The city of Commerce, Calif., lies in one of the most industrialized pockets of the country. Located in southeast Los Angeles County, Commerce is sliced up by freeway overpasses and freight rail lines. Diesel trucks carrying goods from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, which together handle about 40 percent of all imports into the U.S., rumble through all parts of the city. Several rail yards, owned by Union Pacific and BNSF, two of the largest freight railroad networks in North America, sit close to homes, parks and businesses. At night, blindingly bright stadium lights along the routes cast much of Commerce in a perpetual murky twilight.
Idling trucks and passing trains are a normal part of life for the more than 12,000 people who live there, 93 percent of whom are Latino. The trucks and trains aren’t just a nuisance: Southeast L.A. air quality is among the worst in the nation, and residents’ cancer risk spikes the closer they live to the rail yards and the ports. The people who live there can’t always smell the fumes, but the air is toxic to breathe.
In the center of the web of rail yards, along one of the city’s busiest streets, a man named mark! Lopez rides his bike most mornings to East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, the nonprofit where he’s executive director. (Lopez spells his first name with a lowercase “m” and an exclamation point.) The East Yard office is a small storefront space, with a large communal table at the front and a few desks separated by partitions. The place is cluttered with office paraphernalia and filled with bilingual chatter. At the back of the room, there’s a large sign with a drawing of a diesel truck crossed out. It says, “NO IDLING.”
Just outside, on a Monday morning in early December, a lumbering diesel truck idled.
Lopez arrived late that morning; there’d been a confusing new drop-off policy at his daughter’s school. He walked in to East Yard wheeling his bike and wearing a helmet. The office was busy preparing for the organization’s annual year-end brunch, meant to fundraise and celebrate the year’s accomplishments. 2017 had brought things worth celebrating for Lopez and East Yard: He was a recipient of the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for his work addressing devastating lead contamination in east and southeast L.A., where a lead-acid battery recycling plant had violated environmental regulations for more than 30 years as state regulators turned a blind eye. Lopez and other community activists all but embarrassed state lawmakers into action.
The massive lead cleanup that’s now underway is the largest such effort in California history. For Lopez, it’s just the beginning. His work — and the work of East Yard and other community groups like it — has also helped force conversations in Sacramento about air pollution, leading to some new air quality regulations last year.
Activists like Lopez are driving a growing national conversation about environmental justice, the idea that communities of all races and incomes should have the same kind of environmental quality and protection. At a time when lead pollution crises have made headlines from Flint, Mich., to the New York City Housing Authority, and coal ash and other forms of toxic waste are plaguing places such as Kentucky and North Carolina, citizen advocates are finding a louder voice — and becoming harder for public officials to ignore. “[The environmental justice movement] has been around for decades, but the movement’s power has been increasing over that entire time,” says Ramya Sivasubramanian, an environmental justice attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The impetus for that growing power, Sivasubramanian says, has been community activists like Lopez. “This is a bottom-up movement, so it’s not relying on a couple of people at the top. It’s about people building power and trying to address the issues they see in their own communities. mark! and his whole family are representative of that.”
Lopez’s crusade against toxic contamination in his community started long before last year. In fact, the story really begins more than a century ago.
Batteries have been around since the 1780s, but in 1859 a French physicist by the name of Gaston Planté came up with a crucial new advancement: the world’s first rechargeable battery. Over time, Planté’s batteries, which used lead plates immersed in sulfuric acid, would lose their ability to hold a charge. But the materials themselves could be recycled and used again and again in new batteries. It was a revelation. But the process of recycling lead-acid batteries can be toxic. If the materials aren’t handled properly, lead, acid and other dangerous chemicals can leach into the ground and infiltrate drinking water.
The lead-acid battery recycling plant in Vernon, Calif., just west of Commerce, opened in 1922, one of just two such plants west of the Rockies. By the 1990s, the plant had been cited numerous times for environmental violations. Those violations continued after the plant was acquired in 2000 by a Georgia-based company called Exide Technologies. In 2015, the violations were extensively detailed by the Los Angeles Times using information acquired by a public records request. State regulators described a pond of toxic sludge, lead dust that rained down on nearby areas, and lead-acid battery waste being stored in leaking trailers, according to the Times. Soil tests around the Exide plant showed levels of lead more than 50 times the level required to be considered hazardous waste.