Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris joins lawsuit challenging new development in "diesel death zone"
By Chris Levister –
When California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris stepped into this tiny community known as the “diesel death zone” the bold action highlighted her aggressive stance on environmental justice issues by the state’s highest law enforcement agency.
Harris joined a lawsuit brought by the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice against the County of Riverside and project developers challenging approval of an industrial project next to Mira Loma Village, a low income mostly Hispanic community that already suffers from some of the worst diesel pollution in the country.
A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Sept. 16.
“We're giving a voice to a community that has gone without a voice for too long,” Harris said.
“This is not about stopping the project. It is simply about mitigating the harm to the people who will be impacted.”
The Mira Loma project, in Riverside County, calls for 24 warehouse and industrial buildings totaling 1.4-million square feet near the 60 Freeway and Etiwanda Avenue in the city of Jurupa Valley.
It would result in an estimated 1,500 additional daily diesel truck trips in the vicinity of 101 modest stucco homes according to environmental impact documents.
A USC study of 12 Central and Southern California communities found that Mira Loma children had the slowest lung growth and weakest lung capacity compared with similar areas — a handicap likely to affect them for life.
Harris spent a half hour at Mira Loma Village -- viewing the project site, which wraps around the home tract, and talking with residents about their concerns.
“I heard and saw firsthand what is happening in that community,” said Harris. “I saw and collected on my own fingers the debris, the dust and the filth. I could breathe it, I could taste it, I could feel it in my eyes,” she said during a round table discussion following the field visit.
Penny Newman, the executive director for the community group said the attorney general's involvement has been incredibly meaningful for residents who have been battling with the county for the past nine years to stop the project.
Residents blame the truck traffic and resulting pollution for a variety of health issues including asthma, brain tumors and heart disease.
“We've always felt like an ant trying to get a rogue elephant under control and now we have someone with a whip and some training to help get it under control,” she said.
During the roundtable four residents recounted years of unchecked densely polluted conditions believed to contribute to illness and premature death in their community.
Jacinto Muñoz spoke tearfully of his 14-year-old daughter Darla Marie who died of lung cancer on June 9, 1991 before she could celebrate her 15th birthday.
“Instead of planning for her 15th birthday, I was planning her funeral,” Muñoz said, wearing a tee-shirt bearing the slogan “Take Back the Power”.
Stella Portillo, who has lived in the community since 1969, said “we got headaches and nose bleeds. The smoke clouded our vision and the fumes filled our lungs.”
“Polluting smoke is so dense and pervasive that children can’t play in their own backyards,” said Deborah Terkelson. “Yet we’re told consistently, there is no direct correlation or causation that exists between air pollution and our health problems.”
“We need your help,” Portillo told Harris. And Harris vowed her office would provide that help. “Let's comply with the law and move ahead with the project,” she said. “Until then, we'll be involved in litigation.”
County officials have approved a series of warehouse projects in the Mira Loma area since the 1990s, according to Harris' office. There are now about 90 mega-warehouse complexes in the area drawing over 800 diesel-belching trucks an hour traveling to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
As a result the community's diesel pollution levels are much higher than California and federal air quality standards.
“To have the full weight and legal resources of the state of California behind us has lifted the spirits of a community that had come to think no one cared,” said Newman. “These families are suffocating.
Yet, the county approved new facilities at the fence lines of their homes, even though its own guidelines call for a 1,000-foot buffer zone.”
Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, whose district includes Mira Loma, said the approval of the project “represents a compromise that creates new jobs in our county and protects its citizens by placing the strictest conditions on diesel emissions anywhere in the state, and probably the nation.”
Those conditions include a requirement that no trucks manufactured before 2007 be allowed to enter the facility. “That means every truck that enters it will have particulate traps on it, and particulates are what cause cancer,” said John Field, Tavaglione's chief of staff.
“Each truck may have lower emission levels,” Newman responded, “But when you add 1,500 trucks to the area it adds up to an even greater bowl of pollution.”
News of the attorney general’s bold environmental justice stance propelled the issue onto the national stage ironically on the day President Barack Obama laid out before Congress his plan to kick-start job growth.
Environment and energy media sites were abuzz with highlights from Harris’ Inland Empire visit. A Japanese energy policy website labeled the California lawsuit, “job killing”.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who asked that his name be withheld because he has not seen the lawsuit, called the pollution fight “a classic confrontation between expanding development and kick starting job growth vs. reigning in development that disproportionately increases morbidity and mortality in economically depressed communities of color, low-income and tribal communities.”
“This not about saying no to development,” said Harris. “It’s about saying yes to better development. We all want job creation and healthy communities. We can have both.”
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