On a sunny spring day at Hudson Elementary School in Long Beach, the gleeful shrieks of children on the playground almost drowned out the dull roar of truck traffic.
A third-grader raced into school nurse Suzanne Arnold's office.
"Ambrosia's chest is hurting, she's lying down," she announced. The nurse sighed as she tugged out an old green wheelchair. "Ambrosia is one of my regulars. Last week, she had an asthma attack on the school bus and had to be taken to the emergency room."
Hudson Elementary is tucked in the crook of California's busiest industrial arm. A few miles from the booming ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, its playground backs up to the truck-clogged Terminal Island Freeway, flaring refineries and double-stacked freight trains powered by belching locomotives.
More than 40% of retail goods imported to the U.S. funnel past this poor but tidy neighborhood.
Soon, a global truck and train off-loading center may be built less than 1,000 feet from the schoolyard. It is designed to speed up freight transport and improve regional air quality by pulling diesel trucks off the freeways, and would add 1 million more truck trips a year to local streets.
"What's being proposed is sacrificing this neighborhood for the greater good," said Patrick Kennedy, director of the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization.
Community activists worry that scenario may be repeated along shipping corridors across the state, from West Oakland and Roseville north of Sacramento to Commerce and the Inland Empire.
They say a new statewide emissions-reduction plan approved by the California Air Resources Board on Thursday, meant to minimize pollution caused by the skyrocketing goods movement, is unfunded, contains no new mandatory controls of polluters and would still result in an estimated 800 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of lost school and work days each year from exposure to diesel soot, ozone and other pollutants.
The freight transportation corridors "are not located in isolated industrial areas, but in fact pass through hundreds of cities, millions of residential homes," Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, said in a recent speech in Wilmington.
"It is the local communities that deal with daily bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion ... that have to breathe the diesel fuel exhaust from ships, trucks, trains and yard equipment every day. It is our children that are suffering from an asthma crisis.... It is our friends and family members who are dying."
Studies back him up. Students less than a quarter of a mile from major freeways are 89% more likely to suffer from asthma.
Children in Long Beach and other industrial cities are three times more likely to suffer decreased lung development.
Workers at ports and freight yards and area residents experience higher cancer risks and heart disease.
"Californians who live near ports, rail yards and along high traffic corridors are subsidizing the goods-movement sector with their health," said Andrea Hricko, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, which has done several of the studies.
Hricko noted that the air board's own study estimated 2,400 people die each year in some of California's poorest communities from causes tied to goods-movement air pollution.
"That constitutes a public health crisis. Can you imagine if 2,400 deaths annually were attributed to avian flu? And if state officials said, 'We have a plan to reduce that to 800 deaths, in 15 years?' Every expert in the world would be working on it. These communities deserve the same treatment."
California air board members and port and industry officials acknowledge that eliminating "toxic hot spot" communities is a stubborn challenge, but say that the technology to reduce much of the pollution exists or is rapidly being developed.
"We need to do as much as possible as quickly as possible. Our whole plan is structured to do that," said air board executive officer Catherine Witherspoon.
The proposed loading facility behind Hudson Elementary is a case in point, she said. State officials say the facility is "vital for relieving congestion and reducing emissions."
In exchange, rail officials have pledged to make the yard "green," with electric cranes and other equipment emitting no soot or other air pollution.
As for the aging, short-haul trucks that would ferry goods between the docks and the site, Witherspoon and her staff said up to $400 million in public funds should be allocated to buy 10,000 clean replacement trucks.
But trucking officials say the cost would actually be $1.2 billion.
Even if new trucks are bought, Witherspoon acknowledged that "there will always be some residual emissions.... We can bring the risk down substantially, I'm hesitant to say to completely acceptable levels, but to substantially lower levels."