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A reporter goes home to L.A.’s ‘industrial dumping ground’ to find residents dying at alarming rates

A reporter goes home to L.A.’s ‘industrial dumping ground’ to find residents dying at alarming rates

Picture of Adam Mahoney
Residents of Wilmington, California live next door to refineries and the largest port in North America.
Residents of Wilmington, California live next door to refineries and the largest port in North America.
(Photo by Adam Mahoney)

In Wilmington, California, residents have a complicated relationship with the world around them. A combination of air pollution, gun violence, and poverty — all underpinned by the neighborhood’s status as the city of Los Angeles’ industrial dumping ground — has left folks essentially trapped in the 8.5-square-mile community. 

Despite multibillion-dollar industries in the neighborhood, including the largest port in North America and the third-largest oil field in the country, people living in Wilmington — 20% of whom live in poverty — are expected to die years before other Los Angeles residents. 

As a reporter, I usually gravitate towards disparities like these. They illuminate just how deep inequalities permeate the daily lives of millions of Americans. Working with vulnerable and neglected communities is difficult, but working in Wilmington was like no other experience. It’s my home, where my mother and some of my closest friends live, where I went to school and grew into adulthood.

For this reason, I wanted to focus my project on the under-told stories in Wilmington. When we think of pollution, we think of its impacts on the environment and the climate, but a look at Wilmington showed the stronghold fossil fuels and globalization have on working-class people — from dictating the region’s economy and local politics to guiding and restricting residents’ access to health care. 

In the first story of the series, published by Grist, a national nonprofit magazine focused on climate and justice, and KCET, a public TV station in Los Angeles, I focused on how Wilmington’s role as an industrial dumping ground led to an astronomical rise in deaths over the first two years of the pandemic. In the six years leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, an average of 272 residents died in Wilmington every year. In the last two, 390 people perished each year — an increase of 45% over the previous average. That dwarfed the 30% jump in deaths seen across Los Angeles County over that same period.

Using excess death modeling, which compares a population’s expected death count in a “normal” year to its actual death count, I found that Wilmington experienced 236 more deaths than anticipated during the pandemic. When adjusted for population, that is roughly 1.5 times more excess deaths than the average in California and nearly two times as many seen in the three cities neighboring Wilmington.

But how is that possible? Wilmington has the fourth-youngest population of the county’s 264 neighborhoods. Using the same excess death modeling across the 14 leading causes of death in California, I found that COVID didn’t drive those deaths; an increase in other pollution-exacerbated illnesses did. Across LA County, COVID accounted for 75% of the jump in fatalities. In Wilmington, only 40%.

This led to a deep investigation and dozens of conversations with residents, activists, and researchers to uncoil the industrial bulwark of Wilmington. It required connecting the dots between the nearly one-third of Wilmington residents who are uninsured and the area’s most prominent public clinic being funded in part by two oil refineries and the Port of Los Angeles. Or the fact that in Wilmington, about half of the employment sector is made up by the same industrial companies accelerating their demise. As local activist and L.A. City Council hopeful Bryant Odega told me, “Residents have been left with a false choice: either accepting these harms to feed their families and pay for health care or falling into deep poverty.”

The second story in the series, co-published by Grist and The Guardian, focused on another little-known impact of pollution: interpersonal violence. Air pollutants act as stressors, eliciting endocrine stress responses in our brains that can lead to irrational decisions and violent tendencies, and they also disturb the physical, cognitive, and emotional health of people exposed to them at high levels. In Wilmington, where more than 16 million pounds have been released into the neighborhood’s air and water since 2000, the fatal gun violence rate is nearly 2.5 times that of Los Angeles County and four times as high as the cities that border Wilmington, according to my analysis of LA County death data. 

My reporting in this story focused on a relatively new theory about the “cues to care,” or how investment, or lack thereof, when coupled with the built environment, impacts people’s ability to care for and relate to one another. The theory was illuminated quite simply by University of California, Davis professor Julie Sze: “The slow violence that drives death (in Wilmington) — pollution — has become accepted and normalized. Then the fast violence — gun violence — is seen as normal.”

While my familiarity with my home gave my reporting a massive boost, community engagement efforts were indispensable. Admittedly, I wanted a large part of this series to answer the many questions I had as a child about my home, but by inserting myself back into my community, I learned they were also questions shared by residents across Wilmington. With community engagement support from the Center for Health Journalism, I was able to partake in a months-long canvassing project. It included sending more than 1,000 postcards to households in Wilmington, holding one-on-one focus groups, and a week of on-the-ground canvassing. It helped make me feel more comfortable with the project and allowed me to meet and speak with people who would not be able to tell their own stories if the project didn’t exist.

I feel that it’s vitally important to put faces to numbers when we’re reporting, and this effort allowed me to do so. This also helped me challenge my preconceived notions. As a climate journalist, it is easy for me to conclude that fossil fuels are wrong and the politics behind them are killing people, but that conclusion wasn’t easy for my neighbors.

I talked to one mother battling cancer about her feelings about living next to an oil refinery. She felt strongly that the pollution from the plant played a role in her diagnosis. Still, she was honest and genuine about the plant’s seemingly significant impacts: how it helped fuel her car and keep the electricity on in her home. However, using the 2021 Data Fellowship, I was able to break things down with her, show her my data findings, and offer alternatives I had come across during my reporting. It brought the true meaning of journalism back to my work: meeting people where they are and answering the questions that bounce through their heads every day. It’s a tool that can serve as one of our most potent vectors for the public good, but it needs to be cultivated and reach those most impacted.

Comments

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I appreciated your comment about the "cues to care." I live in Los Angeles, I have taken a special interest in the alarming number of deaths among Black women, when or soon after giving birth to a child.

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