Smoke stacks over a blue background with smoke coming out.

Fighting for justice in California’s polluted places

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

California’s notoriously polluted air has been getting cleaner for half a century — but not enough, and not for everyone. Millions of Californians still breathe dangerous smog, fine particles and toxic fumes.

Over four years ago, California passed a controversial law aimed at tackling generations of environmental injustices that have left communities of color vulnerable to the state’s worst pollution. The law, known as AB 617, injects a greater role for community activists and residents of pollution hotspots into the complex and contentious process of cleaning California’s air. But more than $1 billion in approved state funding later, a major question lingers: Is it working?

In Stockton, residents and community groups have tangled with regional clean air regulators over money and plans for their port, which is a major source of dangerous diesel exhaust. In the largely Latino neighborhoods of Wilmington, Carson and West Long Beach in southwestern Los Angeles County, people live in the shadows of oil refineries and the nation’s two busiest ports. They suffer more asthma attacks that send them to emergency rooms and a higher cancer risk than their neighbors.

We examine the law’s flaws and challenges, and explore California neighborhoods where people can’t hold their breath awaiting cleaner air.

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