Overcoming an Industrial Legacy in L.A.’s Pacoima District
Local environmental justice groups get a boost from the city’s Clean Up Green Up policy, which brings green zoning to three heavily polluted communities.
Amparo Lujan had spotted a bunch of bulky items dumped around her Los Angeles neighborhood that she wanted cleaned up. She picked up the phone and dialed 311—a nonemergency number for city services, and began reciting her copious list of grievances. Sensing the operator was getting overwhelmed, she paused. “Look,” Lujan said, “I’m a community inspector with Pacoima Beautiful, and this is what we do. I have a long list, so get ready.”
The operator got to work filling out a report. She was familiar with the environmental justice organization’s 20 volunteer community inspectors who case the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacoima for piles of discarded tires, grease spills, and other refuse. That’s thanks in part to Clean Up Green Up, a city ordinance that prioritizes health and economic well-being for people living in some of L.A.’s most polluted districts.
For years, several mothers have made a routine of driving to Pacoima’s busiest intersections before dawn and counting the number of trucks rumbling by, all the while collecting air quality samples and taking note of idling trucks. Simultaneously, Pacoima Beautiful’s leaders have long worked to raise awareness of the health risks faced by local residents employed in the area’s numerous industrial businesses and to pressure those businesses to create safer work environments.
In passing Clean Up Green Up in 2016, the city formally recognized the group’s critical role in the community. “Nobody knows the needs of a community better than its own residents,” says Lauren Faber O’Connor, the chief sustainability officer in the L.A. Mayor’s Office, “and engaging these groups ensures that local governments can design policies and programs that meet the needs specific to those communities.”
The ordinance ensures that complaints and violations raised by residents like Lujan are addressed and provides an ombudsman both for the area’s many industrial businesses trying to operate more cleanly and for the community members trying to enforce changes. Formerly, before the city would respond to an issue, Pacoima residents had to file 5 to 10 individual complaints.
It’s a critical change for Pacoima. Surrounded by three freeways and bisected by a railroad, the neighborhood has one of the greatest concentrations of waste-sorting facilities and junk car–processing plants in the city and is short on open space and sidewalks. More than 85 percent of people living in Pacoima are Latino; many are public housing tenants. Residents are woefully accustomed to poor air and water quality and high rates of childhood obesity. The neighborhood has also seen high rates of crime, and in 1994 it ranked as San Fernando Valley’s poorest.
But in the past two decades, its residents have managed to introduce new local park space, shrink the number of drive-by shootings, and decrease air pollution via their efforts in the Don’t Waste LA coalition—all thanks to a community of strong-willed people, mostly women, who wanted to clean up their neighborhood. Five mothers who walked their children to school past piles of trash and through toxic fumes founded Pacoima Beautiful in 1996. They inspired neighbors to come together for community cleanups and tree-planting events. Today the group has grown big enough to serve the entire northeast San Fernando Valley. It remains the region’s sole environmental justice organization, one that its grassroots partners and local representatives see as highly effective.
“Pacoima Beautiful is an essential advocate for a community that is greatly impacted by the sources of pollution in this part of the San Fernando Valley,” says Linda Escalante, a legislative director and environmental expert at NRDC. “They are very good about empowering the community and particularly working with and organizing students and creating a leadership pipeline.” The organization recruits kids from the local middle and high schools to tackle neighborhood cleanups and other public service projects, learn about environmental issues, and prepare for college.
Clean Up Green Up, one of its proudest achievements, is based on a policy the group drafted in partnership with other Los Angeles environmental justice groups—including Communities for a Better Environment, the Coalition for a Safe Environment, and Unión de Vecinos—and with support from NRDC. It’s resulted in “green zones” for environmental justice being established in three notoriously polluted neighborhoods: Pacoima–Sun Valley, Boyle Heights in downtown L.A., and Wilmington, near the harbor.
The ordinance was passed five years after it was originally conceived, and shortly after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took office and announced his sustainability plan. Veronica Padilla-Campos, executive director of Pacoima Beautiful, says this was a positive development in the relationship between the city and grassroots neighborhood groups like hers. “I look to the city to really see groups like our community inspectors as the way to go when understanding and reporting the issues on the ground,” she says. “Oftentimes, agencies or departments don’t have the capacity to send out inspectors or come out and see violations.”
Now, both residents and the business community benefit from coordinated inspections, more protective health standards for new and expanded industrial operations, and stronger local public participation. The initiative also stipulates one citywide policy: Any residential property built within 100 feet from a freeway must install and maintain MERV 13 air filters—which efficiently trap airborne particles—in order to protect the residents.
“Many of these environmental justice communities have very high rates of asthma, particularly in children or in elderly populations, and so air quality was and still is a huge concern,” says Ramya Sivasubramanian, an NRDC senior attorney who works with Pacoima Beautiful. “The ultimate goal is to reduce the actual sources of air pollution, but until then and at a minimum we should make sure that we’re protecting residents and community members from the air pollution that still does exist.”
Pacoima Beautiful community volunteer and grandmother Emily Petito has long suffered from the impacts of this pollution. She lives with asthma and is the third of five generations to call the neighborhood home. Petito patrols the streets in her car, taking photos of trucks parked illegally and piles of trash. She says people come from other areas to dump in her community, which devalues it and brings health hazards.
“My hope is that more people become involved and take pride in the community,” Petito says. “I don’t want to see just politicians talk about the community, because we also have a voice. We get the issues that affect us, and we can help other community members learn about these issues with flyers, mailers, and other methods.”
Across the country, many frontline communities are advocating for environmental justice zoning regulations similar to Clean Up Green Up. “There’s a lot that can be learned and shared across those different experiences, where environmental justice communities are taking these tools and using them to flip the historical script of land use and land use policy generating disproportionate environmental burdens in their neighborhoods,” Sivasubramanian says. “Communities and groups like Pacoima Beautiful are using those same land use policies and tools to instead reduce environmental impacts and generate positive environmental outcomes.”
A recent national review commissioned by NRDC and Chicago partners the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Southeast Environmental Task Force, and Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke presents 40 local policies focused on explicitly addressing environmental injustices, highlighting the efforts of local activists to come up with new ways of tackling issues with land use planning, zoning, and development tools. The success stories laid out in the report, which includes the victory in L.A., are intended to act as a resource to community organizations facing similar environmental injustices and as an inspiration to stay in the fight.
“We see our community as our boss,” Padilla-Campos says. “We make sure that we have a voice in whatever is happening and that we have a seat at the table when decisions are made about our community.”
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