Nancy Gonzales, shown near her home in Wilmington, no longer opens her windows because of the noise, dirt and fumes from passing trucks. Heavy-duty trucks moving to and from port facilities emit diesel exhaust, which is a potent carcinogen, and fine particles that can damage lungs. The Marathon refinery also is just down the block.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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Fighting for justice in California’s polluted places