In the port town of Wilmington, the community’s long fight against industrial pollution continues

Published on
March 16, 2023

Anabelle Romero Chavez, a Wilmington, California native, vividly remembers the 1996 explosion at the nearby refinery then owned by Texaco.

“I was on the top bunk, and I thought, ‘Was that an earthquake?’,” said Chavez, 37, after the jolt. Black smoke filled the air and debris and metallic particles covered nearby homes.

But, Chavez didn’t realize she was living in toxic air until she went to college “in the woods” at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“This is what it feels like to breathe fresh air,” she said. “It smelled like pine trees.”

It was a sharp contrast to back home, which she and her friends had nicked named “Smellington,” because it always smelled like rotten eggs, due to the extraction of sulfur from crude oil at nearby refineries.

Wilmington may be a poster child for environmental injustice, but in recent years the residents have taken on the refineries, the port and politicians to protect their community and their health.

It wasn’t until college that  it donned on Chavez that poor and working-class neighborhoods like her hometown were treated differently than wealthier areas. She became an activist and a champion for Wilmington.

On Tuesday, she took on the role of tour guide for journalists taking part in the USC Center for Health Journalism Health Equity Fellowship this week in Los Angeles.

Wilmington is a nine-square mile unincorporated area in Los Angeles, located next to the busiest port complex in the Western Hemisphere, which includes the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Nearly 90% of residents are Latino, 44% are foreign born and one in four residents live below the federal poverty level.

Within the community’s borders are at least five oil refineries, oil fields, active drilling sites — some within a few feet of homes or schools — and two major highways heavily traveled by diesel trucks transporting goods from the ports to inland railways and back.

“These conditions were not by chance. It’s a vulnerable community and we’re taken advantage of,” said Chavez.

Alicia Rivera, an organizer with Community for Better Environment, a national organization that works with communities of color and low-income communities to empower residents to fight for healthy, pollution-free neighborhoods, also joined the tour.

Rivera led the group of journalists down a short street with neatly manicured, bungalow-style houses, and directed everyone’s attention to the shoulder-height wall at end of the block. The street abutted the Phillips 66 refinery, with a forest of smokestacks spewing white smoke, that blended with the fog of the rainy morning. The air reeked of sulfur and gasoline. 

“They claim if the emissions are clear white, according to the air district, then it’s not an issue, but it still has hydrocarbons,” said Rivera. The air district here is the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), which is the regulatory agency responsible for air quality for most of Los Angeles and neighboring counties.

Rivera said the refineries often emit huge flares of fire to burn off excess gases, including benzene, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants. Many of those toxins are known to cause cancer and have been implicated in other health problems, including miscarriages, hypertension, reduced lung function and respiratory ailments and others, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Refineries aren’t the only contributors to the pollution. The ports, local industries, diesel trucks and highway traffic also add to the cumulative impact on residents’ health.  

At the Wilmington Community Clinic, less than 2 miles east of the Phillips 66 refinery, Maria Silva, a longtime patient, said she had to move out of Wilmington, because her asthma was so severe. She had asthma attacks three times a month that required emergency room care.

“But of course, we’re living in Wilmington, a lot of people have asthma or allergy symptoms or a dry cough, because of the odor of the refineries,” said Silva, speaking through a Spanish interpreter. She added that being surrounded by the smell of marijuana dispensaries also worsened her condition.

Silva now lives about 13 miles away. Though she’s sad to be away from her family, she hasn’t had an attack since moving two years ago, she said.

“Wilmington is a community that has been totally left behind,” Jill Johnston, an associate professor of environmental sciences at USC, told the journalists.

Johnston and her research team partnered with community-based organizations and the county public health department to gather neighborhood-level data about pollution to help inform policies. Similar efforts helped spur legislation that prohibits construction of new schools near highways, to help decrease toxic exposures for children.

Elizabeth Kamai, a postdoctoral researcher who works with Johnston, shared results from a community-based survey from the summer of 2022 that show most Wilmington residents are concerned about industry pollution.

About 83% of respondents reported regularly experiencing unpleasant odors and 54% reported black spots or oily residues around their home. A little more than one-third of respondents said that members of their household had excellent or very good health, while 57% reported respiratory ailments. Almost one-half reported mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.

“People don’t feel safe from the industry that they’re living next to,” said Kamai.

The survey was performed to provide a baseline for the Wilmington-Carson-Long Beach communities, areas disproportionately burdened by bad air. This is part of Assembly Bill 617 directing California Air Resources Board to improve air quality in 15 designated communities. The researchers plan to conduct future surveys to assess the impact of the legislation.

Johnston cautioned the journalists not to confuse correlation with causation. Events happening at that same time doesn’t mean one caused the other.

For Wilmington native Chavez, the causes of pollution are obvious: local industries and politicians who have favored them over constituents.

She works closely with Rivera and the Community for Better Environment to support the community’s efforts to advocate for change, such as minimizing flares at refineries.

“It’s not that people don’t care, we do care,” said Chavez, “But, environmental health issues are like we’re fighting something invisible (until) it’s too late.”