Alicia Rivera was supposed to meet me at the Wilmington Senior Citizen Center, but when she spotted red flaring and thick black smoke pouring out of refinery smokestacks and moving across nearby neighborhoods, she got distracted.
Rivera is a detective, a rabble-rouser, a crusader, and she's fighting to defeat the oil company-sponsored November ballot proposition that would delay implementation of California's innovative global warming act. And when she spotted what could be a violation of environmental regulations by a refinery, she pulled off the road in her battered Toyota Celica to take pictures with her phone.
But before doing that, she called to apologize for being late. "I'm sorry," she said. "Residents are complaining and I have to report this."
Rather than wait, I drove past the Tesoro and Valero refineries — whose owners have sunk millions of dollars into Proposition 23 — to see Rivera in action. She's an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, a scrappy little outfit battling Big Oil with the argument that reducing greenhouse gases and growing green tech jobs would be good for the planet, for public health and for the economy.
Rivera is a Salvadoran native who fled her country's civil war in 1980. In L.A., she was drawn to the intersection of human rights and environmental justice and began speaking up for low-income minorities and others who can't afford to move to a cleaner neighborhood.
Rivera glared up at two ConocoPhillips smokestacks and explained that the unscheduled flaring suggested a mishap in which harmful gases can be released. She climbed back into her car and drove through a field to get closer to the action for more photos, and then she dialed the Air Quality Management District's hotline at 1-800-CUT-SMOG.
"I am right here in front of the flares," Rivera told an operator, describing "humongous" smoke clouds. "I wonder whether the facility has reported it," she added, asking to speak to a supervisor and any inspector who might be in the area.
Within minutes, an AQMD inspector arrived on the scene and explained to Rivera that a power outage had knocked out a steam boiler and caused the flaring, which the refinery was addressing. Rivera took the inspector's phone number, then asked to be informed, as soon as possible, exactly what pollutants had been spewed into the neighborhood, where many people have asthma and other health problems.
Then it was on to the senior center. "We need to defeat Proposition 23," Rivera announced, minutes later, to a gathering of 60 people.
After her presentation she went table to table, trying to sign volunteers. Miguel Murillo, a retired cannery worker, volunteered to help get out the vote but expressed doubts about whether there was any hope of defeating the proposition, which would delay the state's global warming law and thereby save oil companies and others from having to invest in lowering emissions anytime soon.
"The refineries have millionaires who can buy what they want," Murillo said.
"There are times when that's true," Rivera said. "But not this time. They have the money, but we have the people."
But some of those people work for Valero and Tesoro, and others might heed the Proposition 23 rhetoric that one state's global warming law will make little or no difference in the grand scheme, or that it will be a job killer and raise energy bills at a time when so many people are out of work.
Supporters of the proposition are spending a lot of money to distort what California's global warming law would do. A few weeks ago a Valero spokesman said it "regulates only greenhouse gases associated with global warming, not smog or other environmental or health-threatening pollutants."
To be kind, that's a crock.
"The vast bulk of greenhouse gas emissions come from combustion, which also produce smog-forming compounds such as [nitrogen oxides]," said Stanley Young of the California Air Resources Board.
So the global warming act isn't just about climate control, or about avoiding wars by diminishing our dependence on foreign oil, or about the hazards of drilling in the Gulf.
It's also a matter of public health, and a chance to create jobs in renewable power, which is why Rivera is working so hard to defeat Proposition 23.
Refineries aren't the only source of pollution in Wilmington. Diesel-burning ships at the ports, trucking and freeway congestion all produce toxic air. Tom Mack, a USC professor who studies disease patterns in L.A. County, said it's hard to prove a direct link to cancer, but asthma rates are higher for kids living near freeways, and lung development in children is "endangered" by the burning of fossil fuels.
Going door to door with Rivera, we heard lots of complaints about asthma and cancer.
"A lot of the children have tumors of the head," said Maria Ramos, a 45-year resident.
"If you have a window open and you wipe things down, within one hour there's a layer of black soot on everything," said Rose Duarte, who ran her finger over her porch railing to prove it. "You see?"
A few hundred yards from the Valero refinery, Reina Lopez was hooked up to an oxygen tank when she answered her door. Chronic asthma, she said. Her mother-in-law was on a bed inside the living room and Lopez said she had cancer of the brain.
"That house, empty," Lopez said, pointing next door. "Cancer." She pointed to another property and said, "Empty. Cancer."
Rivera handed her a "No on 23" flier.
"I hope to still be alive," Lopez said, "so I can vote."