Last weekend, the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism held a series of seminars for journalists selected from around the country. Barry Wallerstein, the Executive Officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Jane Williams, the Executive Director of California Communities Against Toxics, John Froines, from the UCLA Particle Center, and I spoke at a Saturday session. We probably scared them out of breathing.
Barry gave an overview of the air pollution issues in the South Coast basin in California, a four-county region of over 10,000 square miles where 16.5 million people live, including me. We have millions of cars, hundreds of thousands of diesel trucks, and the biggest ports in the country. We also have the worst air quality in the country when you look at ozone and fine particulates (also called PM2.5, referring to their size of 2.5 microns or smaller). In fact, looking at eight-hour ozone exposures, we have over 24% of the population-weighted exposures above the federal standards. And for annual average PM2.5, we have - get this - over 51% of the population-weighted exposures above the federal standards. This muck, over 80 percent of which comes from mobile sources such as cars and trucks, causes over 5,000 premature deaths per year in the South Coast basin - more deaths than are caused each year by homicide in California.
Jane, who has devoted her career to the cause of environmental justice, talked about the Mothers of East L.A. march in 1989 against a local incinerator project (NRDC represented the Mothers and still does) as one of the foundational events of the environmental justice movement. Starting with hazardous waste issues, the "EJ" movement, with a history of female leadership, has expanded its scope of work to include air and water pollution and global warming issues. EJ advocates such as Jane have a bigger presence in the California legislature than in any other state.
John talked about one of the emerging issues in the control of air pollution: ultrafine particles, those 0.1 micron or smaller - the size of viruses. These particles, most of which come from mobile sources, carry metals and organic chemicals and can penetrate into the mitochondria and nuclei in our cells. They have been linked to heart disease and inflammation of the brain. John said that, when you drive up the I-710 from the ports to downtown Los Angeles, you take in 1.5 million ultrafine particles with every breath. How many come back out?
I talked about environmental justice related litigation that NRDC has participated in, from the early days of the Mothers of East L.A. march to today. In fact, much of our diesel-related work has environmental justice implications because the people in Southern California who are suffering the most from diesel pollution are those who live near our ports and port-serving freeways - a population that is largely poor and minority. And we still see situations where a polluting facility that could never be approved in a wealthy, white community is proposed for a poor, minority community - like the Vernon powerplant project.
As part of Barry's talk, he showed the attendees a slide of a joke product from the 50's: L.A. smog in a can. Well, it's out of the can, and all of us here in Southern California know it.