She Lost Her Breath to Asthma but Found Her Passion in Environmental Justice

Taylor Thomas at East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice office

The common stereotype of environmental activists would tell you that they're all either high-priced lawyers or trust fund hippies. That hasn't been true for decades, if it ever was at all. Our series This Is What Green Looks Like profiles Californian environmental activists from diverse communities and walks of life, bringing you stories of your neighbors campaigning to protect the planet. 


It’s daunting to hear Taylor Thomas recall her first asthma attack. She had just finished playing outside in her West Long Beach neighborhood and felt like she couldn’t catch her breath. “I was 7 years old,” she explains in the past tense before switching to the present. “And I feel like I’m going to die.” She takes a pause before describing how her symptoms only grew worse; she was subsequently diagnosed with asthma and had to use an in-home nebulizer machine to regulate her breathing, joining the 15 percent of Long Beach children who have asthma, which is nearly double the county average, according to the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization. Her symptoms went away when she moved away for a couple of years at 9­­­ years old – but her asthma returned when she moved back to her neighborhood at 11.

In "We the People 2.0," Ashley Hernandez of Stand Up LA discusses the price paid by people, such as Taylor Thomas, who live in refinery-adjacent communities such as Wilmington or Long Beach.

West Long Beach is a largely residential neighborhood whose boundaries are marked by the some of the region’s worst fossil fuel traps: the dirty ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the south; the 710 freeway, where diesel trucks haul goods from the ports, to the east; the 405 freeway to the north; and a hub of oil refineries to the west. Long Beach is a big city that remains segregated: people of color tend to live on the west side and central area, while white people live on the east side. Thomas’ health took a toll growing up on the west — but she didn’t fully make the connection until years later, when she became familiar with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ).

Thomas, now 27, has worked as a research and policy analyst for EYCEJ for the last three years, but first joined the organization as a member in 2012. That was after she started taking the bus to California State University, Long Beach, and started noticing that the other end of her city was markedly different. “There aren’t really trucks going that way and there are no freeways there,” she says. That was around the time she became more interested in racial and social justice. Her friend, who was an organizer at EYCEJ, invited her to a workshop. She says that was when everything clicked. “It gave words to the things that were going on in my community and it opened my eyes to environmental racism.”

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Air quality might be abstract for people who recognize the hazards of climate change and environmental contamination but are removed from their immediate impact. But for Taylor, who’s Black, it’s very much about the air she breathes. The way she sees the greater Los Angeles area is through the intentional policies that segregated the oil industry, keeping it housed in some neighborhoods but absent in others. “There isn’t a rail yard in Bel Air and there isn’t a refinery in Beverly Hills,” says Thomas, who focuses her work in communities that are littered with these industries.

Thomas leads EYCEJ’s policy work by advocating for environmental justice at the local, city, and state level. She’s been working to help stop the Tesoro refinery project; Tesoro is looking to integrate two refinery operations into one – making it the biggest refinery on the West Coast. The move to do so was originally opposed by the City of Carson until June, when Tesoro promised to fork over $45 million to the city. Thomas says the money won’t do enough to mitigate pollution and neighboring Wilmington will not receive any mitigation funding because it is part of the City of Los Angeles.

Since EYCEJ is a member-based organization, Thomas synthesizes the group’s concerns and ideas to inform their actions, including their next steps around the 710 freeway extension and the Exide cleanup. As EYCEJ’s lead on port work, she works with a statewide coalition on freight as well as a local coalition on creating green zones in Long Beach. Overall, her focus is to help transform land use policies.

Among her most visible work is her recent involvement in California’s cap-and-trade bill, a policy that EYCEJ usually doesn’t work on. Since the group is hyperlocal, it didn’t want to step on the toes of other environmental organizations working on the bill. Thomas herself also holds serious reservations about cap-and-trade as a viable policy that will help neighborhoods like the one she grew up in.

Cap-and-trade is often lauded as the ideal solution for climate and the environment — but environmental justice activists point out that it perpetuates environmental inequality. In short, under cap-and-trade, corporations are mandated to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. If they want to exceed that limit, they have to purchase additional pollution allowances. Corporations can also offset their emissions, which is often achieved by planting trees somewhere in the world, bringing no benefit to the communities they pollute.

A recent video of California Governor Jerry Brown browbeating cap-and-trade bill opponents went viral. Brown attacked an alternative policy that he called “an extensive, massive, intrusive regulatory burden,” referring to local air quality agencies that are seeking to place tough restrictions on the amount of greenhouse gasses refineries can emit. In his now-viral video, Brown fails to address the fossil fuel industry’s role in helping craft climate policy in California. Brown signed the cap-and-trade bill in July.

Tesoro refinery in Carson
The Tesoro refinery in Carson is among a hub of oil refineries adjacent to West Long Beach. | Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Some Rights Reserved

The problem with cap-and-trade, according to environmental justice activists like Thomas, is that it ignores the way marginalized communities continue to be uniquely affected by “Big Oil.” While the policy calls for a reduction of greenhouse gases over time, it allows facilities like Tesoro to expand into the foreseeable future. It also allows refineries like the ones operating in West Long Beach to offset their carbon footprint by planting trees somewhere else — with little to no benefit for local residents. The bill Brown was pushing and ultimately signed into law also strips local agencies of some of their power to reign-in the fossil fuel industry on a regional, instead of statewide, level. Cap-and-trade, which remains the moral imperative of white climate advocates, keeps highly polluted zones, often called hot spots, in place.

Ultimately, says Thomas, cap-and-trade fails to address the need for urgent solutions. “We should be thinking about how to close down our refineries and switch to sustainable facilities,” she says, clarifying these are her personal opinions on the matter, not representing EYCEJ as a spokesperson. “Instead, we’re still continuing business as usual and calling it ‘progress.’”

While the nature of politics requires compromise, the concerns of people of color who are most affected by “Big Oil” are undermined most often by environmental policy. Thomas notes that critiques against environmental justice activists come from people with race and class privilege who don’t understand the realities that marginalized communities experience. Plus, it’s not like environmental justice activists are making extreme demands, Thomas says. “It’s not unreasonable to ask for clean air, and it’s not radical to think there shouldn't be a rail yard in our backyard.”

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