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How Our Consumption is Killing Poor Kids in Los Angeles

Image by Joshua Frank.

It’s a gorgeous evening in San Pedro, California. I’m standing on the outskirts of a Little League ballpark that sits atop a knoll overlooking the sprawling Port of Los Angeles and the arching Vincent St. Thomas Bridge. Below is a sea of shipping containers, stacked high like Lego blocks, forming mini-skyscrapers along the dusky horizon. President Biden made a trek to the port during the Summit of the Americas this month, giving a speech that addressed supply chain snafus and the country’s pounding inflation headache.

“Last fall, ports around the world were congested due to disruption caused by the pandemic, so we brought together port operators, shipping companies, and labor to ease the bottlenecks,” said Biden to a beleaguered group of port workers. “And as a result, over the holidays last, 97 percent of all the packages were delivered on time and on shelves when you went Christmas shopping. Remember, we weren’t going to have anything on those shelves. You all did it.”

Various issues at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which account for 40% of all goods imported into the United States, mounted during the pandemic. The finger-waving was intense. Port workers blamed shipping companies and truckers, truckers blamed the ports, and the government and shipping companies blamed the supply chain itself. Ships were unable to unload their cargo, some anchored off the coast of Long Beach and Orange County for months on end. Blame aside, at its core, the mess was the consequence of a marketplace that is fully dependent on foreign imports to survive.

For the past ten years, I’ve lived a short distance from the 20-mile-long 710 freeway, which serves as the main transport artery for the vast LA-Long Beach port complex. It’s a massive highway, packed full of thundering semi-trucks nearly every hour of the day. With their horns belching and tires screeching, the constant hum of big rigs can be heard for miles. This stretch of the 710 is one of the deadliest roads in the nation according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A report by Vox in 2013, showed that only Interstate 285 in Georgia ranked higher. It makes perfect sense. I was recently told a gruesome tale from a grieving father who lost his son after his motorcycle was sucked under a semi-truck that was racing down the freeway at 70 mph. His bike was pulverized and the 19-year-old kid died instantly, his body was unrecognizable. He was later identified after they pieced together fragments from his splintered license plate.

These types of horrific events occur all too frequently. Even large SUVs don’t stand a chance when up against a Mack truck pulling a 50,000-pound load. The remedy, at least the one put forward by the region’s judicious transportation authorities, is to widen the freeway to reduce traffic bottlenecks and the risk of accidents. Much to the highway lobby’s chagrin, a $6 billion project to expand the 710 was shot down in May 2022 after 15 years of planning. Local advocates put up a significant fight, rightly pointing out that poor communities of color would be impacted most by the development.

“Though it took way too long to get a commitment to prioritize health and well-being, our community embraces this decision as a victory,” said Laura Cortez, co-director, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a member of 710 Task Force opposition. “However, the 710 as it is now, causes significant harm daily, and community members along the 710 will continue to work so community voices are prioritized, and we don’t replicate the harms of the previous process.”

Rarely, if ever, has the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority backed away from building or expanding its complicated network of freeways, and advocates hope the canceling of the 710 expansion is a sign of a changing perspective at the agency. But they aren’t counting on it. Nevertheless, the problems remain and the 710 is still ravaging local communities, and not just the drivers who traverse its deadly lanes.

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Nearly 1.2 million people reside in neighborhoods that hug the hectic 710, 83% of whom are Black and Latinx, and the air they inhale is some of the most toxic air in the country. As a result, activists nicknamed the 710 from Long Beach to Commerce City the “diesel death zone”. The place is full of filthy air. The EPA estimates the area accounts for nearly 20% of all particulate-laden diesel emissions in Southern California, and the toll on human health is insurmountable.

Living in a haze of diesel exhaust, as you might imagine, is bad for one’s health, especially for children who are still developing. The pollution is visible nearly everywhere you look, caking the sides of buildings, and covering cars with soot if they sit in one place long enough. The USC Environmental Health Center notes that people residing in areas like the 710 corridor are more likely to experience premature births, and have higher rates of heart disease, asthma, and lung cancer. While the greater Los Angeles area continues to rank as one of the worst air quality regions in the country, the hotspots in LA County consistently pop up along the 710 freeway.

“Sometimes when we do P.E. we have to run laps and it is hard to breathe,” says Elizabeth Reyes, who attended Hudson School on Long Beach’s West Side, just a half-mile from the 710. “I see trucks sending out gray clouds into the air; I see that every day. During lunchtime, there are a lot of kids playing volleyball, soccer, and basketball, but most of them don’t know that they are breathing in air that is bad for their health and bad for the environment.”

All of that backed up port traffic during the height of the pandemic, including the container ships idling, and running backup generators off the coast, only made the predicament far worse. A report by the California Air Resources Board published in September 2021 found that 14.5 extra tons per day of nitrogen oxides were released during the year — an equivalent of 50,000 additional diesel-burning trucks on the road. Rates of hospital admissions for asthma-related problems were found to be nearly double that of the predominantly white areas of LA. A meta-analysis from 2017 also showed that those with asthma had a 44% higher likelihood of developing lung cancer, and studies have indicated that kids living within a half-mile of the highways like the 710 have decreased lung development.

As COVID ripped through these neighborhoods, death followed at a much higher rate than elsewhere. A study out of Harvard found that “People with COVID-19 who live in U.S. regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted areas.” An investigative piece in the Long Beach Post confirmed Harvard’s findings, noting that the West side of Long Beach, which continually suffers from the worst air quality in the region, had some of the highest rates of COVID-related deaths in LA County.

It’s no wonder COVID hit people in West Long Beach the hardest, some of their co-morbidities were caused by their proximity to the 710. A survey of residents in 2011 showed that 30% of households had one or more people who suffered from asthma, and the longer people lived there, the higher the likelihood they developed the condition. Those numbers have likely only gotten worse since then, air quality has failed to improve as more cargo rolls through the port, en route to eager shoppers across the United States.

“The communities have been bearing the brunt of industries that use the 710 as a Walmart super highway,” says Angelo Logan, who co-founded East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice. “They get to the shelves of Walmarts while the people see no benefit, and all they get is the negative impact.”

While Biden was intent on ramping up the shipment of goods throughout the country in time for the holidays, there was no indication the problem had anything to do with the port itself, which was already operating at full tilt. In fact, 2021 was a record year for the port complex, topping the previous peak set in 2018 by over 18%.

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There has been a lot of big talk about “greening” the port in an attempt to appease critics. Long Beach’s Mayor Robert Garcia, who is now running for congress on the Democratic ticket, and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti signed, a “zero-emissions” goal for the port in 2017, which set targets for zero-emission trucks and cargo equipment. Like most of these sorts of greenwashing pledges, however, nothing was binding. While the worst of the diesel-burning trucks were banned ten years ago, the fleet of current semis is still burning tons of dirty fossil fuels, despite the hype the port has gone “green”.

“Port pollution is down significantly, and investments are being made in clean technology and solar initiatives,” Robert Garcia, once a proud Republican, wrote during his mayoral campaign in 2014. “Ships are cleaner, and our once aging truck fleet has been replaced by modern, clean trucks that have cut truck pollution by 90 percent. Long Beach is an international model for green ports, and we must never lose the edge on this initiative.”

Air quality in the region, despite Garcia’s hollow rhetoric, has most certainly not improved, it’s gotten worse over the last ten years. As a result, the area will miss a smog-reduction deadline that’s coming up in 2023, which will likely mean Clean Air Act sanctions are on their way to Los Angeles. It’s a big step backward, not forward.

“The ports’ offers to date have been so weak they would cut far less pollution than what they projected five years ago when the two cities updated their Clean Air Action Plan, according to the air district,” the LA Times wrote in a scathing editorial earlier this year. “What’s more, port officials want an agreement that lacks enforceable commitments and includes provisions that would allow them to walk away without meeting their obligations.”

In other words, the port is hellbent on keeping the wheels of capitalism turning, no matter the impact on those unfortunate enough to breathe its exhaustive filth. No regulators will get in their way.

As I sit on a bench to catch the tail-end of a Little League practice, I notice two ballplayers scrambling to pull asthma inhalers from their bags, taking a couple of hits each before chugging down a sports drink. I can relate. I too developed a mild case of asthma since moving to Long Beach, which flares up in the dog days of summer when the air is humid and hot. As one of the kids walks passed me on the way to the parking lot, I ask if he normally has trouble breathing while playing ball.

“I always take a few puffs after I run the bases,” he tells me as he drags his bat along the dirt behind him. “It sucks, but it usually just means I scored a run.”