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A new crop of eco-warriors take to their own streets

Along the I-710 corridor, where cargo-carrying trucks and trains spew diesel pollution around the clock, grass-roots groups are persuading residents to act and making clean air a priority.

September 24, 2009|Margot Roosevelt

It is 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday. Along streets of grimy stucco bungalows with bougainvillea, American flags and "Beware of Dog" signs on chain-link fences, a couple of residents are hosing down lawns.

It ought to be quiet, but it's not.

Behind the garden walls of Astor Avenue, there's a chugging and a hissing and a clanking and a squeaking. Two yellow locomotives, hooked to cars piled high with metal containers, idle on the track of the Union Pacific. Their stacks spew gray plumes of smoke.

"We call this cancer alley," said Angelo Logan, who grew up on the city of Commerce street. "And we're fed up."

Logan, 42, is part of a new generation of urban, blue-collar environmentalists. The son of a janitor and the youngest of five children, he dropped out of school in 10th grade and went to work as a maintenance mechanic in an aerospace factory.

Now he is executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, with a paid staff of four and 200 members who join for $5 a year. They recruit door-to-door in Commerce, Bell Gardens, Montebello and East Los Angeles, where more than three-quarters of residents are working-class Latinos.

East Yard operates from a storefront on Commerce's Atlantic Avenue, a street lined with cheap motels and fast-food joints. It has no celebrities on its board, no publicity staff churning out press releases, no in-house attorneys to go toe-to-toe with $500-an-hour corporate law firms.

But in California, where Latinos, African Americans and Asians now collectively outnumber non-Hispanic whites, political power is shifting. Here especially, but also across the country, mainstream foundations, which had long supported environmental groups led by white lawyers and policy wonks, have begun to channel grants to community organizations run by Latinos and blacks who see clean air and water as civil rights.

In the Southland, these environmental justice activists, as they are called, wage war in the dense corridor that runs from the massive ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach through neighborhoods that line the 710 Freeway -- Wilmington, Carson, Compton, Huntington Park, Commerce-- and on through Riverside and San Bernardino counties, with their vast distribution warehouses.

"There are no buffer zones," said Gilbert Estrada, a teacher who co-founded the East Yard group with Logan. "We are the buffer zones."

Each year, pollution from ships, trucks and trains that move goods through the region contributes to an estimated 2,100 early deaths, 190,000 sick days for workers, and 360,000 school absences, according to the California Air Resources Board.

At a recent East Yard barbecue in Commerce's Bristow Park, hand-painted signs read (italics)"Salud Si, Diesel No"(end italics) -- Health Yes, Diesel No -- as a band played Mexican rancheras and trucks roared by on Interstate 5. Between a kids' finger-painting pavilion and a card table stacked with petitions, Logan, a soft-spoken man with a tidy beard, was working the hamburger line.

"We're having a demonstration on the 25th," he told Pepe Martinez, 44, a metal fabricator. "We're trying to stop the idling in the rail yards. Do you think you could come support us?"

Martinez said he would try. "I know people who live next to the yards," he added. The railroads "never turn those engines off, ever."

Logan headed for a banner-making table, where he showed Angel Armenta, an 11-year-old in a "Star Wars" T-shirt, how to smear black paint on a skull stencil. Logan drew two railroad-crossing signs for eyes, and showed the boy how to staple the banner to a stick. "Would you like to carry this at the demonstration?" he asked.

Armenta nodded vigorously.

Last year, 40% of the containerized cargo entering the United States flowed through the San Pedro Bay ports. That's $335 billion worth of goods, much of it from China and other Pacific Rim nations to be shipped over the Rockies.

Despite the current recession, the ports expect traffic to triple in coming decades -- a scenario that Logan calls "frightening." Like Lilliputians tying down Gulliver, community groups want to block a massive rail yard expansion and a new yard that city officials say will be the greenest ever built. And they are battling a plan to add eight to 10 lanes to the 710 Freeway.

Railroad officials say diesel emissions from their trains will drop by two-thirds by 2020 due to new regulations -- an assertion that Logan disputes.

Commerce is home to about 12,000 people and four rail yards, including BNSF Railway's Hobart facility, the world's busiest "intermodal" yard, which transfers 1.2 million containers a year between trucks and trains. Giant cranes stand in rows like sentinels. Tall poles bristle with flood lights. Blue chassis are piled three-high near a maintenance yard where engines are tested at high-throttle.

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