Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

Unhealthy conditions in city tied to pollution

Officials cite need to put more effort into quality of life in certain ZIP codes

- By Hayley Munguia hmunguia@scng.com

Editor’s note: This report is part of “A Public Health Crisis: Systemic Racism in Long Beach,” a series looking at the ways systemic racism has negative health consequenc­es for Black people and other communitie­s of color.

The smoke blotted out the sun. The fumes, from an explosion at Carson’s Tosco refinery one day nearly 20 years ago, billowed outward, raining soot on parts of the South Bay. The dark haze, according to news accounts at the time, traveled across Long Beach and into Orange County.

Chris Chavez, a Long Beach teenager at the time, was one of those whose homes were shrouded in artificial night.

Officials at the time offered assurances. No one was hurt, they said, and as long as the smoke remained in the atmosphere, it didn’t pose significan­t risks.

That’d become a familiar refrain after each fire over the next two decades, of which there were many.

But research has shown that pollutants in the atmosphere are a serious risk, particular­ly for communitie­s closest to their source, such as the Long Beach neighborho­od of Chavez’s youth, in addition to Wilmington and Carson.

For activists and experts —

like Chavez or Monica Argandona, who teaches environmen­tal science policy at Cal State Long Beach — it’s obvious why.

“Look at the vast number of refineries and oil wells,” Argandona said. “One of the largest oil refineries in the country is located in this area, and we keep approving things like that. The argument is, it’s not going to affect the air quality, that it isn’t going to make it any worse. But we know it’s worse.”

Over the last 20 years, however, refineries throughout the Los Angeles area have taken steps to reduce carbon emissions.

Take, for example, the Tosco refinery. That facility — which has changed hands three times since its explosion, according to state records — has installed several new pieces of technology to limit emissions, said Kenneth Dami, spokesman for owner Phillips 66. The company also has plans to invest in more emission-reducing measures throughout this year and next, he added.

The refinery has cut flaring by more than 90% since 2008, Dami said, and the site funded a $13 million fence-line monitoring system last year — as required by the region’s air quality watchdog agency — that posts emissions in near-real time online.

More broadly, Dami said, L.A. area refineries are among the most strictly regulated.

“As a result, (refineries) are among the cleanest operating in the world,” Dami said in an email. “We continue to strive to improve our environmen­tal performanc­e to match the expectatio­ns of the community.”

While refinery emissions have declined in recent decades, fires at the facilities remain somewhat common.

In 2019, the Phillips 66 facility had two blazes roughly two months apart. And last year, an explosion at Carson’s Marathon Refinery sparked a fire that burned for about five hours.

That’s all to say that air pollution, caused partly but not entirely by refineries, has long been an issue throughout the region.

Long Beach’s western half, for example, has among the worst air pollution in the country, according to state and federal data.

But air pollution from refineries is just one of myriad environmen­tal factors, in Long Beach and elsewhere, contributi­ng to disparate health outcomes among communitie­s, research has shown. Communitie­s that lack open spaces, have fewer healthy food options and are closer to freeways also have worse health compared to the general population.

Those factors, and the poorer health that follows, are concentrat­ed in low-income communitie­s of color, research has shown.

Health experts and activists have a name for that phenomenon: environmen­tal racism.

Chavez knows this phenomenon personally. Beyond the nearby refineries, his childhood home was also within a mile of where the 710 and 405 freeways intersect. In his neighborho­od, chronic lung issues were the norm, he said.

Chavez grew up with asthma, as did his cousins. The family members who lived closer to the freeways, he said, had more severe cases.

The neighborho­ods where people of color live — which also have a lower socioecono­mic status than the rest of Long Beach — closely align with those most vulnerable to environmen­tal hazards, city officials have found.

That finding came from an assessment Long Beach conducted as part of its forthcomin­g Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

“The areas with the greatest numbers of socially vulnerable population­s,” city planner Jennifer Ly said during a recent study session on the plan, “overlap significan­tly with areas with the highest levels of pollution and that are most vulnerable to extreme heat.”

Health experts agree. “The difference between the ZIP codes is stark,” said Dr. Odrin Castillo, director of community engagement and diversity for Long Beach Memorial’s Family Medicine Program.

In his own ZIP code, which he didn’t divulge, the life expectancy — 72 to 73 — is eight to nine years less than an average American in an average ZIP code, he said.

But if you live in East Long Beach, the chances of living into your 80s is much better.

“Literally go east on Willow (Street) and your life expectancy shoots up to 82,” Castillo said. “So it’s stark, the difference that you see just from neighborho­od to neighborho­od, not even city to city.”

Cross-referencin­g city data on everything from lifespan and health insurance to air pollution and income suggests a cause-andeffect cascade that helps explain why residents west of

Redondo Avenue can expect to die a decade sooner than their counterpar­ts farther east.

Greater air pollution, lacking access to healthy food options because they are too expensive or too far away, and not being insured — what health care profession­als call the “social determinan­ts of health” — cause or exacerbate underlying medical conditions. Those underlying conditions, in turn, can trim years off a person’s life.

“If you superimpos­e these things upon the ZIP codes where the life expectanci­es are lower,” Castillo said, “you actually see almost point by point where air pollution is higher, access to healthy food is lower, socioecono­mic status is lower. ... You could not trace out a more perfect — or imperfect, so to speak — map that really highlights how these things affect health care.”

While numerous initiative­s over the years have had some success in lessening these environmen­tal factors, health experts and advocates agree that much work remains.

These days, the biggest threat is the coronaviru­s.

Ly, the city planner who spoke recently about Long Beach’s climate plan, noted that the map of the city’s vulnerable population­s also overlaps with the areas hit hardest by the pandemic.

For John Chen, one of thousands of people of Cambodian descent who call central Long Beach home, that reality is impossible to ignore.

He has asthma, which makes him particular­ly susceptibl­e to worse outcomes — and possibly death — if he were to catch the coronaviru­s.

So when his wife lost her sense of smell over the summer, he acted quickly. The whole family got tested. Each was positive — except, somehow, Chen.

He made his wife and children stay in their own rooms. He cooked for them all and, using gloves, left the meals outside bedroom doors.

“The kids hated me for a few days,” he said, “because they don’t like my cooking. They like Mom’s cooking.”

Chen can joke about it now, since everyone recovered. But those weeks in July, he said, were frightenin­g.

“I couldn’t sleep for almost a month,” Chen said. “I’m not going to lie.”

No one could blame him: The coronaviru­s has been far deadlier for Long Beach residents who, like Chen, have underlying conditions than those without. Of the 857 Long Beach residents who have died from coronaviru­s-related causes so far, all but 22 had underlying health conditions.

The coronaviru­s, though, has only magnified inequaliti­es that already existed, Long Beach health officials have said. And those inequaliti­es go beyond where people live and the air they breathe.

People of color, City Health Officer Dr. Anissa Davis said in a recent interview, are also more likely to have jobs where they can’t telecommut­e, such as custodial work, retail, restaurant­s and hospitalit­y.

And, Davis said, they are more likely to rely on public transporta­tion.

The income from those jobs, meanwhile, has not risen as much as the cost of housing, said Health and Human Services Director Kelly Colopy — further limiting the ability of people in those communitie­s to afford a decent place to live. Instead, they are more likely to dwell in crowded housing conditions.

In short, people of color — forced to be around others to work and live — have a higher risk of catching the virus.

Of course, those conditions didn’t develop amid the pandemic.

“If you look at poverty and median income (for communitie­s of color), it’s significan­tly less than you find overall in Long Beach,” Colopy said, “and so generally, and often, that is from the practices of structural racism in our community.”

For Chavez, the polluted sky from the Tosco explosion, when he was 13, was the most dramatic illustrati­on of how communitie­s like his, in the North Wrigley neighborho­od, suffered more from environmen­tal hazards than those on the city’s more affluent east side.

But it was far from the only example.

“So certainly,” Chavez said in a recent interview, “environmen­tal racism is a huge concern.”

A body of research on the impact of environmen­tal hazards, decades in the making, has found that toxic waste sites, refineries, freeways and other threats to environmen­tal and public health are disproport­ionately concentrat­ed in communitie­s of color nationwide.

The reason largely goes back to historic housing discrimina­tion that limited where people of color could live.

And, as Colopy said, ongoing systemic racism in education, employment and elsewhere work to trap people of color in those same neighborho­ods.

Long Beach isn’t immune. The city has a lot of working-class residents. A majority of the population is people of color. It has a high rate of renters.

“Just looking at the pure economics of it right now,” said Argandona, the environmen­tal science policy professor. “This is where people end up because they can’t go anywhere else.”

Carrie Jones-Brown, a Black woman, has high blood pressure. For much of her life, she was obese. And she lives in North Long Beach.

It’s difficult, based on city data, to separate her health from her neighborho­od.

Emergency room visits due to hypertensi­on, for example, were highest in central Long Beach’s 90806 and 90913 ZIP codes, the city’s 2019 Community Health Assessment found. Next were the West Long Beach and North Long Beach ZIP codes of 90810 and 90805, respective­ly.

And that North Long Beach ZIP code also had a higher percentage of obese adults and teens — 35% and 47% — than any other ZIP code in the city.

In her neighborho­od, Jones-Brown said, fast food is a lot easier to come by than organic produce.

While North Long Beach does have supermarke­ts — like a Big Saver Foods and two Food 4 Less locations — it lacks the more healthcons­cious, albeit pricier, options available elsewhere in the city, like Whole Foods or Sprouts.

And its options could shrink further, at least in the short-term. That’s because Kroger has said that, come April, it will close one of those Food 4 Less locations, along with a Ralphs in East Long Beach, because the Long Beach City Council has required a temporary $4 per hour wage bump for grocery workers to recognize the hazards they face amid the coronaviru­s pandemic.

In response, the council last month unanimousl­y OK’d an item, introduced by Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, directing officials to create a food security plan, with a particular focus on communitie­s impacted by the store closures.

“To offset the sudden economic shock that may be created — the food shock — by the closure of these grocery stores, we should prepare an equity-informed food security recovery strategy, a food security plan,” Richardson, who represents North Long Beach, said during the February council meeting, “and this should be put in place to prevent further escalation of food insecurity in disproport­ionately impacted areas.”

But while North Long Beach may be light on grocery stores, it has a surplus of cheaper fast food options. The 90805 ZIP code, in fact, has more fast food drivethrus — 26 — than any other in the city, according to a 2019 Long Beach analysis.

“It’s very difficult to find fresh food in the neighborho­od,” Jones-Brown said. “I cannot just go out and find a fresh salad.”

Officials have worked for years to bring more grocery stores and farmers markets to North Long Beach, and the pandemic has accelerate­d those efforts.

The city announced last month, for example, that it used $3 million from its federal CARES Act allocation to partner with 16 organizati­ons to provide food and nutrition-related services to people having trouble accessing healthy meal options.

Long Beach is also in the process of helping three markets — La Bodega #8 in central Long Beach, Olives Gourmet Grocer in Belmont Shore and Prince Market & Deli in North Long Beach — expand so they can offer healthy food.

The initiative, also thanks to the CARES Act, provides each market $20,000 to install equipment, like refrigerat­ion and shelving, dedicated to selling healthy food. It also provides those businesses with city support on store layout, marketing and other considerat­ions, Lara Turnbull, manager of Long Beach’s Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention Division, said late last month.

The city, she said, also hopes to fund similar conversion­s in three other liquor stores, convenienc­e stores or small markets.

The stores are encouraged to select healthy food that’s culturally appropriat­e for their customers, Turnbull said, to ensure the program achieves its intended goals.

The ideal outcome, Turnbull said, is to expand access to healthy food throughout Long Beach.

That’s why the program is of the kind the city would like to continue offering in the future, Turnbull said — even after the CARES Act money is gone.

“Our goal is to ensure that no matter where you live in Long Beach,” she said, “that you have access to healthy food within a walkable, or relatively short-distance, commute.”

In North Long Beach, though, the program could have an outsize impact, since there’s evidence to suggest the future of healthy food there will rely less on large grocery chains and more on smaller shops and community efforts.

The importance of momand-pop stores in filling food gaps in the neighborho­od became clear early on in the pandemic, with small business revenue in North Long Beach jumping 39%. Nearly every other neighborho­od in the city, meanwhile, saw revenue decline.

During an economic forum last year, Cal State Long Beach economics department Chair Seiji Steimetz shared a theory on that contrast, which he credited to his graduate research assistant, North Long Beach resident Megan Anaya.

“That’s where all the bodegas are,” he said. “That’s where all the small independen­t grocery operations are.

“And all of you belong to some Facebook group, at some point, that tells you where to buy toilet paper,” Steimetz added, “and they always say: ‘Go to the bodegas.’”

Richardson, for his part, described that data point as an example of where the neighborho­od’s focus should be when it comes to closing gaps in access to healthy food.

“Where we’re headed in North Long Beach is ... smaller,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s more quality produce, and we’ve been placing a focus on healthy corner stores.”

For Taylor Thomas, a Black woman born and raised in West Long Beach, the air pollution coming off the nearby 710 Freeway — an artery clogged with trucks carrying freight to and from the nation’s largest port complex — was just another part of life.

She didn’t know until recently that her childhood asthma was linked to broader trends in the city.

“I think, for a lot of us, we come to view our circumstan­ces that we’re in as normalized,” she said in a recent interview. “But they’re not really normal.”

The Los Angeles-Long Beach region, according to the American Lung Associatio­n, is among the most polluted metropolit­an areas in the country across a range of metrics.

But Thomas didn’t know the connection between that pollution and her own health for much of her life.

It wasn’t until she attended a meeting for East Yard Communitie­s for Environmen­tal Justice, a nonprofit focused on environmen­tal issues in southeaste­rn Los Angeles County, that she learned about how her surroundin­gs impacted her health. That was eight years ago.

Thomas is now the group’s co-director, and her mission is to give others the same education she received, and to help remove the burden of environmen­tal threats from the backs of people of color.

“Folks are starting to understand environmen­tal racism a little bit,” she said, “but I think there’s still a lot of gaps in people’s awareness and just how much it plays out in our own city.”

The Port of Long Beach, though, is one agency that’s all too familiar with the consequenc­es of environmen­tal racism.

People who live near the trade hub “are predominan­tly communitie­s of color,” the port’s director of Environmen­tal Planning, Matt Arms, said in a recent phone interview. “They are communitie­s of lower socioecono­mic ability. They are the communitie­s that are most at risk.

“Going up the 710 trade corridor,” he added, “those are the communitie­s that need to be addressed, and they are the communitie­s that are our neighbors.”

Arms said the port’s efforts to limit environmen­tal impacts on local communitie­s date to 2005, when the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commission­ers approved the Green Port Policy, largely in response to community pressure. The policy committed the port to investing in emission-reducing technology, supporting sustainabi­lity and engaging the public on those issues.

Since then, the Port of Long Beach has deepened its investment in reducing its environmen­tal impacts. The facility has programs dedicated to improving water and soil quality, eliminatin­g truck pollution and adopting new technology in the hopes of becoming the first zero-emissions port. (The adjacent Port of Los Angeles, the busiest in the nation, is also working on similar and sometimes joint initiative­s.)

One initiative that gets less attention but is just as critical, Arms said, is its Community Grants Program that funds community projects to improve air quality, traffic, noise and water quality in and around Long Beach, with a particular focus on the 710 corridor.

“Over a decade or two, we’re putting about $65 million into the exact communitie­s that we’re talking about,” Arms said. “It’s recognizin­g that these local communitie­s are being impacted, and so it’s targeting projects directly in those communitie­s.”

The port has funded projects to install new air filtration systems in nearby schools, plant 6,000 trees in Long Beach and create a mobile care clinic, run by St. Mary Medical Center, that diagnoses and treats asthma in the communitie­s most impacted by air pollution.

“We really are targeting our Community Grants Program to serve those most vulnerable and those most impacted by port operations,” Arms said. “If you look at that, I think it shows how we really are acknowledg­ing that we need to do something.”

Port of Long Beach officials, though, are also aware there’s a long way to go before the facility can eliminate its impacts on local communitie­s, Arms said.

A major challenge in achieving the port’s goal of zero emissions, for example, is simply that “the technology does not exist,” Arms said.

“We’re making great progress, but currently, there’s not commercial­ly available technology,” he said, “and the financial resources it’s going to take to make this transition are gigantic, so overcoming the technologi­cal and financial barriers are a challenge.”

Still, Arms said he has a positive outlook on the port eventually reaching its goal.

While the port has been piloting its own efforts to reduce emissions, he said, officials like Gov. Gavin Newsom — who has issued an executive order requiring all sales of passenger vehicles to be zero-emission by 2035 — are helping quicken the shift to green technology.

“All of that stuff working together will help push zero-emissions technology forward, so I do see progress,” Arms said. “I am optimistic.”

The Port of Long Beach isn’t the only agency looking to reverse the impacts of environmen­tal racism.

The city itself has long worked toward that end.

But its efforts have been magnified over the last year — and infused with an extra emphasis on equity.

The City Council in August approved the Racial Equity and Reconcilia­tion Initiative, which calls on Long Beach to address systemic racism in multiple ways. Environmen­tally, it recommends decreasing industrial air pollution in communitie­s of color, equitably increasing access to green jobs and increasing production of healthy, locally sourced food in underserve­d areas.

The city has already started working on many of those proposals, as evidenced by its health food initiative­s.

“There will be a lot of work that we’ll be doing, both internally as a city to really strengthen and really understand our policies and practices and what their impacts have been,” Colopy, the Health and Human Services director, said, “and how do we start to ensure we’re working from a racial equity lens when we are designing for the future.”

While city officials will craft the policies to reduce environmen­tal racism, residents will also have an active role.

That’s where folks like North Long Beach resident Jones-Brown and Central Long Beach resident Chen come in.

Jones-Brown has lost 50 pounds since she joined the Grace Park Community Garden in her neighborho­od 10 years ago. And Chen has kept his asthma under control by staying active with his own backyard garden and taking time each day to meditate.

But while individual changes in habits are effective, they are far from a communityw­ide panacea.

Ultimately, officials and activists have said, institutio­nal problems like environmen­tal racism and its effects on public health can only be solved with systemic change.

And advocacy is a key part of effecting change.

That’s why Thomas and Chavez have taken to activism.

Chavez is now the deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, where he’s advocated for laws requiring smog checks for big rigs and dedicating funds from the state’s cap-andtrade program toward disadvanta­ged communitie­s that face greater consequenc­es from polluted air.

More recently, Chavez spoke in favor of a Long Beach ballot measure, which voters approved in November, to increase the city’s oil tax to fund racial equity programs.

While Chavez acknowledg­ed the city’s efforts to reduce environmen­tal hazards, he also said it’s not enough.

“Seeing bolder action from the city is going to be important,” he said.

“One of the good discussion­s going on now,” Chavez added, “is how to really focus in on environmen­tal racism and how to rectify some of the injustices that our communitie­s have faced.” Richardson agrees. The Ninth District councilman was recently elected as the Western Region Cities representa­tive for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Richardson recently had a public discussion with his predecesso­r, Judith Mitchell, and other clean-air officials. In that chat, Richardson said the problems of air quality in disadvanta­ged communitie­s are intertwine­d with poverty and systemic racism.

To address those problems, he said, government agencies need to be involved — but activists and community members are also necessary. Activists, after all, are the ones who help expose when and how government initiative­s fail, Richardson said.

“In order to have a government that truly serves and a system that truly serves people, you have to acknowledg­e that,” he said. You need to open the doors of government to allow the community in. Dismantle what doesn’t work and put an alternativ­e, more superior path forward.”

Rather than viewing environmen­tal racism as the result of a broken system that just needs some repairs, he said, it’s time to create something new.

“People say the system is broken. No, the system is doing what it’s designed to do,” he said. “It’s designed not with the conditions of (vulnerable) people in mind, so the answer is to design alternativ­e systems.”

In Long Beach, the Racial Equity and Reconcilia­tion Initiative, which Richardson spearheade­d, lays the groundwork to design those alternativ­e systems.

But creating those systems will be complex — and expensive. The latter challenge is especially true amid a pandemic that’s drained state and city budgets.

And the scope of the problems is likely too wide for any single city or agency to solve.

That doesn’t mean, however, the city shouldn’t try — or activists shouldn’t keep the pressure on public officials.

For Argandona, that’s a must.

And, the CSULB professor said, she’s optimistic that the increasing attention on environmen­tal justice issues will lead to changes.

“The path we’re on isn’t sustainabl­e,” Argandona said. “It has to break somewhere.”

 ?? PHOTOS BY BRITTANY MURRAY — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Taylor Thomas grew up in West Long Beach close to the twin port complex and the 710 Freeway. She hadn't realized until recently how the area negatively impacted her asthma.
PHOTOS BY BRITTANY MURRAY — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Taylor Thomas grew up in West Long Beach close to the twin port complex and the 710 Freeway. She hadn't realized until recently how the area negatively impacted her asthma.
 ??  ?? Taylor Thomas co-directs East Yard Communitie­s for Environmen­al Justice in Long Beach, an environmen­tal advocacy group. Behind her are the promise and peril of air pollution in the region — on the left, a Long Beach Transit battery-powered electric bus and, on the right, one of the many diesel big rigs heading to the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
Taylor Thomas co-directs East Yard Communitie­s for Environmen­al Justice in Long Beach, an environmen­tal advocacy group. Behind her are the promise and peril of air pollution in the region — on the left, a Long Beach Transit battery-powered electric bus and, on the right, one of the many diesel big rigs heading to the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
 ?? KEITH BIRMINGHAM — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Carrie Jones-Brown has been involved with Grace Park Community Garden for more than 10 years. A resident of North Long Beach, a neighborho­od with few options for healthful food, Brown credits gardening with improving her diet and overall health. She says she has lost weight, lowered her blood pressure and relieved stress since she started gardening.
KEITH BIRMINGHAM — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Carrie Jones-Brown has been involved with Grace Park Community Garden for more than 10 years. A resident of North Long Beach, a neighborho­od with few options for healthful food, Brown credits gardening with improving her diet and overall health. She says she has lost weight, lowered her blood pressure and relieved stress since she started gardening.
 ?? BRITTANY MURRAY — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Chris Chavez, the deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, stands alongside the Los Angeles River on Oct. 15. Chavez, who grew up near the 405 and 710 freeways in northwest Long Beach, says the city needs to do more to reduce environmen­tal hazards.
BRITTANY MURRAY — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Chris Chavez, the deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, stands alongside the Los Angeles River on Oct. 15. Chavez, who grew up near the 405 and 710 freeways in northwest Long Beach, says the city needs to do more to reduce environmen­tal hazards.

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