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Getting on the Train of Environmental Justice

By Oscar de la Torre

In elected leadership, much like parenting, we make decisions that define our character. When making difficult decisions responsible parents and leaders weigh all options honestly and assess the long-term impact of their actions. An important principle that should guide our decisions is our innate motivation to protect our children and our community from foreseeable harm.

Elected officials must understand that when Santa Monica residents oppose the placement of a maintenance yard it is because they already live in a polluted environment. Residents have claimed that if the maintenance yard is placed at the Verizon site it will create a “toxic triangle.”

Public comments made at City Council meeting identified the polluting facilities that make up the toxic triangle as the I-10 freeway that uprooted thousands of families when it cut through the Pico Neighborhood, a recycling center run by Allen Company, the City-owned waste transfer station and Southern Ca. Disposal which is a dump that is used by several cities in LA County.

Residents claim that all of these facilities have been spewing carcinogens and burdening families with noise pollution for years without any acknowledgement or assessment by our elected officials. Recent studies have shown higher incidents of asthma and other pulmonary related illnesses caused by particles from cars on the freeways, city dumps and recycling centers. And now they want to add insult to injury by placing a maintenance yard without adequate public process or an honest assessment of current pollution levels.

Our elected leaders must put the health and safety of our resident’s first. The main quarrel lies in the failure of our elected leaders to assess and understand the real impact of a maintenance yard in a residential community that has already exceeded it’s environmental carrying capacity.

I support bringing light rail to Santa Monica, but to propose another polluting entity without first studying the current levels of noise and air pollution at peak hours is irresponsible and amounts to environmental injustice. Santa Monica residents deserve a public discussion on cumulative impact, a thorough analysis of the forty sites reviewed and a tour of existing maintenance yards.

Elected leaders and residents alike have a duty to demand the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making and this includes reviewing the criteria developed by Expo Authority staff to determine the feasibility of the forty sites reviewed for the placement of the maintenance yard.

How can one ignore local demographics and studies showing that historically the residents of Santa Monica’s Pico Neighborhood have shouldered the burden for the region’s mass transit needs? Many residents and businesses experience the benefits of the I-10 freeway but the burden of pollution that emanates from the freeway is exclusive to one community.

Put another way, the wealthier and more powerful will receive disproportionate benefits from the “subway to the sea” and the less wealthy will receive disproportionate burdens. This paradigm must be challenged if we are to rectify the legacy of environmental injustice that has stained Santa Monica’s image of progressive policy making.

As I put my son to sleep, the last thing he hears after I kiss him good night is the loud roar of the freeway and consistently I pray that his lungs will not succumb to the air contaminants that are our daily reality. And as one City staffer working in Building and Safety stated, “You chose to live there – you can choose to move.”

But if I had enough money I wouldn’t be faced with contemplating this decision. And there rests the class issue that is also part of our claim of environmental injustice. Those with less wealth and privilege, political influence and in our case political representation must shoulder the burden for society’s convenience and access to mass transit.

The goal of policy makers should be to encourage cleaner modes of transportation while addressing the historic injustice that these decisions create. We demand that governmental protection extend beyond historic landmarks and trees to the residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In a City where we pride ourselves as leaders in protecting our natural environment, we must not forget the human element.

As part of a public process that leans towards accountable, transparent and responsive government, we ask that our Councilmember’s direct City staff to conduct a cumulative impact study that assesses the current levels of noise and air pollution from the freeway and the three waste facilities located in the area. Santa Monica residents need to attend the SM City Council meeting on Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 5pm to urge our elected leaders to stand up to powerful interests and not compromise the environmental protections our families deserve.

Oscar de la Torre is a member of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District and executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center. The opinions expressed in this piece are his personal take on the issue.

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