The problem of air pollution around the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach generated a standing-room-only crowd at a community forum that was held in Paramount on October 6. ILWU Coast Safety Committee Chair Tim Podue and Local 13 volunteer Donovan Russell attended the event that attracted 100 port-area residents, concerned community leaders and elected officials.
A panel of scientists, Port officials, and activists told the gathering about all the different sources of air pollution in the harbor area, including traffic on freeways, emissions from four nearby oil refineries, the ICTF Rail Yard and other near-dock rail operations.
One of the panelists was Dr. Linda Birnbaum, who heads the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, the federal agency charged with studying environmental health problems. Birnbaum was clear about the problem: “Scientific evidence is showing that traffic pollution has a huge impact on public health. Living near major roads is hazardous to your health. Period.”
Her statements were confirmed by UCLA scientist John Froines, who explained how tiny exhaust particles can lodge in lungs where they help trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and other serious problems. Froines has been studying air pollution with scientists from UCLA and USC for the past 15 years. Living or working close to freeways adds to the risk. But eight million people are already living within a mile of a freeway in LA and Orange Counties – and another million live within 100 feet or less.
With these facts in mind, community members posed some pointed questions of representatives from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Port reps told about their efforts to go greener and cleaner and they encouraged residents to stay involved and keep working with the Ports to make things better.
The problems are challenging for both workers and residents. Take the new rail yard that Burlington Northern Santa Fe wants to build on 153 acres of Port property to move containers more efficiently from the docks to points east. The railroad says they’ll use alternative-fuel locomotives, electric- powered cranes and low-emission trucks at the new facility. But residents including many parents of children in a nearby school are concerned because nearly ¼ of their kids already suffer from asthma, so the impact of another 1.5 million annual truck trips to and from the new rail yard is a real concern.
Yet it’s also true that the new yard would cut overall emissions in the region by eliminating a wasteful 24-mile freeway trip that’s now needed to haul containers to the old rail yard in East Los Angeles. More forums are planned to try and tackle these difficult problems, share information and explore ways to make the Port areas cleaner for residents and workers. ILWU Coast Safety Committee Chair Tim Podue was encouraged to attend the meeting by ILWU Coast Committeeman Ray Ortiz, Jr.
“Longshore workers have to wear two hats in the ILWU,” says Ortiz, Jr. “One for safer docks and healthier neighborhoods, and the other for good jobs that our communities need.” Podue told the group he was speaking as a private citizen, not a union representative, but went on to explain how he and other longshore workers have been inhaling diesel exhaust for decades. He said that many of his coworkers have cancer, and that he hates breathing exhaust fumes on the job.
But Podue also said how much he loves his work and how important the good jobs are for thousands of area families who depend on the Port. “I’ve been poisoned myself by breathing exhaust from the stacks of a ship while I was working in a crane, and you never get over it,” said Podue. “But you also can’t chase away the work.” Podue said he would love to see all the port equipment “plugged in and green.”
“We all have a story to tell,” he told NIEHS chief Linda Birnbaum and other officials. “Just don’t forget the workers when you’re doing it.” Director Linda Birnbaum responded to Podue by saying she supports the need to include workers and wants the debate to move beyond a choice between jobs or health. She said it’s obvious that the ports and freeways are necessary, but wants them designed to protect the health of workers and residents. “You’ve got to put a dollar figure on how much money you’d save by not having kids with asthma and people with heart attacks,” she said. “You have to turn it around and say how much money is saved by doing it the right way.”
–ILWU Local 13 member
Donovan Russell contributed