In Long Beach, Touring a Toxic Neighborhood on Bike

Residents who live near the country’s busiest ports are getting a new lens on the pollution in their backyards, and new tactics to help fight it.

Kids cooling off near the Port of Los Angeles

Credit: Jae C. Hong/AP

Raquel Lopez doesn’t own a bike. But on a September day hot even for Southern California, she mounted a blue beach cruiser on a gritty boulevard in West Long Beach. Lopez and about 50 other riders had turned up for the second annual West Long Beach Bike Toxic Tour, run by East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ). The cyclists fueled up on fruit, doughnuts, and granola bars distributed by volunteers, strapped on helmets, then headed out to view their neighborhood’s most noxious places.

“Before the tour, I didn’t know that most of Long Beach was really polluted,” says Lopez, a freshman at California State University, Long Beach.

In Lopez’s backyard are the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach—the two busiest container ports in the United States and a major gateway for trade with Asia, generating billions of dollars in economic activity each year. These are the shipping hubs that bring our TVs, iPhones, and sneakers to our doorsteps. They also generate an enormous amount of air pollution, with most ships, trucks, and trains going to and from the harbor fueled by diesel. Together the ports form the largest single source of air pollution in Southern California and produce 100 tons of smog a day, according to a recent investigation. Traffic, refineries, and railyards spew even more toxic chemicals into the surrounding neighborhoods, where two million people live.

This year, L.A. and Long Beach once again ranked as the nation’s most ozone-polluted metro area by the annual State of the Air report put out by the American Lung Association. The area has been at the top of the list for nearly the entire 19-year history of the report. People who live near the harbor suffer from higher asthma rates and face a higher risk of developing cancer from air pollution than do people living elsewhere in the region. “Communities near ports are shouldering a lot of pollution from port operations,” says Melissa Lin Perrella, who works on environmental justice from NRDC’s Santa Monica, California, office and partners with the EYCEJ to help raise awareness of the impacts of the industrial pollution on West Long Beach residents. “The health effects of those operations on communities are intolerable.”

Events like the EYCEJ Bike Toxic Tour are designed to educate Long Beach residents and empower them to fight for changes that reduce pollution in their neighborhoods and improve their well-being, says Kevin Shin, cofounder of Walk Bike Long Beach, one sponsor of the tour. “By getting them out on bikes, the events offer a perspective that cannot be had from within the confines of a car,” he notes. “And by walking and biking, people develop a greater appreciation for the impact that toxic infrastructure has on them and their neighbors.”

That morning in Long Beach, the riders, who ranged in age from 8 to 50, began making their way along the concrete banks of the city’s long-neglected Los Angeles River. From there, the fleet pedaled among cars and trucks spewing exhaust to downtown Long Beach.

“It’s very rare for 50 people to ride bikes together where we live, especially people of color,” says EYCEJ community organizer and tour leader Jan Victor Andasan. “A few cars honked in support of us.” Not all the cars were as friendly. A support team from Healthy Active Streets, a bike safety youth group, kept riders secure and comfortable and steered them clear of traffic.

Toxic bike tour participants along the L.A. River
Credit: Whitney Amaya

From the riverbank, Andasan pointed out the toxic facilities that form the backdrop of the region. “The skyline—made up of the cranes from the port, the storage tanks for the oil refinery, and the refinery itself—overshadows the West Long Beach community,” the organizer says. “We know we’re home when we see the smokestacks.”

Throughout the tour, Andasan and other guides spoke about the connection between fossil fuels, cargo and freight traffic, and the impacts on public health, especially for communities of color, who all too often live closest to the sources of pollution. The cyclists crossed over Interstate 710. This main artery in the goods movement industry, traversed by more than 40,000 diesel trucks per day, has also long been lined by residential neighborhoods and busy business districts.

During the ride, a researcher from University of Southern California Environmental Health Centers measured particulate matter in the air, with the cyclists watching a monitor to see where in their neighborhood air pollution numbers spiked. For many, the data were disheartening: No matter where they biked, the levels of air toxins measured above what federal standards consider healthy.

Andasan, who grew up in West Long Beach and has asthma, felt some lung tightness during some parts of the ride. Beyond the industrial facilities they were biking alongside, they also had to share the roads with a steady stream of trucks, none of which are running on zero-emissions technology, Andasan pointed out.

The group made another stop at the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility railyard—part of the network of freight infrastructure that hauls the goods flowing in and out of the ports. The tracks sit next door to Stephens Middle School and adjacent to the Springdale West Apartments, an affordable housing complex. A resident of the apartments along for the bike ride spoke about how she hears the endless whir of idling trains at night and feels her apartment shake when they chug by. (Researchers at California State University, Long Beach are currently studying the impacts of the area’s noise pollution on the hearing, sleep, stress, blood pressure, concentration, and other body functions of local residents and workers.)

But the tour didn’t just focus on the nasty impacts of the ports. The cyclists took a well-deserved water break and walked through rows of tomato plants and lettuces growing in the backyard of an EYCEJ community member. The vegetable garden was part of another initiative by the group, which has teamed up with residents to address the scarcity of healthy, fresh foods at local stores by cultivating plots throughout the neighborhood. Neighbors offer small patches of land to the community for people to grow and harvest produce, and EYCEJ sets them up with handmade raised boxes and small pots. During specified hours, volunteer gardeners water and weed these mini-farms. The fruits and vegetables are then shared among the EYCEJ community; the organization has even offered cooking lessons using the bounty harvested from people’s porches and yards.

Toxic bike tour participants at one of the EYCEJ Long Beach La Cosecha Colectiva garden sites to learn about how members grow their own fresh produce
Credit: Whitney Amaya

In addition to small signs of progress, like these rows of fresh vegetables tucked inside the industrial corridors of West Long Beach, some larger initiatives also promise relief for community members. In 2017, the EYCEJ worked closely with NRDC and local organizations to encourage L.A. and Long Beach mayors to sign a declaration setting ambitious goals to reduce air pollution at the ports by adopting clean technology. The directive demands zero-emission cargo-handling equipment by 2030 and zero-emission trucks by 2035. “We are now working to ensure that those goals become reality by advocating that the right plans, incentives, and policies are in place to phase out older, dirtier equipment for more health-protective options,” says Lin Perrella.

Andasan emphasizes the important role that informed residents—and newly minted cyclists like Lopez—can play in shaping a healthier future for residents of the country’s most ozone-polluted city. “We’re not just revolutionary; we’re trying to build new systems,” Andasan says. “The toxic bike tour highlights the problems—and the solutions—being proposed by the people living in those communities.”

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