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Scarred by industrial landscapes but home to family neighborhoods and parks, Wilmington bears the weight of the region’s high-polluting oil and shipping economy.

About 89% Latino, Wilmington is a bustling mecca for vendors selling birria tacos, agua fresca and homemade tortillas on neighborhood streets as an oil refinery looms in the distance. One street merchant peddles uniforms and equipment to workers on their way to the refineries. Across the 710 freeway, young men play soccer in a park against a backdrop of rail lines, a freeway, smokestacks and industrial storage tanks.

Wilmington and two of its neighbors in southwestern Los Angeles County— West Long Beach and Carson — have been designated for clean-air priority under California’s landmark environmental justice law. About 300,000 people live there, exposed to tons of smog-forming gases and toxic fumes as well as noxious odors that permeate their homes. More than half are Latino, and more than a third are Asian American or African American. 

The imbalance between the plight of people in these communities and the industries that thrive there is a hallmark of environmental injustice. 

Even though they’re next door to two prosperous ports that handle $450 billion in cargo a year, people there face high rates of poverty and unemployment. Some work in high-paying jobs at the ports and refineries, but not everyone benefits from them: One of every five residents in Wilmington lives below the nation’s poverty threshold.

Refineries, trucks, rail yards, freeways and the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are the major sources of emissions there. Nearly 2 million pounds of toxic air contaminants a year are spewed by industrial plants located in these communities. 

This is an up-close exploration of these places and people — portraits of daily life in one of the most polluted parts of the state, where the health and wellbeing of residents is shaped by the oil industry and the nation’s two busiest ports.

A fading mural adorns a building in downtown Wilmington containing a Salvadoran restaurant, a pawn shop, a boutique outlet and other businesses.
A homeless man sits at a bus stop next to a gas station in downtown Wilmington. People line up for food outside the popular Mexican restaurant La Michoacana.
This street in downtown Wilmington leads into one of the region’s large oil refineries and the ports. Wilmington, a waterfront part of Los Angeles, was founded in 1857. Wilmington had a booming tourism industry during the early 1900s, but now its economy relies on the ports and oil industry.
Young athletes play soccer in Long Beach’s Drake Park against a backdrop of the 710 freeway, industrial storage tanks and a refinery smokestack. The park is about half a mile from the Port of Long Beach and less than two miles from the Valero refinery in Wilmington.
A mechanic cleans out residue from a heavy-duty truck’s engine at a shop on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. He said work fixing a steady stream of industrial trucks in the area is never-ending. Diesel exhaust, largely from trucks, is responsible for about three-quarters of the cancer risk posed by air pollution in the area.  
Javier Beltrán, 66, who lives on Wilmington’s Figueroa Place, worked at nearby refineries for much of his life. “It was a good job, obviously, but it also had its bad sides,” Beltrán said. “The pollution and everything that exists inside (the refineries), the bad odors and all of the toxins that people are exposed to.” Beltrán said he left his refinery job because he noticed a decline in his health. “Before I used to run, and over time I found myself not being able to do it anymore without breathing so heavily.”
 A roadside vendor sells industrial uniforms to refinery workers along the Pacific Coast Highway in Wilmington, across the street from a gas station. The community’s economy revolves around the oil industry and the ports of LA and Long Beach.

Life beneath the smokestacks

Five pollution-spewing oil refineries loom over neighborhoods in Wilmington and Carson. Juan Perez can see the Phillips 66 refinery’s smokestacks from the home on Figueroa Place where he’s lived for 37 years.

Like many residents of Wilmington, Perez’s wife has asthma. Sometimes you can’t breathe because the smell is so strong,” Perez said.

Dulce Altamirano, who lives on King Avenue nearby, is a short walking distance from the refinery. Her youngest child struggles with irregular breathing, headaches and a persistent runny nose.

“At night when everyone is asleep, it’s like they (refineries) open something up and you smell a strong gas,” Altamirano said. “When I go outside, I smell it even more, and sometimes it is also a rotten smell.”

Teresa Herrera, who also lives on Figueroa Place and works at a nearby McDonald’s, doesn’t have time to worry about the impacts of the refinery. “I work so much that I don’t have time to think about refineries or my health,” Herrera said. “But at night, I do notice a strong smell.”

The Phillips 66 refinery in Wilmington is one of the largest industrial polluters in the Los Angeles basin, spewing more than 1,500 tons of smog-forming gases and 60 tons of toxic air contaminants in 2020, according to South Coast Air Quality Management District data.

The cancer risk from air toxics, particularly diesel exhaust, is high in Wilmington, Carson and West Long Beach. And residents need emergency room treatment for asthma attacks more frequently than their neighbors in the rest of Los Angeles County.

Juan Perez fixes his roof as fumes from the Phillips 66 refinery funnel into the air on Figueroa Place in Wilmington. Perez, who has lived there since 1985, says a “strong smell” has tainted the neighborhood for decades. The 90744 ZIP code including Figueroa Place ranks in the top 2% in the Los Angeles basin for cancer risk from air pollution, mainly from diesel exhaust, which also can trigger asthma attacks. “There are a lot of people here with asthma,” Perez said. 
Dulce Altamirano washes dishes after cooking breakfast for her family in Wilmington, including her youngest son, Freddy Herrera, 12. Altamirano, who works at a local nonprofit organization, has lived in the home for 15 years. Herrera said he suffers from headaches and has trouble breathing while playing soccer at school. 
Teresa Herrera sits inside her bedroom, which has been converted into a small housing unit on Figueroa Place in Wilmington. Herrera, who works at McDonald’s, has lived near the Phillips 66 refinery for a decade. She said she works so hard making a living that she doesn’t have time to think about the effects of pollution on her health.
Samuel Ortega (left), who has lived in a trailer in Wilmington for two years, said he was an ironworker for many years. He now collects scrap metal and car parts from junkyards to raise money. Esmeralda Acosta (right) hugs her 8-year-old daughter outside their home in Wilmington. The family lives on Drumm Avenue, which has been plagued with noise, dirt and exhaust from trucks traveling to and from the ports. “The kids go out for maybe half an hour, but they get dirty,” Acosta said. “We have to keep all of the windows closed day and night with all of the noise.”
Jose Ulloa holds inhalers that he uses for asthma emergencies. Ulloa also lives on Wilmington’s Drumm Avenue, a street with heavy truck traffic. He said he developed bronchitis a year ago, and “even with this medicine, the cough doesn’t go away. I have to be inside so I don’t cough so much.”

Industrial Landscapes

Trucks, smokestacks, freight train tracks, freeways, oil wells, ships, port industries, chemical facilities and warehouses dominate the landscape.

In addition to five oil refineries, residents in these communities live among nine rail yards, miles of freeways, several chemical plants, industrial storage tanks, port facilities and the third largest oilfield in the contiguous U.S. 

The Port of Long Beach is the second busiest port in the nation. Cargo containers (top) are transported on rail lines with a backdrop of downtown Long Beach. The region’s two giant ports have struggled during the pandemic with a backlog of cargo that has caused a surge in emissions.The Dominguez Channel (bottom right) slices through the industrial landscape of Wilmington. A foul odor from the channel, linked to a fire at an industrial warehouse, began in the fall of 2021 and has lingered for months, sickening thousands of residents in Carson and parts of Long Beach.
The Valero refinery as seen from Anaheim Street, a main artery that cuts through the industrial landscape of Wilmington.
The Valero oil refinery (left) in Wilmington is next to the Dominguez Channel.  Cargo containers (right) are lined up near Anaheim Street.
Throughout Wilmington, truck repair shops, warehouses and container facilities service the ports and refineries.
A cyclist rides past the Valero refinery in Wilmington on Anaheim Street. The area’s refineries, and their fumes, can be seen from almost every street in town.

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My name is Pablo Unzueta, I'm a full-time journalism student at Long Beach State and documentary photographer. I'm a first generation Chilean-American currently based in Long Beach, and was born and raised...