Urban Geography: Toxic Tour

Our final trip was a bus tour of places affected by polluted air and economic inequality in west Long Beach.

“Place matters” is a key phrase, explaining the importance of the toxic tour. On this tour, we were shown how where you live in Long Beach can affect your health. It is also an indicator of your social and racial status. The biggest divide pointed out to us was between the east and the west sides of Long Beach. These differences are in terms of green space, affluence and industrial activities. The two biggest causes of pollution for the areas shown on this tour are the freeways and the Port of Long Beach.

Starting from the east side, we observed how the area had parks (including golf courses) and no polluting industries nearby. There was also a mix of businesses, rather than what we would see later at the end of the tour (monotonous auto-related businesses). This can be attributed to the greater affluence of the residents of the east side. As was explained in our readings on environmental justice and economic inequality, those with more money have more resources and access to political power. They can get more parks created and keep the polluting industries away from their area. This can involve moving to the suburbs, which are cleaner, safer and cheaper places to live (in terms of food, taxes, etc.), according to two articles I read for class by Pulido (2000) and Swanstrom et al (2002).

As we entered the downtown and got closer to the west side, we could see one of the causes of pollution: oil drills on islands just off the coast. Near downtown, we saw how close a freeway entrance is to a school. This means pollution from all the cars and a less safe environment for kids because of the heavy traffic. The tour guides mentioned how asthma affects a large portion of the children who live in this area because of the heavy traffic pollution.

The biggest polluter though is the port because of the thousands of trucks and ships that come through there every day, barreling by the downtown area and residences, such as Century Villages at Cabrillo. The drive-through of the port facilities and the stop at Cabrillo were the most persuading parts of the tour for the need for environmental justice and fixing economic inequality.

The sight alone of the hundreds of thousands of shipping containers and the vast wasteland they occupy are enough to make one question the health effects of such a landscape on the surrounding area. Then there are the smells as the tour guides repeatedly warned us about. Some I could identify such as the egg smell of sulfur. The mounds of it were surprising because of their size. They almost looked like small pyramids. Other smells were unfamiliar but very unpleasant. It was no surprise to me that no one wanted to play at the playground. I certainly did not feel very good after just sitting there for a few minutes. I am much more sensitive to smells and bad air then most, but several classmates also expressed such sentiments after we boarded the bus. One even said she had a headache just from sitting out there. I can only imagine how a kid would feel after playing in such conditions.


Thus I am not surprised to find an article in Environmental Health News by Marla Cone stating that west Long Beach near the ports and roadways is called the “diesel death zone.” The article reinforced what the tour guides mentioned about how the port started a clean-truck program, which has helped reduce some pollution but the increasing of port size, facilities, roadways and trucks tends to negate such benefits. The area still has “… hot spots for cancer-causing traffic pollutants … particularly along Interstate 710”.

Then there is the adverse health effects the port workers are exposed to because of their job and the fact that they cannot escape it when they go home since they live in the same polluted conditions. But what was really eye-opening for me in terms of economic injustice was the misclassification and wage theft the port workers experience. I had absolutely no idea this was happening and am very glad that this trip informed me of such injustice. The fact that these workers are getting less than $15 or $10 a week because of the massive deductions in their paycheck is almost unbelievable. I honestly cannot understand how someone could bring home so little and survive in a country like ours with our high cost of living.

Photos by GeoMaster.  Info provided by tour guides.

An article from the Orange County Register by Margot Roosevelt discusses how port workers are taking up the fight for higher wages. The article mentions one port worker who makes $77,000 a year but after deductions only brings home $27,000 and when he complained about this fact was punished with reduced loads to haul, making his paycheck shrink even more. This all comes from being misclassified as independent contractors (not employees with rights to a salary and benefits) and the loss of personally-owned trucks due to the clean-truck program. This meant that workers now had to rent trucks from the companies, costing them even more. So while the port was trying to be more environmentally-friendly, they still continued to hurt their employees via income. This shows the real-world problems that can occur when people try to implement one good thing but get not-so-good results.

The activities and organizations arising to address these issues, such as LAANE and the port workers themselves though shows how the power of the community and working with other health and environmentally conscious groups can and hopefully will help prevent further pollution and maybe even reduce it in the future. One proposed plan the tour guides mentioned was the removal and greening of the Terminal Island Freeway. This would be a major victory for the health of the residents because of the reduction in traffic and pollution and the addition of green space for people to use. This is especially needed in the already park poor west side.

As for the port workers, they are using the legal system to win the right to receive a livable wage and have partially succeeded when they were able to get back hundreds of thousands of dollars after submitting government claims. This shows that the poor and minority groups do have power; they just need to stand together and actively fight for their rights for environmental justice and economic equality.

Note: The majority of this post comes from a paper I wrote for the class dated April 18, 2014.


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