AB32

If there was one thing Governor Schwarzenegger did right during his term, it was to enthusiastically sign AB32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the landmark state law that would reduce carbon emissions and greenhouses gases back to their 1990 levels by the year 2020, a nearly 25% reduction. As you would guess, there are going to be those that are not too happy about such a thing, but who would imagine the absolute chutzpah it would take to launch an initiative to suspend this law under the premise that it would cost us jobs? Why, it’s our old friends the oil companies! You see it is not that they are afraid that their profits would suffer if we started to rely more on alternative fuels or that our air quality improved, but that our jobs would be lost. Yes, I’m sure that really keeps them up at nights, worrying about our jobs. Well, less we doubt them, they have decided to call their November ballot measure the “California Jobs Initiative”, and with a name like that, you know they have to be sincere.

If passed by the voters, the “California Jobs Initiative” would suspend AB32 until the unemployment rate in California falls below 5.5% for at least one year. The current unemployment rate is at 12%, so given the speed that things are going, it would be a long, long time before they would have to comply, giving them more months and years to spew out their toxic emissions and greenhouse gases without regulation. It actually gets uglier, because you see the two oil companies who are funding the initiative are not even from California, they are from Texas. Tesoro Corp. and Valero Energy Inc. are two oil giants who have decided they know what is best for us, and what kind of air our children should be breathing.  The two companies have already bankrolled the imitative with over $3 million to help qualify the measure for the November ballot.

I joined a group of protesters last weekend who were rallying at the Tesoro refinery in Wilmington, a town near Long Beach and home to several oil refineries. I wrote about the Toxic Tour a few weeks back and you may recall that Wilmington residents are subjected to a constant barrage of toxic emissions from the nearby refineries, and are the people who will be most affected by a repeal of AB32. The crowd consisted of local residents and enthusiastic students from the nearby high schools. They are enthusiastic because they know it is their future air quality and health at stake. They picked “Family Day” to protest,  a day where Tesoro employees could bring their kids to tour the refinery. What a bizarre way to spend an afternoon, but it obviously sounded like a spanking good time to some, because by the time the protesters got there, lines of SUV’s and minivans were bringing loads of happy visitors to the facility, and inside, golf carts were zipping around with Moms, Dads and the little ones, as the refinery belched out fumes, gases and other non-breathables.

The protesters, organized by CBE - Communities for a Better Environment, and other local groups, peacefully picketed in front of the gates, letting in traffic and causing no disruption to Family Day. After an hour or so, they left, but the point was to let them know that people are watching and paying attention.

Contrary to what the oil companies tell us, The California Air Resources Board's (CARB) economic analysis of AB32 forecasts that economic production would actually increase by 27 billion dollars, the gross state product by $4 billion and personal income by $14 billion. Moreover, their preliminary analysis indicates that the total economic value associated with public health benefits is likely to be on the order of $4.3 billion by 2020. Gov. Schwarzenegger has said that “This initiative sponsored by greedy Texas oil companies would cripple California's fastest-growing economic sector, reverse our renewable energy policy and decimate our environmental progress for the benefit of these oil companies' profit margins.”

If Tesoro and Valero have already poured $3 million dollars just to get it on the ballot, one can only imagine how much they are willing to spend to get it passed, but we all know how deep their pockets are and to what lengths they will go to protect their profits. It is infuriating to me that a ballot measure can be worded so misleadingly, but if people understand what is really at stake, if it is exposed for what it is, it will fail. The public’s opinion of oil companies is at an all time low and that can only help. But it is up to each one of us to talk about this with others, and  for California voters to go to the ballot box in November to cast their vote if we don’t want Texas oil companies deciding what is right for California.

Is this just about California? Keep in mind that if this landmark environmental law is repealed in California, clean air legislation in other states, and potentially on a federal level, will be stifled, and oil companies and other polluters will be empowered to cripple progress elsewhere. I will post more about this situation as it progresses, but this is a battle that can and must be won.

Toxic Tour

Last year I spent a day taking the Toxic Tour, far removed from anything you would take at Universal Studios, this illuminating, and sometime nose burning journey is offered a few times a year by CBE – Communities for a Better Environment. It was a strange and fascinating day which included visits to chemical sites, refineries and brownfields, which are abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facilities. Don’t bring the kids!

Roberto Cabrales talks about toxic sites at CBE headquarters at beginning of Toxic Tour.

CBE’s focus is on environmental health and justice, whereby they offer legal assistance, research and organizing help to poor and working class communities of color that suffer from environmental pollution and toxins due to proximity to industrial polluters. In fact shortly after arriving we were shown a map of Los Angeles with neighborhoods broken down by people of color and toxic facilities. I’m sure you can guess how many toxic sites were located in Malibu and Brentwood compared to South Central. The only thing that was surprising was how staggeringly disproportionate it truly was. CBE’s southern California headquarters is located in Huntington Park, right next to Vernon, the most industrialized city in the United States. Whereas Vernon is almost completely industrialized (it has a population of  91 according to the last Census), Huntington Park is a very residential community, and its proximity to Vernon and its emissions has given it the unfortunate nickname of "Asthma Town" due to the high incidence of respiratory illness afflicting its residents.

Overpowering smell from the the lead rendering plant in the background.

We spent most of the morning with our tour guide, Roberto Cabrales, viewing a number of successful examples of CBE and the local residents kicking out and  shutting down toxic facilities in and around Huntington Park, Vernon, Maywood and Bell gardens, all communities a short distance from the downtown Los Angeles. It was a gray day, not the best for picture taking, which was fine, as it is sometimes hard to listen and shoot at the same time. The day ended in Wilmington, an area in San Pedro, near Long Beach, that some people might recognize as the town along the 110 freeway with the gargantuan oil refinery in the shadow of Rancho Palos Verdes. As someone who grew in New York City and spent way too many trips holding my nose as I passed by the oil refineries in Elizabeth, NJ, I can say that this one gives anything I have seen a run for its money.

Young latino boy plays in the shadow of Wilmington oil refinery.

The tour definitely saves the most dramatic for last. Where most of the examples we had seen were closed sites, the situation in Wilmington is ongoing, and for me the most striking thing was how close the residential houses were to the refinery. Street after street of modest, but nice single-family homes were literally a stones throw away from the belching smokestacks of the facility. Children played on the streets and people carried on with normal neighborhood activities as they would anywhere, except the background was not some mountain range, lake or even a mall, it was a giant, active oil refinery.

Residential houses next to ConocoPhillips refinery at Wilmington.

The dramatic juxtaposition of the homes next to the refinery was worth another trip, so I waited a few days for clearer weather and returned in late afternoon. As I was setting up my camera on an embankment next to the freeway, a van pulled up with several young men. The driver leaned out his window and asked if I was with the press. Now the press is not always welcome, but it can lend some legitimacy to some situations, and since I do carry LA County press credentials, I replied that I was. The question I received was not the obvious one I expected about when someone was going to do something about the stinky oil refinery in the neighborhood, but rather he wanted to know if I was there to do a story about trees the city had planted along the embankment that I was on. It seems the trees were planted a little while back and no one has come back to care for them. I took a glance at the sickly looking saplings he was referring to and said that I was sorry, but no. I think I mumbled something about the refinery, at which point he became disinterested and drove off.

A residential street next to ConocoPhillips refinery at Wilmington.

I stood there wondering how someone could care more about these neglected trees than the more blatant health hazard of the refinery. Not that caring about the trees isn’t a legitimate concern, but relative to the greater danger, it made no sense. But then again living in this neighborhood and the nearby streets made no sense to me either, and yet this type of scenario is repeated thousands of times around the country and the world. Why do people live next to or near toxic sites? Much of the time they have no choice, poverty or the necessity of a nearby job limit choices. But these were nice lower middle class houses that many people would normally be happy to call their home.

There is no one answer I suppose, a combination of denial mixed in with the desire to own an affordable home (this area is definitely below market value), and possibly a certain resignation to the inevitability of that toxins are everywhere, so if this doesn’t get you, something else will. There is certain amount of truth to that, but I would say that it is still a relative case.

The Toxic Tour is given both in Los Angeles (the next one is May 15) and at CBE’s other headquarters in Oakland.