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Our Column

En español
Port of Entry, Pollution Trap
By Javier Sierra

Our country has an insatiable appetite for imported goods, and its biggest mouth is the Port of Los Angeles, through which the US gobbles up 42 percent of its imports.

The riches entering this port are in stark contrast with the poor air this traffic generates. And one of the biggest victims of this contrast is the neighboring city of Wilmington, whose population is 85 percent Latino- and five times more likely to get cancer than the average American.

Each year, some 1,900 ships arrive in Wilmington — home of the largest port and refinery cluster in the country— spewing thousands of tons of diesel fumes. To this toxic cocktail add the emissions of thousands of trucks, trains and other port equipment that distribute the goods to the rest of the country.

"The industries who are poisoning our air and our children are our neighbors," laments Jesse Marques, founder and executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment. "Wilmington is unique compared to other ports in the nation because its community is located only one block away from the port."

In 2001, the Coalition conducted a health study among residents and found that "more than 40 percent of families had members with asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, lung cancer and other respiratory problems."

According to California’s Air Resources Board, each year, 2,400 people die in the state because of ports and goods movement air pollution.

Wilmington is in the crossfire of a battle for healthy air. In September, a power outage forced the local refineries to burn substances accumulated in their systems because they are not designed to stop completely due to an emergency. The flaring lasted for hours, generated tons of cancer-causing smoke and, according to Marques, temporarily sickened half the residents.

Wilmington is an emblematic example of a national plague called environmental injustice, which we Latinos suffer from in disproportionate numbers. According to the EPA, three out of five Latinos live close to a toxic site, whether it’s a freeway, an incinerator or, as is the case of Wilmington, a refinery or a port. And in the vast majority of instances, these Latinos are unaware of the risks to which they are exposed. That was the case in Wilmington as well, until Marques —who, like his three children, has respiratory problems— said "enough."

"When I found out the port had plans to triple its size I said that’s it," remembers Marques. "And when I found out that no state or federal agency had said anything at all about the risks we face, then I realized the extent of corruption in the government and the industry."

And ever since then, Marques and the Coalition have become a thorn in the side of the polluters.

After the September incident, the Coalition discovered that 90 percent of the Wilmington residents had never been contacted by either the refineries or government agencies about what to do in case of such an emergency.

Marques took the case to the Southern California Air Quality Management District and testified during a public hearing, which resulted in the approval of the most stringent anti-flaring rules in U.S. history.

The passion and drive of Marques and his volunteers have mobilized the city of Wilmington, and their victories in this fight against polluters keep piling up.

Shortly after its inception, the Coalition joined several other groups, including the National Resources Defense Council, in a suit against the port’s expansion, which was settled with the payment by port authorities of $60 million, which was used to improve air quality. In March, the Coalition and its partners obtained an $80-million settlement with British Petroleum in a case of illegal gas emissions.

The work of Marques and his Coalition has just begun, and the group is facing endless challenges. But they are living proof that unity makes might.

"We want to bring our message to all port communities across the country because, although our port is the largest one, our problems are shared by all of them," says Marques.

If we come together to fight injustice, ports of entry don't have to be pollution traps for Latinos.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. For more information about the struggle of the citizens of Wilmington, read about our tv series at

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