Growing up in the Compton/Lynwood area of Los Angeles, near the “diesel death zone” that is the Interstate 710 freeway, Jasmin Vargas is used to breathing the city’s thick smog. But as wildfires continue to blanket vast swaths of California this year, worsening the city’s already polluted air quality, she had to purchase a new inhaler after decades of not using one.
“My whole life I’ve lived in sacrifice zones,” she said, referring to the traffic-congested highways, fossil fuel-generated power plants, landfills, fracking sites, and other polluting infrastructure that have plagued California for decades. Now, Vargas is part of the growing environmental justice movement that has been fighting the mammoth oil and gas industry for years.
The historical legacies of racism, generational wealth and power have determined the conditions people live with. The quality of these conditions, such as health care access and air quality, have a deep impact on people’s physical, mental and social well-being. This explains why the type of pollution in Vargas’ neighborhood tends to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations. Jill Johnston, assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, said that there are differential public health protections put in oil and gas operations depending on their location.
“In working class communities of color in South Los Angeles, for instance, oil and gas operations occur within close proximity of where people live or go to school, but few policy protections are enforced to limit the migration of various chemicals from oil well sites in these communities,” Johnston said. “In contrast when you look at sort of white and wealthier parts of the county, like near Beverly Hills, you do see those oil facilities tend to be completely enclosed. There tends to be noise barriers and a lot more systems in place to try to prevent the release of chemicals or other harmful effects upon the nearby communities.”
California residents — particularly people of color — breathe some of the worst air in the country, with some areas seeing a spike in severe health conditions such as asthma, cancer, and other respiratory illnesses. Since April, studies have found a link between high COVID-19 death rates and elevated levels of air pollution, which means people who live near polluting infrastructure are more likely to die from the novel coronavirus.
Although California Governor Gavin Newsom has sounded the alarm about the dire effects of both the pandemic and the climate crisis, as the state suffers its most destructive fire reason on record, he has been slow to take sweeping action to address the issue, allowing the oil and gas industry to pollute and expand deeper into the state even during a pandemic. Affected environmental activists are not having it.
For 34-year-old Vargas, her work has been focused on holding the fossil fuel industry and politicians accountable at the grassroots level. So when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) unveiled last August that its power plant, the Valley Generating Station, in San Fernando Valley, had been leaking methane — a potent greenhouse gas — for the last three years, infuriated environmental activists like Vargas sprung into action.
Vargas, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, along with environmental justice group Pacoima Beautiful, joined forces to put pressure on the LADWP and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to not only fix the leak, but also shut down the plant. Soon, words like “Shut Down The Plant” or “Kids Deserve Clean Energy” were emblazoned around the plant’s vicinity. They presented resolutions and testimonies to city officials and called the mayor’s office to clean up the leak, create air monitoring devices and ultimately shut down the plant. By November, Los Angeles city officials began exploring ways to finally shutter the natural gas-fired power station.
Nestled between the neighborhoods of Pacoima and Sun Valley, the Valley Generating Station is in close proximity to predominantly low-income to working class Latino communities. While natural gas has been touted as a greener energy and economic source by some California state officials, since it emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned, it still spews out methane and other harmful and carcinogenic chemical compounds into the atmosphere. A growing body of evidence already points to climate and health concerns associated with natural gas facilities. Still, Los Angeles gets about 30% of its electricity from natural gas.
“The fight against fossil fuel infrastructure is the fight for healthy communities, the fight to clean up the air, whether it's through reducing carbon emissions or planting more trees in my community,” said Vargas. “That's part of the solution.”
Meanwhile, as the local fight to shut down the plant charges ahead, more than 100 miles away in Kern County, California’s fracking industry continues to grow. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of extracting oil and gas from the earth by injecting water, sand and a spate of toxic chemicals under high pressure deep into the earth. This contaminates the area’s air, land and drinking water, threatening public health and wildlife.
“There's a large body of literature looking at impacts to pregnant women and babies that live near fracking sites, indicating that they're at higher risk for having preterm babies, along with some work suggesting it could increase your risk of having different types of congenital heart defects,” Johnston said. “We've also seen impacts on respiratory health in some of these communities, so increased numbers of visits to emergency rooms, due to asthma exacerbations or other respiratory health issues.”
At a young age, Juan Flores migrated to Kern County’s city of Delano, the birthplace of the farm workers movement, from Mexico. Growing up in the fields, Flores has noticed the changes to his environment from the smell to the quality of air and water. Kern County is a vast agricultural region with a large low-income immigrant community, which suffers the environmental and health consequences brought by the oil and gas industry such as asthma, cancer, and premature deaths. But a growing 95% of the state’s fracking operations continue in Kern County.
“It’s embarrassing that Gov. Newsom is telling people that he’s tackling climate change, yet you come to the communities of California, and it’s the opposite,” said Flores, community organizer for Center of Race, Poverty, and the Environment, an environmental justice group focused on community organizing, legal representation, and policy advocacy. “We need to start calling politicians out, because every time we allow them to say things like that with no action, we offend a family that has lost someone from environmental catastrophes like fracking or wildfires.”
Flores suffers some health issues of his own. He says he’s only able to breathe through one of his nostrils due to cartilage problems, which physicians tell him is due to environmental factors such as pollution. But he said it’s nothing compared to what his neighbors have gone through such as nosebleeds, asthma, and cancer. Through his advocacy work, Flores has been focused on fighting to reform environmental policies, holding news conferences, talking to public officials, and building movements for a just transition away from fossil fuels.
Despite living in the shadows of polluting infrastructure, activists like Vargas and Flores believe there is power in grassroots movements that continue to hold people such as Gov. Newsom, President Donald Trump — who has overhauled environmental regulations and bolstered support for the fossil fuel industry — and oil and gas executives responsible for their actions.
“People power and movements are real. You have communities here in Kern County that are suffering the negative impacts of the fossil fuel industry, but are, at the same time, very resilient,” Flores said. “Movements are what generate hope, and as long as we have that flame of hope, things are going to change. With a new administration in sight, folks are going to start healing little by little. We’re finally going to be the nation we’re meant to be.”
Top image: The gas-powered Valley Generating Station is seen in the San Fernando Valley at sunset. | David McNew/Getty Images