Unlike eyes that can close, our ears cannot choose not to hear, nor can our noses choose not to breathe.
Ever since Tuyen Dinh moved into a Los Angeles River-adjacent home in Elysian Valley ten years ago, he had made a practice of guarding his children from the sinister effects of air pollution stemming from the Metrolink's Central Maintenance Facility (CMF), also known as Taylor Yard, little more than 400 feet away from where we sat one afternoon.
"If I smell any diesel fume coming this way, I have to keep my children inside the house," said Dinh, who has a background in mechanics and understands the possibly harmful effects of diesel engine emitted by these trains, if left unchecked. Noise was also a problem. Trains would pull in, horns would go off at odd hours, waking residents.
Last year, the World Health Organization elevated diesel to a "known carcinogen" level. A 50-year study undertaken by the National Cancer Institute showed that nonsmoking miners heavily exposed to diesel fumes had seven times the normal lung cancer risk of nonsmokers. It could also increase the risk of heart attacks. The EPA has found that diesel fumes aggravate asthma, bronchitis and can cause premature death. Most worrying of all is that its effects are felt even more by children, the elderly, and those that already have pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular conditions.
It was a strange juxtaposition, to see an idyllic neighborhood by the river jostle for space alongside an industrial behemoth such as the CMF. Ducks laze around the pool, as cyclists with determined expressions zip past every so often on the Los Angeles River bike trail. In the meantime, large locomotives trudge on metal rails inching their way toward the maintenance facility, their engines inevitably giving off harmful diesel particulate matter (DPM).
As many as 30 locomotives are being serviced for more than a hour each on weekdays during business hours. The maintenance includes running a Hotel Engine Power (HEP), which generates electricity to the cabins used for air-conditioning, heating and lighting. Running these HEP engines is what causes the most fumes. "They consume an average of 33 gallons [of gas] per hour, when they're running," said Dinh.
Bothered by the excessive emissions coming from the CMF, Dinh came out to a neighborhood council meeting and spoke out. It was the first anyone had ever thought deeply about the issue. Emails and calls to the Southern California Air Quality Control District (AQMD) didn't do much good either, said Dinh. It turns out that Metrolink is regulated on a Federal level, where AQMD has no say.
"Culturally, we had trust," said Ceci Dominguez, who has lived in the neighborhood for over 40 years. "When you went to the doctor, you didn't question him, you drink your medicine. You listen to what the teachers have to say about your children. We now realize that's not the case with our air quality. No one is watching this yard. What about the health of our community? We have now become the caretakers."
Elysian Valley is a tight-knit community. It isn't usual to see generations of families living just a few blocks away from each other. For many, the neighborhood is where they have lived all their lives, and where they plan to stay in the years moving forward.
"My husband was a resident of Chavez Ravine. When Dodger Stadium came, he moved here with his family," said Dominguez. "Four generations of his family have lived here. My son, daughter and now grandson are also here, within blocks of each other."
About half are foreign-born, who came to Los Angeles to find a better life. And their first priority is to make a living, trusting that everyone else is doing their part. It turns out public agencies needed public attention.
"I had once recorded a single engine running for 36 hours," said Grove Pashley, who had moved in at the start of 2010. "Since then, it became apparent that there was no regard to the neighborhood over here and there were no regulations."
It was when Pashley moved in that things came to a head. Seeing the dire situation and the health of the community in the balance, Pashley, Dominguez, Dinh, and innumerable members of the community banded together to push for change, forming the Northeast L.A. Residents for Clean Air Coalition.
The team undertook a highly personalized tactic, walking door-to-door and street-to-street, talking to residents about the severe side effects of diesel pollution. They reached out environmental groups and politicians, in the hopes of being heard.
"The information we gave to our grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles, wasn't easy to explain. Everything, we tried to simplify to suit our neighborhood," said Dominguez, who managed the community engagement portion of their movement. She lost her husband just last year because of a respiratory disease; he was a healthy man with no history of asthma.
In a series of community meetings, attended by officials from Metrolink, South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), and a staggering number of local representatives, the residents of Northeast Los Angeles were finally heard. During community outreach, Dominguez was confronted with a principal who had said asthma in her school was the worst she had ever experienced, and a 90-year-old who may die not from old age, but from scarring in her lungs.
As part of their agreements, Metrolink have cut down on engine operation, reduce train bell ringing by 70 to 80 percent, and as one of the highest priorities, to switch from running HEP engines to using electrical outlets. The pilot "plug-in program" was implemented in April 2012 and does much to decrease the harmful pollution. But Pashley wonders rightly how consistently is the measure followed. With no one to oversee Metrolink, how can one really be sure they are keeping their word?
The coalition's actions have yielded them another positive step forward. Just last week, the AQMD Board unanimously approved to replace up to 20 dirtier Tier 0 diesel locomotives with cleaner Tier 4 locomotives, using $34.66 million from the Carl Moyer Program.
The coalition sees these concessions as short-term gains. In the long-term, it would like to fully implement this "plug-in program," and have Metrolink switch to a Capture Hood Technology. This technology puts the engines under a hood as they are running in the maintenance facility. The hood would then capture all the fumes and incinerate it. It also wants to see an oversight committee that would actually have power over the Federally-regulated Metrolink.
In an ideal world, the CMF would not even exist in their neighborhood, especially now that is opening more and more to recreational users by virtue of the President declaring the river as a National Recreational Trail. The Metro is also proposing new developments in the area, which include housing for low-income and senior citizens and a high school.
"The bottom line is that the CMF doesn't belong there. If you're going to insist that it goes there, then you'd have to modernize that thing like you won't believe, so that there's zero air pollution there," said Pashley.
The coalition's biggest demand -- one that until now still has not been met -- is to undertake a Health Risk Assessment, which would quantify if any of the Metrolink's measures really are having a positive effect on air quality. So far, no signs of undertaking such a test has come from the Metrolink, who argues that it is difficult to isolate the results because the community is also located so close to the 5 Freeway. "I love that argument. That argument tells me all the more reason that shouldn't be there," said Pashley. "We're already dealing with the freeway."
Top: Tuyen Dinh, Grove Pashley and Ceci Dominguez. Photo by Carren Jao.