Ac­tivist takes on Prop. 23

Woman fights Big Oil over de­lay­ing the state’s global warm­ing law.

Los Angeles Times - - 9• 26•10 - STEVE LOPEZ

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 low­in­come 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.

Afew 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 45year 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?”

Afew 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.”


Katie Falken­berg

Ali­cia Rivera, left, talks with Wilm­ing­ton res­i­dent Reina Lopez, who has chronic asthma.

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