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Skies Have Limits : The Director of a Citizens Environmental Group Is Unhappy With Current Policies on Pollution. He Thinks Only Pressure from Communities on Industries Can Make an Effective Difference.

July 24, 1994|CARLOS PORRAS | Carlos Porras is Southern California director of Citizens for a Better Environment. The Venice-based nonprofit group has several urban environmental projects under way and is studying air pollution in cities in Southeast Los Angeles County. Porras was interviewed by Mike Wyma. and

The Southeast Los Angeles project is just getting into second gear. It's a multifaceted community organizing campaign to document cu mulative exposure to toxics such as chromium, lead and petroleum-based solvents emitted into the air by local industry. Apple has given us computer equipment for that research, and it will be a big job. Existing regulators won't or haven't addressed cumulative exposures. They prefer to deal with site-specific cases and isolate them.

With regulators, there are certain assessments that take place. If an industry falls into a category of a certain level of emissions for a toxic, the Air Quality Management District must evaluate what they call a health risk assessment. If it is deemed that there is a significant risk, then the company must take certain steps.

I'm pretty down on the AQMD. I've seen the district move from where it thought it might be representing public health, but was being pressured by industry's economic cries, to complete disregard of any element of public health interest. The AQMD is front-running for industry right now because of the recession.

The AQMD board of governors recently passed a rule, 1402, that defines the level of significance for public notification. They set it at 100 added cancers per million people exposed. The federal standard and most of the conservative agencies out there were defining it at 10 added cancers per million exposed. The EPA, the state and some of the more progressive public health-interested agencies were defining it at one additional cancer.

Here the AQMD comes up with 100. Industry was willing to settle for 50. Their own staff recommended 10. But that board of governors took it on themselves to say 100. That's an insult to the people of this region, saying our lives are less important by a magnitude of 10 times the national standard.

It all comes down to community organizing, to put outside pressure on the board. Those people are elected officials on other bodies that are appointed to this one. That means there's limited accountability. You have to put pressure through the elected office they are accountable to, and overall the community needs to cry out, saying, "We cannot accept this district operating as it does."

Studies like we're doing in Southeast Los Angeles can help apply the pressure. We're interpreting Southeast Los Angeles as a region of eight cities--Vernon, Huntington Park, Florence, Maywood, Bell, Bell Gardens, Walnut Park and Cudahy. They're all within what's commonly known as the Alameda Corridor.

It's the most densely industrialized region in the United States. The city of Vernon has been documented as the dirtiest ZIP code in the state of California. It's a potpourri of industries. There's still some of the steel industry there, chemical manufacturers, chemical distributors, the largest lead battery recycler on the West Coast. Ironically, with all of those, there are more and more food companies.

As part of our outreach, we'll have community meetings where we give people information about the hazards around them, and tell them what the vehicles for intervention are.

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Our argument is that regulators aren't using a true picture of the health risk to the community when they take a company in isolation of anything else that might be there. We say the community is impacted by the cumulative total of all exposures. That is a debate the regulators have avoided until now. We need to back that up with empirical data.

There are models of coexistence. Just recently we negotiated a settlement with Chevron in Richmond, Calif., that means the company will be investing $6 million over the next five years into the community. They'll do outreach to educate the community about the effects of the emissions from the refinery and do a mentoring program in the schools and have some medical outreach.

A lot of the resistance of industry comes from a philosophical perspective rather than a problem-solving perspective. They're afraid of being marginalized in their profitability and are not really open yet to a partnership with the communities they exist in. They draw on the community for labor and sometimes for natural resources. Our argument is that it should be a partnership.

The urban environmental movement is definitely growing from the ground up. That's the only way it's going to work. You can write regulations and policy all day long and it's not going to change anything until there's community pressure.

The most disenfranchised and the most disempowered are usually the ones that pay the burden. Those are the ones you have to help. I believe in Jimmy Hoffa's model. You float the boat from the bottom up. Contradictory to trickle-down economics, you've got to start at the bottom. If the bottom rises, the top rises with it. That's what we've got to focus on as a community, rather than let ourselves be divided along lines of immigrant issues, welfare issues, color, religion, nationalism.

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