L.A. Environmentalists Target Corporate Pollution

Activists join with labor unions and entrepreneurs to clean up their communities and create jobs. Robin Urevich reports from Los Angeles on the "green technology" movement.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Activists in low-income communities of color sometimes end up fighting David and Goliath battles with big money polluters. But these activists are joining with labor unions and entrepreneurs to clean up their communities and create jobs.

Robin Urevich reports from Los Angeles on the green technology movement.

ROBIN UREVICH: On this day, Jesus Torres, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, is taking a few students on what he calls a toxic tour. He shows them around the mostly Latino neighborhood where he grew up near the L.A. harbor. Oil refinery towers spewing smoke and flames are as much a part of the landscape here as trees.

Mr. JESUS TORRES (Community Organizer, Communities for a Better Environment): We're talking about explosions, like, where people had to be evacuated. Schools where kids, at certain parts of the day, have to go inside because it's too polluted, the air's too polluted for them to play outside.

UREVICH: For nearly 15 years, CBE lawyers and activists have battled what they term environmental racism. They've argued that Latino and African-American communities are saddled with more than their fair share of toxic contamination.

Mr. TORRES: And so you'll get to see how close people live to some of these facilities. And literally like someone's backyard is, you know, a Conoco Phillips refinery. And we've had, you know, pretty good victories in the past just dealing with a lot of the direct issues that people are going with on a regular basis.

UREVICH: CBE has forced oil refineries to limit emissions and convinced regulators to allow more citizen participation. But the activists seem caught in a real life version of the arcade game Whack-a-Mole. No sooner do they solve one problem than three more spring up.

CBE recently defeated a proposal to build a power plant. Now another is in the works less than a mile from Huntington Park High School.

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UREVICH: Huntington Park High senior Ryan Perez(ph) is part of CBE's youth group.

Mr. RYAN PEREZ (Senior, Huntington Park High School): This area is made for physical activity and for people to be improving their health and stamina so they can go out and compete, yet they're being exposed to emissions from diesel trucks, from power plants, from all the industry right there.

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UREVICH: Plant opponents, including Ryan, recently protested and testified against new rules that would make it easier to build a plant. The regional air pollution control board voted against the activists who say they'll continue to fight it. But CBE staffers say they've also began advocating the use of green technologies so that in the future Southern California won't need additional power plants.

Oakland activist Van Jones says environment justice groups around the country are following suit.

Mr. VAN JONES (Executive Director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights): We used to spend most of our time doing, was trying to limit the bad, trying to regulate the problems. What's happening now is more and more people are saying let's invest in the solutions rather than just, you know, trying to regulate the polluting factory. Let's start building ground-up factories that don't pollute at all.

UREVICH: Jones is a national board member of the Apollo Alliance. Two years ago, Apollo began urging government to invest in clean technology like solar and wind, and create green jobs for those who need them. Now New York City has begun a program to green city buildings by making them more energy efficient. Los Angeles and Oakland are considering similar initiatives. Because, says Jones…

Mr. JONES: Now we're, you know, post-Katrina, Al Gore's movie has come out, the price of oil is unstable. Suddenly people are looking around and saying, gee, can we can off of this pollution-based, petroleum-based economy?

Ms. SUSAN MUNVES (Administration, Energy and Green Program, Santa Monica): Is 25 kilowatts of photovoltaic panels, which are all over the façade, the front of the building…

UREVICH: Susan Munves is the Energy and Green programs administrator for the city of Santa Monica. She stands in front of a city-subsidized apartment building that generates almost all of its own energy. But Munves says it's not easy going green.

Ms. MUNVES: Everything that makes our factories run and makes our homes run, makes our cars run is based on fossil fuels. Nothing happens without oil.

UREVICH: Santa Monica has been rated the fifth greenest city in the country by an environmental group. And Munves says that Santa Monica wants to be even more efficient. But she says her city and others face obstacles, including the higher short-term cost of alternative energy and a power grid that can still only accommodate a limited amount of energy generated by it's customers.

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UREVICH: So at least in the near future, environmental justice groups will likely keep fighting their battles the old fashioned way. But now they may be seeing a little more light at the end of the tunnel.

For NPR News, I'm Robin Urevich in Los Angeles.

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