Angeles air monitor is located at an elementary school. It showed PM2.5 levels consistently exceeding federal standards from 2010-2017.

That led to this lede for the main data story:

On school days at 10 a.m., the back doors of Saints Peter and Paul School in Wilmington fly open and elementary students in powder-blue shirts rush out for recess.

Its yards are large enough for the 74-year-old Catholic school to offer a variety of outdoor activities including soccer, basketball, archery, volleyball and football.

As the fields fill with activity and excited chatter, a machine on the school’s roof that looks like a large pressure cooker silently records toxic health threats in the air.

One of the environmental sciences teachers I contacted who works at schools in eyeshot of the port expressed interest in the project. I ultimately made several visits to talk to her classroom about pollution and journalism and worked with one of her students who was interested in the issue. He became a focal point for one of my stories:

Nick Serrano, a San Pedro High School senior, learned that his family’s Sunday afternoon barbecues create toxic pollution spikes outside his home based on data from a PurpleAir monitor installed there by Southern California News Group.

But he’s more concerned about harder-to-avoid threats from three oil refineries and two freeways within four miles of his home. The Port of Los Angeles’ sprawling industrial complex is blocks from his home. It can also can be seen from classroom windows at his school.

Finding people willing to openly discuss pollution concerns and to host a Purple Air monitor was difficult. The monitors need to be plugged in and installed for several weeks to collect data.

While going door to door asking residents in areas affected by multiple pollution sources if they were willing to host the monitor and be interviewed, I met the Flores family. They live next door to an oil well and had worried for decades about related health impacts.

They became a focal point for another story:

The Flores family lives next door to two E&B Natural Resources oil wells and storage tanks over the Torrance Oil Field in Wilmington.

Gas and rotten-egg smells waft by their home sometimes, and noisy trucks kick up rocks as they roll down the narrow residential street daily. Oil tanks, just a few yards from the home, tower over backyard gatherings.

In 2015, during intensive well acidizing to remove sludge and increase production, the whole neighborhood reeked for weeks. A chemical cocktail of alcohols, acids, hydrocarbons and solvents laden with cancer-causing benzene were injected into the ground, according to South Coast Air Quality Management District records.

Reflecting and writing

After months of inquiries, data collection, and researching air-quality policies, I started organizing my information into two stories (which ultimately became three).

This process was the hardest of all.

I had gathered so much information that it was a real struggle to choose which details were important enough to include in the project. My fellowship mentor, Paul Overberg, worked closely with me to organize the vast amount of data I collected. He and others also helped structure the stories.

In the end, the most important lesson I learned was to stay focused on the big picture. I spent countless hours researching tangential points that would have been better spent focusing on the most important, big questions about air pollution and related diseases.

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