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The fight for clean air in one of America's most polluted cities

The fight for clean air in one of America's most polluted cities


LOS ANGELES (Circa) -- Sarai Davila likes to keep all the windows and doors in her house closed.

"Breanna, close the door!" is something you'll hear Davila tell her 7-year-old daughter every now and then when she gets home from school.

It's not so much the crime rate in her neighborhood of WIlmington in Los Angeles, California, that has her preferring to stay indoors whenever possible. It's the air.

"I almost always keep my daughter inside," says Davila. "We're surrounded by refineries, so the air isn't very clean or pure."

Davila's daughter, Breanna, has asthma.

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Sarai Davila says her daughter Breanna was diagnosed with asthma two years ago.

"I feel it sometimes when I run, and I'm laying down, sometimes I feel like I can't breathe."

Residents in the largely Latino, low-income neighborhood of Wilmington seem to know at least one person with asthma. Three blocks over from Davila's 2-bedroom apartment is Maria Isabel Tamayo.

"I have five kids, and two of them have asthma," Tamayo said.

Home to the third largest oil field in the country, Wilmington is next to two of the busiest ports in the country, sandwiched between two major freeways and surrounded by five oil refineries. Virtually every street has a view of a refinery pumping out steam.

"I'm a 2-minute walk away here—and a 5-minute walk that way—from refineries. I'm surrounded by them," says Davila.

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There are 141 refineries nationwide—some of them helping contributing 20,000 tons of toxic air pollutants every year to make the U.S. one of the largest producers of oil in the world, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration and EarthJustice.

Sometimes I feel like I can't breathe.
Breanna Davila, 7, asthmatic Wilmington resident

But the air in Wilmington is a bit more sour than the rest. On a scale of zero to 100, Wilmington has a pollution burden of 100, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency. One hundred is the worst. This year, the American Lung Association named Los Angeles and Long Beach the cities with the worst ozone pollution in the country. Moreover, asthma and cancer rates in the 9-square-mile neighborhood are among the highest in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the University of Southern California (USC) Children's Health Study from 2016. Experts link this to the co-pollutants refineries pump out, like benzene, a known carcinogen. These co-pollutants have been linked to cases of asthma and cancer by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Spend just a few seconds there, and you'll smell it.

"It smells like fart," says Breanna. The description may sound like a joke coming from a 7-year-old's mouth, but it's a pretty accurate description.

The air in Wilmington is bad, and state officials are aware.

"There are hundreds of communities that are facing really significant pollution burdens, including the Wilmington area," says Veronica Eady. "So we are right now trying to identify where these communities are."

Eady works for the California Environmental Protection Agency. As the Air Resources Board environmental justice liaison, one of her responsibilities is to reduce toxic emissions in communities of color.

"Last summer, there was a bill passed, Assembly Bill 617," Eady said. "That law actually requires a strategic well thought-out plan for emission reduction in the most overburdened communities.”

Under AB 617, air quality monitoring networks must also be installed in high-risk communities.

Sometimes it smells like skunk.
Breanna Davila, 7, asthmatic Wilmington resident

And that's just one thing the third largest producer of oil in the country has done to curb greenhouse gas emissions overall. Recently, the state extended its cap-and-trade program until 2030. The program limits the amount of greenhouse gases industrial companies can emit, but it also lets them buy permits to emit more, and it lets them "offset" excess carbon emissions by doing something like panting trees in another state, something some environmental justice groups are not too happy with.

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There are five oil refineries surrounding the Wilmington neighborhood.

You plant and you do something so you can mitigate the negative impacts from the credits that you just purchased from another company, but they’re not seeing the immediate effects to the community where we’re living right next to these refineries," says Magali Sanchez-Hall who is a member of Communities for a Better Environment. "Which is going to be—if not correctly overseen or regulated—it’s going to be a tragedy for our community."

The oil industry will continue to demonstrate that we want to work with regulators, and we want to work with community members for the shared prosperity and health of all of us.
Kara Siepmann, Western States Petroleum Association

All of the refineries we reached out to declined to comment or didn't respond to our requests, but some deferred to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), which represents some of the oil companies in WIlmington. The WSPA says it supports bills like AB 617 and say that market-based programs like cap-and-trade work in the long run.

"Programs like that work to decrease emissions, in conjunction with innovation that's already going on, so we can look at co-generation projects; we can look at solar farm projects," said Kara Siepmann, director of communications for WSPA.

A 2016 study by USC Dornsife found that greenhouse gas emissions from oil refineries did decrease from 2011 to 2014, but overall, many industry sectors covered under cap-and-trade (i.e. oil and gas production, electricity generation, etc.) reported increases in localized in-state GHG emissions.

Some of that data and bills like AB 617 sounds promising to parents like Sarai Davila, but her major concern is more personal, time-sensitive and not measured by a chart.

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Sarai Davila says she plans to move her family to a neighborhood with cleaner air once she has enough money.

"I’m worried because I don’t want to be part of the people that are sick and have so many ailments because of this, the air pollution. But I guess my daughter already is," said Davila.

"These are valid concerns," says Siepmann. "The oil industry will continue to demonstrate that we want to work with regulators, and we want to work with community members for the shared prosperity and health of all of us.”

The relationship between oil producers and residents of Wilmington and California is a complicated one. To some extent, the community benefits from the industry. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation estimates that the oil and gas industry generated more than $148 billion in direct economic activity in 2015, produced 368,100 jobs, or 1.6 percent of California's employment.

All Sarai knows is that living next to a refinery for 16 years is more than enough for her. Sarai says she's focused on moving her family of four to a less-polluted city one day.

"I think I need to," Davila said. "Sometimes the lack of money forces us to expose ourselves to these conditions."

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