Pollution, Health and Activism at the Port of Los Angeles

Published on
December 8, 2009

The shimmering blue lights of the Terminal Island Bridge, rising above the Port of Los Angeles, belie the intense pollution that emanates from the nation's largest port and compromises the health of nearby communities.  

In Wilmington and San Pedro, in the shadow of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, children suffer disproportionately from asthma. Cancer rates are higher here, in part because of pollution from these enormous ports, the ships that dock here, and the trucks that transport their goods to the rest of the nation.

Recently, The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellows traveled to the Port of Los Angeles and toured its neighboring cities to better understand how noise, air pollution and health are inextricably linked. The day focused on the lives of residents of Wilmington, who contend with port-related emissions, but also poverty, high unemployment and neighborhoods pockmarked with stacks of containers and rat-infested junk yards.

Asthma, sleep deprivation, hypertension, cancer: all have been linked to living near the Port. A new study by the Children's Environmental Health Center at USC tries to calculate the "burden of disease," including preventable childhood asthma, from living in a neighborhood near a major truck route from the port or in an community where toxic ship emissions are in the air. Ships are the biggest polluters here, burning bunker fuel that has been called "the dirtiest fuel on the planet." Thousands of trucks spew fumes from diesel fuel, a known carcinogen. People are getting sick, and they're filing lawsuits.

Deborah Schoch, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who specializes in environmental health, covered the Port as a beat for three years.

"Everything that happens here generates jobs," she told the Fellows as they gathered to hear speakers at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum near the Port. "Warehouse jobs in the Inland Empire, jobs for truckers, and the consultants and logistics firms in high rises in downtown L.A.  This was a good business story, but what was also happening was that in small communities like Wilmington and Commerce, kids were getting sick. This was the toughest environmental health story I've ever covered, one of the hardest news stories I've ever covered. There just wasn't the (environmental) science as this all started and emotions ran very, very high."

After lawsuits by local community and environmental activists that temporarily blocked construction of a major new shipping terminal, officials agreed to a major settlement to monitor and mitigate the Port's pollution.

"The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have made a lot of changes," Schoch said. "The Air Quality Management District has done a lot of regulation. And the scientists know a lot more than they did."

Today, the Port of Los Angeles has ships "plug in" to electric power while they're docked and has cut emissions significantly. But it's not enough, said Peter Greenwald of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

He told Fellows a surprising fact: air pollution in Southern California is at its highest inland, not at the Port, but the greatest cancer risk from that pollution lies along the transportation corridors that carry goods from the Port.

Pollution from diesel fuel is the most toxic in all of Southern California, and it carries a higher cancer risk than other fine particles (particulate matter) or ozone that make up the region's air pollution stew, according to a 2008 report released by the SCAQMD.

Dr. Rob S. McConnell, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California and a principal investigator of USC's Children's Health Study, showed how scientists have been able to definitively link air pollution to childhood asthma, resulting in policy changes such as laws preventing schools from being built too near freeways. Stress only exacerbates the link between air pollution and asthma, he said.

Fellows also heard from a key activist in the hard-fought battle of local communities to get the Port to address their health and other community concerns. Jesse Marquez, founder and executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, told Fellows the history of community activism for health justice and against Port expansion, which led to a ground-breaking settlement with the Port.

"We were tired of being sick and fighting traffic," Marquez. "So we organized."