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Diesel trucks passing through Van Buren Boulevard and Etiwanda Avenue in Mira Loma.
Diesel trucks pass through Van Buren Boulevard and Etiwanda Avenue in Mira Loma. On Thursday, April 21, the American Lung Association once again ranked San Bernardino and Riverside Counties as the worst for ozone pollution in the nation. | Anthony Victoria

Inland Empire Once Again Ranks As Worst in Nation for Air Quality

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At the east end of 6th Street – next to Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s train tracks and Interstate 215 – one homeowner finds his own sense of resistance to the persisting reality of San Bernardino’s air pollution.

Benjamin Luna says tending to the fruit and vegetable trees in his backyard is his way of taking ownership of the neighborhood.

"It’s like fighting a big giant. I’m doubtful that I’ll be able to convince the largest companies in the world to decrease their cargo. I am just one more person, one more number to them," says Luna, who claims the trucks and trains that shake his home daily contribute to his insomnia, anxiety and breathing problems. "Things will get worse and the noise and air pollution will only continue to increase."

Luna’s disillusionment is common among residents living next to freight and warehouse hubs across the Inland Empire. Freight and warehouse corridors in the area attract thousands of diesel trucks daily that contribute to the nation’s worst ozone and particle pollution.

Benjamin Luna stands holding a cane and pointing toward a fence.
Benjamin Luna is one of many residents impacted by smog pollution created by diesel trucks and trains that pass through his San Bernardino neighborhood hourly. | Anthony Victoria

On Thursday, April 21, the American Lung Association (ALA) released its annual State of the Air Report. Once again San Bernardino and Riverside Counties ranked first and second respectively for the worst ozone pollution in the United States. The two counties also ranked in the top ten for the worst annual particle pollution nationally, according to the report.

Ozone (or smog) pollution forms when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from tailpipes, smokestacks and other sources come into contact with sunlight. Particle pollution refers to a mix of tiny, often invisible solid and liquid airborne particles, which are highly concentrated near busy traffic corridors, industrial areas and in wildfire smoke. According to the ALA, both ozone and particle pollution can take a severe toll on a person’s health causing inflammation, shortness of breath, chest tightness and damage to airways and can lead to asthma, cancer and premature death.

"How bad is air quality in Southern California? It can be summed up in a few words," said Wayne Nastri, executive officer at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). "We have the worst quality in the nation when it comes to ozone."

Black and Brown residents want healthier lifestyles, but they can’t do that because of where they live and that’s mostly next to warehouses and freeways.
Ivette Torres, policy and research advocate with the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice

Dr. Karen Jakpor, an ALA volunteer based in Riverside, is forced to plan around bad air days to alleviate her asthma. She consistently monitors the air quality to avoid stepping outside during moments where particle pollution or smog are at dangerous levels. Exposure to toxic air quality has resulted in many emergency room visits and an early retirement from her career in medicine, Jakpor explained.

"Unfortunately, I’m not the only person affected by this issue," said Jakpor. "I know so many people who have asthma, pulmonary issues and cardiovascular diseases. Anybody I meet says that they personally or someone they know is affected."

What makes the Inland Empire’s air pollution issues even more dire are the disproportionate impacts on Black and Latino communities, says Ivette Torres, a policy and research advocate with the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice. The ALA’s State of the Air report supports Torres’ analysis, pointing out that people of color were 61 percent more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for air quality.

"Black and Brown residents want healthier lifestyles, but they can’t do that because of where they live and that’s mostly next to warehouses and freeways," said Torres. "The experiences of our communities are tied to environmentally racist land use and zoning decisions that mostly benefit the [shipping and logistics] industry."

The warehouse boom in San Bernardino and the Inland Empire has contributed to larger amounts of diesel truck traffic, which has made smog pollution surge. The American Lung Association on Thursday once again ranked San Bernardino and Riverside Counties as the worst for ozone pollution in the nation.
The warehouse boom in the Inland Empire have driven an increase in diesel truck traffic. The area is designated a ‘diesel death zone’ by physicians due to high rates of asthma, cancer and respiratory illnesses associated with ozone and air pollution. | Anthony Victoria

As a resident of Moreno Valley, Torres says that the fight for clean air is "very personal." She dealt with lung congestion issues growing up and eventually was diagnosed with asthma during her early college years.

"When you’re raised in [freight] communities, you believe this is normal," says Torres. "Eventually, it made so much sense as to why I had so much difficulty breathing. I realized it was my living environment and my exposure to smog."

Cindy Santiago, 18, believes companies like Amazon and other shipping giants that own and lease warehouses in the Inland Empire are responsible for transforming her hometown of Perris from an equestrian community into a "sacrifice zone." She described the view of warehouses from her former job at the Subway restaurant on Ramona Expressway and the sights of distribution centers next to homes and schools as "devastating".

"Since the pandemic began, warehouses have only expanded and the air has gone from bad to worse. It’s easy for these companies to keep building, though, because they’re not the ones that have to breathe this air."

The SCAQMD – the agency responsible for improving and regulating air quality in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties – is well aware of the challenges it faces in getting up to date with federal air quality standards for ozone. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in 2020 that California failed to attain the 2008 national standards. Nineteen areas across the state are designated as non-attainment, including the area covered by the SCAQMD.

A diesel truck sits on the yard of a house on the west side of San Bernardino.
A diesel truck sits on the yard of a house on the west side of San Bernardino. The county was given an ‘F’ grade by the American Lung Association for ozone and ranks in the top ten nationally for particle pollution. | Anthony Victoria

Nastri and his team say the agency’s 2022 Air Quality Management Plan will take a comprehensive look at confronting the 2015 ozone standard – the most recent national standard set by the EPA to address ground level ozone. According to their own data, the SCAQMD is on track to meet the 2015 standard in 2037, and has yet to even meet the 1997 standard. Agency officials say a huge barrier to meeting ozone goals is NOx emissions from mobile sources, which are primarily regulated by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) at the state level and by the EPA at the federal level. SCAQMD is required by law to make and enforce regulations to ensure that its region of Southern California is in compliance with state and federal standards.

"The good news is we have some time to work on that," explained Sarah Rees, deputy executive officer at the SCAQMD, about meeting the 2015 federal ozone standard by the 2037 deadline. "The bad news is that we have a massive amount of emission reductions we need to get to in order to meet the standard by that time."

Meeting federal ozone standards will take a "herculean effort," said Nastri; it will necessitate collaborative approaches. The SCAQMD is working with CARB on implementing the Advanced Clean Truck (ACT) rule, which will require manufacturers to sell at least 5 percent zero-emission trucks by 2024. A proposed complimentary rule to the ACT – the Advanced Clean Fleet rule – would transition every medium and heavy-duty truck and bus fleet to zero-emissions by 2045, including large corporate fleets, public fleets and drayage fleets that haul freight between the ports and intermodal facilities.

Last year, the air district moved to approve a warehouse indirect source rule that will require industry to reduce emissions from mobile sources; it is now working to do the same for the ports and rail yards. "It’s not a cure all," said Rees of indirect source rules, "But it’s something we can do in the name of leveraging all authority that we have at our fingertips to be able to reduce emissions."

SCAQMD is also implementing incentive programs and regulations to get truck operators to use natural gas as a "bridge" fuel as they transition from diesel to electric power. Nastri says the switch to natural gas can help bring emissions down in the near term. Environmental justice advocates have criticized this approach, claiming that a shift from one fossil fuel to another contributes to ongoing air pollution and climate impacts, while also delaying the more urgent transition to all-electric.

Environmental justice organizers gaze at a passing BNSF train that is en route to the Colton Crossing.
Environmental justice organizers look at a passing BNSF train en route to the Colton Crossing. Many residents and advocates are calling on agencies like the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) to transition mobile sources of pollution to zero-emissions to improve local air quality. | Anthony Victoria

Environmental justice communities and clean air advocates say mandatory air pollution reduction measures are necessary to push industry toward zero-emissions and end decades of deadly smog in historically marginalized communities. "Too many people have an unfair burden," said Will Barrett, policy advocate for California with the American Lung Association. "We need to see a wholesale shift from combustion technologies to zero-emissions."

Despite the challenges, Lucy Sunga, 33, a local San Bernardino artist who is raising her two children in the city, is hopeful that the Inland Empire will begin to see improvements in air quality within the next decade.

"Because people see themselves as the little person going up against lawyers and big money, it does feel like battling a beast," she said. "But I have a glimmer of hope that things can be different and we can actually breathe cleaner air."

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