JUICE: A Letter from Bell to CARB

6 Oct 2016

Editor’s Note: Since returning to California in 1988, Bill Kelly has frequently visited Bell and other communities in Southeast Los Angeles County in various professional capacities, including as the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s spokesperson for 12 years. The city of Bell is surrounded by polluting industries unlike where he lives and raised his family. In this letter he wrote about Bell to the California Air Resources Board, Kelly shares what he’s learned over these years about how environmental regulators are perceived, and why they are met with distrust.

Dear CARB:

Bell has a problem.

For decades it’s been surrounded by polluting industries, many now closed.

One of the latest to close was the Exide battery plant in neighboring Vernon. Over the past couple years, people here have found that lead dust from that plant has poisoned the soil in their yards and raised the lead levels in children, threatening to lower their IQs and handicap them for life.

Some here strongly suspected it 15 years ago, but no agency would listen.

Now, it’s clear that it was true all along.

Yet, this is only one instance in a long history of environmental injustices folks here have endured.

The latest insult Bell faces is California’s carbon cap-and-trade program.

The California Air Resources Board and elected officials promised Bell and other polluted communities that there would be “co-benefits” from this program. They said that by requiring power plants and other industries to burn less fossil fuel to cut carbon, it also would reduce other pollutants, like unhealthful nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and particles, which affect health directly. That pollution sends folks here with respiratory issues to the hospital on sunny, but stagnant air days.

Now, it’s evident that the promise of co-benefits was hollow. That’s according to the Air Board’s own data showing that plants nearby—and in communities like Bell up and down the state—have increased emissions since cap-and-trade took effect.

One of the worst examples is the nearby Malburg Generating Station run by the neighboring city of Vernon, an industrial bastion with few residents. Whenever the wind blows from that direction—which it normally does—pollution from that plant blows right through Bell.

Since the Air Board put cap-and-trade into practice in 2013, emissions of carbon dioxide from the plant have gone up, not down. In 2014, the last year for which there is data, they are up 29 percent over where they were in 2011 and that means unhealthful co-pollutants have risen too.

Yes, economic activity has improved since then, but paychecks for most here are slim and lungs don’t know the difference between good and bad economic times.

Going back to the late 1990s, strong sickening odors from a rendering plant in Vernon regularly pervaded the air, particularly on warm summer nights when the air was still.

In the 1980s, Bell residents began breathing particles of dioxin and other contaminants from the Commerce Refuse to Energy Plant, where solid waste has been burned to make power since 1981. When offshore flow sets in during fall and winter the fumes from the incinerator waft over the small and crowded, but well-kept homes here.

Back when those homes were built in the 1940s and 50s, workers toiled at the nearby Firestone and Goodyear tire plants and the steel mill a few miles away. Polluting as they were, they were plants that paid a wage that allowed a single worker to support a family.

Today, those good paying factory jobs are mostly gone, replaced by robotics, out-sourcing, low-paid service jobs, non-unionized construction work, and independent contractors.

The median household income here is $36,496. More than 29 percent of Bell residents live below the poverty line, so no wonder teenagers work to help support their households, often before graduating from high school. Just 45.3 percent of folks here have finished high school and 6.3 percent college.

Consequently, a lot of people in Bell can’t afford health insurance, which is particularly bad for kids with asthma triggered by air pollution. That’s about 1 in 10 of this town’s 36,000 residents, or 3,600. Since more than one-third of Bell’s population lacks health insurance, more than 1,200 people with respiratory disease have no place to turn to but the emergency room on days when the air is thick with fumes from autos and nearby industries.

That’s why environmental justice advocates have been justifiably badgering the Air Resources Board.

They say it’s time to end cap-and-trade and replace it with a cap-and-tax program or direct regulations.

Keep the declining carbon cap, but ditch the trading that allows industries to pump out more pollution as long as they buy offsets, often from cleaning up far from Bell and even beyond California’s borders.

Substitute a tax for auctions and trading and use the money to reduce emissions from sources not covered directly by regulations, including in Bell and surrounding communities.

Some of the money can be used here to help adapt to a hotter climate, like planting trees to shade homes and businesses and helping folks access and pay for badly needed health care services to deal with the injuries from all this pollution.

Creating a cap-and-tax will show that state leaders truly care about the common person here in Bell and other polluted communities, as well as for the health of the economy.

—William J. Kelly

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