Air quality, particularly smog, has substantially improved in the Los Angeles region after decades of regulations cleaning up cars, trucks, industries and consumer products. In recent years, emissions have declined around the two ports as new technologies have been put in place by port officials, including a clean-truck program that has replaced many old diesel trucks with newer models equipped with particle filters.
Yet severe levels of pollution remain. Hot spots for cancer-causing traffic pollutants have been found throughout the harbor area, particularly along Interstate 710, which stretches from Long Beach to Alhambra east of Los Angeles. Ozone, the main ingredient of smog, is still the worst in the country in the Los Angeles basin. Fine particles are among the worst, too.
“The presence of industrial facilities in or near residential areas is the sad truth here in Southern California,” said Chris Cannon, director of environmental management at the Port of Los Angeles.
The latest controversy in the region centers on whether to build a 153-acre railyard across the street from the playground of the Hudson K-8 School, which was built in 1967. Burlington Northern Santa Fe has proposed the project on the port-owned land, currently used for warehousing and transfer of cargo, to move goods in and out of the ports more efficiently.
The railyard proposal would bring more truck traffic to the west Long Beach neighborhood, but it is designed to reduce the volume of trucks traveling along the 24 miles of freeway from the ports to the railroad’s yard in East Los Angeles. A draft environmental impact report was released last month. Cargo containers from the port would be unloaded from trucks and put onto trains at the proposed railyard, bringing an estimated 1.5 million more truck trips to the Hudson School neighborhood yearly. The railroad has said it would use alternative-fuel locomotives and electric-powered cranes and other equipment, and would allow only low-emission trucks. But community activists are worried about increased emissions and health threats.
Suzanne Arnold, Hudson’s former nurse – she was laid off last year as the schools faced severe budget cuts – told Birnbaum that about 250 out of the 1,100 students have asthma. Air quality officials gave the school monitors to test the air, and filters to put in classrooms.
Arnold said the children stay inside when teachers do a “sniff” test and smell exhaust or chemicals in the air.
Birnbaum frowned. “There can be lots of emissions you never smell,” she warned. Included are volatile organic compounds like trichloroethylene and benzene that are known carcinogens.
But when Hudson’s principal, Cathleen Imbroane, told her that the children and teachers are healthier since air filters were put in classrooms, Birnbaum perked up at the promising news. The principal said everyone comments on how they breathe easier at school – although they return home and revert back to the same poor air. Birnbaum saw it as a potential way to improve health, and suggested that it would be valuable for scientists to compare children’s pulmonary health with and without the filters.
The principal took Birnbaum out to the school playground. “Welcome to the Terminal Island parking lot,” Imbroane said. The line of trucks idling on the Terminal Island Freeway next to the playground was worse than usual that day, she said. Fumes wafted up, and Birnbaum and the others felt their lungs take in the exhaust.
From her office in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, Birnbaum is well-aware of the health effects of traffic exhaust after reviewing scientific evidence. But she visits communities such as this several times a year to see how real people are struggling.
“I need to see this,” Birnbaum said. “It helps me understand the impacts. There really is a lack of understanding how pollution is local. A lot of these issues are right in our back yards.”