Editor’s note: This story is part of “A Public Health Crisis: Systemic Racism in Long Beach,” a series looking at the different ways systemic racism has negative health consequences for Black people and other communities of color.
The smoke blotted out the sun.
The fumes, from an explosion at Carson’s Tosco refinery one Monday afternoon nearly 20 years ago, billowed outward, raining soot on parts of the South Bay. The dark haze, according to news accounts at the time, traveled across Long Beach and into Orange County.
Chris Chavez, a Long Beach teenager at the time, was one of those whose homes were shrouded in artificial night.
Officials at the time offered assurances. No one was hurt, they said, and as long as the smoke remained in the atmosphere, it didn’t pose significant risks.
That’d become a familiar refrain after each fire over the next two decades – of which there were many.
But research has shown the opposite. Pollutants in the atmosphere, multiple studies over the years have found, are indeed a serious risk, particularly for communities closest to their source – such as the neighborhood of Chavez’s youth, less than 3 miles from the Tosco refinery.
Long Beach. Wilmington. Carson. These towns, built on oil, are accustomed to polluted air.
And for activists and experts — like the now-grown Chavez or Monica Argandona, who teaches environmental science policy at Cal State Long Beach — it’s obvious why.
“Look at the vast number of refineries and oil wells,” Argandona said. “One of the largest oil refineries in the country is located in this area, and we keep approving things like that.
“The argument is,” she added, “it’s not going to affect the air quality, that it isn’t going to make it any worse. But we know it’s worse.”
Over the last 20 years, however, refineries throughout the Los Angeles area have taken steps to reduce carbon emissions.
Take, for example, the Tosco refinery. That facility — which has changed hands three times since its explosion, according to state records — has installed several new pieces of technology to limit emissions, said Kenneth Dami, spokesman for current owner Phillips 66. And the company’s not done, he said; it has plans to invest in more emission-reducing measures throughout this year and next.
The refinery has cut flaring by more than 90% since 2008, Dami said, and the site funded a $13 million fence-line monitoring system last year — as required by the region’s air quality watchdog agency — that posts emissions in near-real time online.
More broadly, Dami said, L.A. area refineries are among the most strictly regulated.
“As a result, (refineries) are among the cleanest operating in the world,” Dami said in an email. “We continue to strive to improve our environmental performance to match the expectations of the community.”
While refinery emissions have declined in recent decades, fires at the facilities remain somewhat common.
In 2019, the Phillips 66 facility had two blazes roughly two months apart. And last year, an explosion at Carson’s Marathon Refinery sparked a fire that burned for about five hours.
That’s all to say that air pollution, caused partly but not entirely by refineries, has long been an issue throughout the region.
Long Beach’s western half, for example, has among the worst air pollution in the country, according to state and federal data.
But air pollution from refineries is just one of myriad environmental factors, in Long Beach and elsewhere, contributing to disparate health outcomes among communities, research has shown. Communities that lack open spaces, have fewer healthy food options and are closer to freeways also have worse health compared to the general population.
Those factors, and the poorer health that follows, are concentrated in low-income communities of color, research has shown.
And health experts and activists have a name for that phenomenon:
Chavez knows this phenomenon personally. There were the nearby refineries. But his childhood home was also within a mile of where the 710 and 405 freeways intersect. In his neighborhood, chronic lung issues were the norm, he said.
Chavez grew up with asthma — as did his cousins. The family members who lived closer to the freeways, he said, had more severe cases.
Indeed, the neighborhoods where people of color live — which also have a lower socioeconomic status than the rest of Long Beach — closely align with those most vulnerable to environmental hazards, city officials have found.
That finding came from an assessment Long Beach conducted as part of its forthcoming Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.
“The areas with the greatest numbers of socially vulnerable populations,” city planner Jennifer Ly said during a recent study session on the plan, “overlap significantly with areas with the highest levels of pollution and that are most vulnerable to extreme heat.”
Health experts agree.
“The difference between the ZIP codes is stark,” said Dr. Odrin Castillo, director of community engagement and diversity for Long Beach Memorial’s Family Medicine Program, noted how vast the health gap can be among ZIP codes. In his own ZIP code, which he did not divulge, the life expectancy – 72-to-73 – is eight-to-nine years less than an average American in an average ZIP Code, he said.
But if you live in East Long Beach, the chances of living into your 80s is much better.
“Literally go east on Willow (Street) and your life expectancy shoots up to 82,” Castillo said. “So it’s stark, the difference that you see just from neighborhood to neighborhood — not even city to city.”
Cross-referencing city data on everything from lifespan and health insurance to air pollution and income suggests a cause-and-effect cascade that helps explain why residents west of Redondo Avenue can expect to die a decade sooner than their counterparts farther east.
Greater air pollution, lacking access to healthy food options either because they are too expensive or too far away, and not being insured – what healthcare professionals call the “social determinants of health” – cause or exacerbate underlying medical conditions. Those underlying conditions, in turn, can trim years off a person’s life.
“If you superimpose these things upon the ZIP codes where the life expectancies are lower,” Castillo said, “you actually see almost point-by-point where air pollution is higher, access to healthy food is lower, socioeconomic status is lower.
“If you superimpose it,” he added, “you could not trace out a more perfect — or imperfect, so to speak — map that really highlights how these things affect health care.”
And while numerous initiatives over the years have had some success, to varying degrees, in lessening these environmental factors, health experts and advocates agree that much work remains.
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These days, the biggest threat is the coronavirus.
Ly, the city planner who spoke recently about Long Beach’s climate plan, noted that the map of the city’s vulnerable populations also overlaps with the areas hit hardest by the pandemic.
For John Chen, one of thousands of people of Cambodian descent who call Central Long Beach home, that reality is impossible to ignore.
He has asthma.
And that illness, with him his whole life, makes Chen particularly susceptible to worse outcomes — and possibly death — if he were to catch the coronavirus.
So when his wife lost her sense of smell over the summer, he acted quickly.
The whole family got tested. Each was positive – except, somehow, Chen.
He made his wife and children stay in their own rooms. He cooked for them all and, using gloves, left the meals outside bedroom doors.
“The kids hated me for a few days,” he said, “because they don’t like my cooking. They like Mom’s cooking.”
Chen can joke about it now, since everyone recovered. But those weeks in July, he said, were frightening.
“I couldn’t sleep for almost a month,” Chen said. “I’m not going to lie.”
No one could blame him: The coronavirus has been far deadlier for Long Beach residents who, like Chen, have underlying conditions than those without.
Of the 857 Long Beach residents who have died from coronavirus-related causes so far, all but 22 had underlying health conditions.
The coronavirus, though, has only magnified inequalities that already existed, Long Beach health officials have said.
And those inequalities go beyond where people live and the air they breathe.
People of color, City Health Officer Dr. Anissa Davis said in a recent interview, are also more likely to have jobs where they can’t telecommute: Custodial work. Retail. Restaurants and hospitality.
And, Davis said, they are more likely to rely on public transportation.
The income from those jobs, meanwhile, has not risen as much as the cost of housing, said Health and Human Services Director Kelly Colopy — further limiting the ability of people in those communities to afford a decent place to live. Instead, they are more likely to dwell in crowded housing conditions.
In short, people of color – forced to be around others to work and live — have a higher risk of catching the virus.
Of course, those conditions didn’t develop amid the pandemic.
“If you look at poverty and median income (for communities of color), it’s significantly less than you find overall in Long Beach,” Colopy said, “and so generally, and often, that is from the practices of structural racism in our community.”
For Chavez, the polluted sky from the Tosco explosion, when he was 13, was the most dramatic illustration of how communities like his, in the North Wrigley neighborhood, suffered more from environmental hazards than those on the city’s more affluent, Whiter east side.
But it was far from the only example.
“So certainly,” Chavez said in a recent interview, “environmental racism is a huge concern.”
A body of research on the impact of environmental hazards, decades in the making, has found that toxic waste sites, refineries, freeways and other threats to environmental and public health are disproportionately concentrated in communities of color nationwide.
The reason largely goes back to historic housing discrimination that limited where people of color could live.
And, as Colopy said, ongoing systemic racism in education, employment and elsewhere work to trap people of color in those same neighborhoods.
Long Beach isn’t immune. The city has a lot of working-class residents. A majority of the population is people of color. It has a high rate of renters.
“Just looking at the pure economics of it right now,” said Argandona, the environmental science policy professor, “this is where people end up because they can’t go anywhere else.”
They end up in neighborhoods that are bad for their health. And so, Argandona said, people of color have significantly worse health outcomes.
‘A Public Health Crisis: Systemic Racism in Long Beach’ — also in this series:
Introduction: Why racism is a public health crisis
Part One: The story of housing discrimination in Long Beach and the ways in which its consequences linger today.
Part Two: Activists in Long Beach have called for the city to divert funding for the police to various social programs, with the goal of improving quality of life for communities that have traditionally been overrepresented in the criminal justice system, primarily Black and Latino people. And while many have said police brutality in particular, and violence in general, contribute to a public health crisis for Black people, Long Beach’s police chief says the department has taken strides over the years to build its relationship with the community and to also prevent crime.
Part Three: Where you live often determines how healthy you are and how long you live. That holds true in Long Beach, where racial disparities in health outcomes also align with historically segregated neighborhoods.
Part Four: Black and Latino students still underperform compared to their White peers. The district also remains segregated, according to data, particularly at the lower levels. We examine the challenges Black and Latino students face academically, and the role school segregation plays.
Part Five: The Long Beach Health Department has found that people who live in ZIP codes where most of the city’s African American, Latino and Cambodian populations live are much more likely to have “serious psychological distress” than people living elsewhere in the city. We delve into the reasons for that distress.
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Carrie Jones-Brown, a Black woman, has high blood pressure. For much of her life, she was obese.
And she lives in North Long Beach.
It’s difficult, based on city data, to separate her health from her neighborhood.
Emergency room visits due to hypertension, for example, were highest in Central Long Beach’s 90806 and 90913 ZIP codes, the city’s 2019 Community Health Assessment found. Next were the West Long Beach and North Long Beach ZIP codes of 90810 and 90805, respectively.
And that North Long Beach ZIP code also had a higher percentage of both obese adults and teens – 35% and 47% — than any other ZIP code in the city.
In her neighborhood, Jones-Brown said, fast food is a lot easier to come by than organic produce.
While North Long Beach does have supermarkets — like a Big Saver Foods and two Food 4 Less locations — it lacks the more health-conscious, albeit pricier, options available elsewhere in the city, like Whole Foods or Sprouts.
And its options could shrink further, at least in the short-term.
That’s because Kroger has said that, come April, it will close one of those Food 4 Less locations, along with a Ralphs in East Long Beach, because the Long Beach City Council has required a temporary $4 per hour wage bump for grocery workers to recognize the hazards they face amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In response, the council last month unanimously OK’d an item, introduced by Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, directing officials to create a food security plan, with a particular focus on communities impacted by the store closures.
“To offset the sudden economic shock that may be created — the food shock — by the closure of these grocery stores, we should prepare an equity-informed food security recovery strategy, a food security plan,” Richardson, who represents North Long Beach, said during the February council meeting, “and this should be put in place to prevent further escalation of food insecurity in disproportionately impacted areas.”
But while North Long Beach may be light on grocery stores, it has a surplus of cheaper fast food options. The 90805 ZIP code, in fact, has more fast food drive-thrus – 26 – than any other in the city, according to a 2019 Long Beach analysis.
“It’s very difficult to find fresh food in the neighborhood,” Jones-Brown said. “I cannot just go out and find a fresh salad.”
Officials have worked for years to bring more grocery stores and farmers markets to North Long Beach – which can be challenging, since stores like Whole Foods tend to target wealthier areas — and the pandemic has further accelerated those efforts.
The city announced last month, for example, that it used $3 million from its federal CARES Act allocation to partner with 16 organizations to provide food and nutrition-related services to people having trouble accessing healthy meal options.
Long Beach is also in the process of helping three markets — La Bodega #8 in Central Long Beach, Olives Gourmet Grocer in Belmont Shore and Prince Market & Deli in North Long Beach — expand so they can offer healthy food.
The initiative, also thanks to the CARES Act, provides each market $20,000 to install equipment, like refrigeration and shelving, dedicated to selling healthy food; it also provides those businesses with city support on store layout, marketing and other considerations, Lara Turnbull, manager of Long Beach’s Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention Division, said in a phone interview late last month.
The city, she said, also hopes to fund similar conversions in three other liquor stores, convenience stores or small markets.
The stores are encouraged to select healthy food that’s culturally appropriate for their customers, Turnbull said, to ensure the program achieves its intended goals.
The ideal outcome, Turnbull said, is to expand access to healthy food throughout Long Beach.
That’s why the program is of the kind the city would like to continue offering in the future, Turnbull said – even after the CARES Act money is gone.
“Our goal is to ensure that no matter where you live in Long Beach,” she said, “that you have access to healthy food within a walkable, or relatively short-distance, commute.”
In North Long Beach, though, the program could have an outsize impact, since there’s evidence to suggest the future of healthy food there will rely less on large grocery chains and more on smaller shops and community efforts.
The importance of mom-and-pop stores in filling food gaps in the neighborhood became clear early on in the pandemic, with small business revenue in North Long Beach jumping 39%. Nearly every other neighborhood in the city, meanwhile, saw revenue decline.
During an economic forum last year, Cal State Long Beach economics department Chair Seiji Steimetz shared a theory on that contrast, which he credited to his graduate research assistant, North Long Beach resident Megan Anaya.
“That’s where all the bodegas are,” he said. “That’s where all the small independent grocery operations are.
“And all of you belong to some Facebook group, at some point, that tells you where to buy toilet paper,” Steimetz added, “and they always say: ‘Go to the bodegas.’”
Richardson, for his part, described that data point as an example of where the neighborhood’s focus should be when it comes to closing gaps in access to healthy food.
“Where we’re headed in North Long Beach is honestly — it’s smaller,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s more quality produce, and we’ve been placing a focus on healthy corner stores.”
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For Taylor Thomas, a Black woman born and raised in West Long Beach, the air pollution coming off the nearby 710 Freeway — an artery clogged with trucks carrying freight to and from the nation’s largest port complex, a few miles south — was just another part of life.
She didn’t know until relatively recently that her childhood asthma was linked to broader trends in the city.
“I think, for a lot of us, we come to view our circumstances that we’re in as normalized,” she said in a recent interview, “but they’re not really normal.”
The Los Angeles-Long Beach region, according to the American Lung Association, is among the most polluted metropolitan areas in the country across a range of metrics.
But Thomas didn’t know the connection between that pollution and her own health for much of her life.
It wasn’t until she attended a meeting for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit focused on environmental issues in southeastern Los Angeles County, that she learned about how her surroundings impacted her health.
That was eight years ago.
Thomas is now the group’s co-director, and her mission is to give others the same education she received — and to help remove the burden of environmental threats from the backs of people of color.
“Folks are starting to understand environmental racism a little bit,” she said, “but I think there’s still a lot of gaps in people’s awareness and just how much it plays out in our own city.”
The Port of Long Beach, though, is one agency that’s all too familiar with the consequences of environmental racism.
People who live near the trade hub “are predominantly communities of color,” the port’s director of Environmental Planning, Matt Arms, said in a recent phone interview. “They are communities of lower socioeconomic ability. They are the communities that are most at risk.
“Going up the 710 trade corridor,” he added, “those are the communities that need to be addressed, and they are the communities that are our neighbors.”
Arms said the port’s efforts to limit environmental impacts on local communities date to 2005, when the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners approved the Green Port Policy, largely in response to community pressure. The policy committed the port to investing in emission-reducing technology, supporting sustainability and engaging the public on those issues.
Since then, the Port of Long Beach has deepened its investment in reducing its environmental impacts. The facility has programs dedicated to improving water and soil quality, eliminating truck pollution and adopting new technology in the hopes of becoming the first zero-emissions port.
(The adjacent Port of Los Angeles, the busiest in the nation, is also working on similar and sometimes joint initiatives.)
One initiative that gets less attention but is just as critical to addressing the impact the nation’s second busiest port has on nearby neighborhoods, Arms said, is its Community Grants Program. The program funds community projects to improve air quality, traffic, noise and water quality in and around Long Beach, with a particular focus on the 710 corridor.
“Over a decade or two, we’re putting about $65 million into the exact communities that we’re talking about,” Arms said. “It’s recognizing that these local communities are being impacted, and so it’s targeting projects directly in those communities.”
The port has funded projects to install new air filtration systems in nearby schools, plant 6,000 trees in Long Beach and create a mobile care clinic, run by St. Mary Medical Center, that diagnoses and treats asthma in the communities most impacted by air pollution.
“We really are targeting our Community Grants Program to serve those most vulnerable and those most impacted by port operations,” Arms said. “If you look at that, I think it shows how we really are acknowledging that we need to do something.”
Port of Long Beach officials, though, are also aware there’s a long way to go before the facility can eliminate its impacts on local communities, Arms said.
A major challenge in achieving the port’s goal of zero emissions, for example, is simply that “the technology does not exist,” Arms said.
“We’re making great progress, but currently, there’s not commercially available technology,” he said, “and the financial resources it’s going to take to make this transition are gigantic, so overcoming the technological and financial barriers are a challenge.”
Still, Arms said he has a positive outlook on the port eventually reaching its goal.
While the port has been piloting its own efforts to reduce emissions, he said, officials like Gov. Gavin Newsom — who has issued an executive order requiring all sales of passenger vehicles to be zero-emission by 2035 — are helping quicken the shift to green technology.
“All of that stuff working together will help push zero-emissions technology forward, so I do see progress,” Arms said. “I am optimistic.”
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The Port of Long Beach isn’t the only agency looking to reverse the impacts of environmental racism.
The city itself has long worked toward that end.
But its efforts have been magnified over the last year – and infused with an extra emphasis on equity.
The City Council in August approved the Racial Equity and Reconciliation Initiative, which calls on Long Beach to address systemic racism in multiple ways. Environmentally, it recommends decreasing industrial air pollution in communities of color, equitably increasing access to green jobs and increasing production of healthy, locally sourced food in underserved areas.
The city has already started working on many of those proposals, as evidenced by its health food initiatives.
“There will be a lot of work that we’ll be doing, both internally as a city to really strengthen and really understand our policies and practices and what their impacts have been,” Colopy, the Health and Human Services director, said, “and how do we start to ensure we’re working from a racial equity lens when we are designing for the future.”
While city officials will craft the policies to reduce environmental racism, residents will also have an active role.
That’s where folks like North Long Beach resident Jones-Brown and Central Long Beach resident Chen come in.
Jones-Brown has lost 50 pounds since she joined the Grace Park Community Garden in her neighborhood 10 years ago. And Chen has kept his asthma under control by staying active with his own backyard garden and taking time each day to meditate.
But while individual changes in habits are effective, they are far from a communitywide panacea.
Ultimately, officials and activists have said, institutional problems like environmental racism and its effects on public health can only be solved with systemic change.
And advocacy is a key part of effecting change.
That’s why Thomas and Chavez have taken to activism.
Chavez is now the deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, where he’s advocated for laws requiring smog checks for big rigs and dedicating funds from the state’s cap-and-trade program toward disadvantaged communities that face greater consequences from polluted air.
More recently, Chavez spoke in favor of a Long Beach ballot measure, which voters approved in November, to increase the city’s oil tax to fund racial equity programs.
While Chavez acknowledged the city’s efforts to reduce environmental hazards, he also said it’s not enough.
“Seeing bolder action from the city is going to be important,” he said.
“One of the good discussions going on now,” Chavez added, “is how to really focus in on environmental racism and how to rectify some of the injustices that our communities have faced.”
The Ninth District councilman was recently elected as the Western Region Cities representative for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Richardson recently had a public discussion with his predecessor, Judith Mitchell, and other clean-air officials. In that chat, Richardson said the problems of air quality in disadvantaged communities are intertwined with poverty and systemic racism.
To address those problems, he said, government agencies need to be involved — but activists and community members are also necessary. Activists, after all, are the ones who help expose when and how government initiatives fail, Richardson said.
“In order to have a government that truly serves and a system that truly serves people,” Richardson said, “you have to acknowledge that.
“You need to open the doors of government to allow the community in,” he added. “Dismantle what doesn’t work and put an alternative, more superior path forward.”
Rather than viewing environmental racism as the result of a broken system that just needs some repairs, he said, it’s time to create something new.
Creating a new system, and not fixing a broken one, is the mission. Because the way Richardson sees it, there’s nothing to fix.
“People say the system is broken. No, the system is doing what it’s designed to do,” he said. “It’s designed not with the conditions of (vulnerable) people in mind, so the answer is to design alternative systems.”
In Long Beach, the Racial Equity and Reconciliation Initiative, which Richardson spearheaded, lays the groundwork to design those alternative systems.
But creating those systems will be complex – and expensive. The latter challenge is especially true amid a pandemic that’s drained state and city budgets.
And the scope of the problems is likely too wide for any single city or agency to solve.
That doesn’t mean, however, the city shouldn’t try – or activists shouldn’t keep the pressure on public officials.
For Argandona, that’s a must.
And, the CSULB professor said, she’s optimistic that the increasing attention on environmental justice issues will lead to changes.
“The path we’re on isn’t sustainable,” Argandona said. “It has to break somewhere.”
Otherwise, Long Beach’s ZIP codes will continue dictating how long their residents can expect to live. For many, that status quo is untenable. Particularly those in communities of color.
So despite the challenges ahead, Argandona said, Long Beach must make that break.
For people like Chavez, Chen, Jones-Brown and Thomas.
For every resident forced to bear the burden of environmental racism.
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