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Press-Enterprise reporting details the high cost of dirty air

Press-Enterprise reporting details the high cost of dirty air

Picture of Ryan White
The Press-Enterprise public forum on pollution. PHOTO CREDIT: Ryan White

Southern California’s The Press-Enterprise newspaper recently published an extensively reported, in-depth look at air pollution in the Inland Empire. The bad air may no longer hamper down-the-block views, as reporter David Danelski* explains in his series, but it’s still toxic enough to generate a host of health woes for the region’s residents.

With that bad air now hanging over a recovering economy, elected officials and planners have been saddled with the difficult task of balancing air quality against the needs of the region’s burgeoning cargo industry. Huge warehouse projects are already in the pipeline. Some see a zero-sum game where gains in one mean losses in the other. But others have suggested that’s a false choice and that a more diversified economy would lead to healthier air, which would in turn attract more and better employers. At a public forum sponsored by The Press-Enterprise last week, all but one of some two dozen public speakers sounded off in favor of creating cleaner air with curbs on warehouse growth.

While the Los Angeles basin is justly famous for its smoggy skies, the Inland Empire is bad even by Southern California standards. While the greater L.A. basin exceeded federal ozone standards 111 times in in 2012, Danelski reports, “The most violations were in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, including 80 unhealthful days in Redlands, 47 in Jurupa Valley and 46 in Perris.”

Children and those living closest to freeways are hit the hardest. And the ailments aren’t just limited to asthma and respiratory problems. In an extensive tour of the latest science on the health effects of polluted air, Danelski and his sources link air pollution to learning deficits, miscarriages, autism, obesity, lung damage, cancer, heart disease and other life-shortening diseases.

In one San Bernardino neighborhood next to a busy train-to-truck cargo transfer yard, a state analysis found that diesel emissions “exposed the neighboring community to the highest cancer risk of all the rail yards in the state,” Danelski writes. Half the children examined had an asthma diagnosis or symptoms, while other residents complained of burning eyes and chronic cold-like symptoms.

The region’s brown skies are a combination of unlucky geography (sea breezes send the greater L.A. basin’s pollutants eastward, where they run up against the San Bernardino Mountains) compounded by the huge volumes of cargo traffic that feeds the region’s warehouse economy (the region is a key distribution link between the massive ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the rest of the country).

While the Inland region took a major hit during the Great Recession, the warehouse industry is resurgent. More than a 100 million square feet of warehouse space has been proposed since 2010 in the region, Danelski reports, and one gargantuan project alone, the controversial World Logistics Center, would add 41.6 million square feet of warehouse space in Moreno Valley if approved. Forum moderator and Press-Enterprise editor Nels Jensen repeatedly insisted that last week’s forum was “not a referendum on the World Logistics Center.”

Projections from L.A.’s ports complex, already the largest in the nation, call for 250% growth in cargo container traffic between 2012 and 2035. That growth forecast also calls for an additional 412 million square feet in warehouse space over the same period, according to numbers cited by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

More warehouses mean more trucks, and more trucks means more air pollution. Danelski reported:

Diesel trucks, ships, locomotives and other cargo-handling equipment account for about half the ozone and fine-particle pollution in the Inland region – and 93 percent of the region’s cancer risk from air pollution, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

In its defense, the cargo industry says it has made major investments in reducing diesel emissions from trains and trucks and employing cleaner technology wherever feasible. It’s unclear, however, how much those gains will be offset by the predicted rise in cargo traffic in coming decades.

While that projected growth terrifies some residents, local economic and industry ally John Husing has argued that the growth is a boon for blue-collar jobs and the regional economy. According to Husing, the logistics industry has added 5,000 jobs to the region since 2012 alone. When Husing spoke at last week’s forum, he detailed the region’s lackluster job numbers (unemployment is around 11%, compared to the 8.7% statewide) before settling on his question:

If in the process of increasing the health that comes about from reducing the air quality problems, you at the same time are increasing the number of people who cannot get to jobs, what then is the appropriate policy to deal with poverty in this particular region, where it is soaring?

“You hit the nail on the head, which is that there are tradeoffs, and I think that both sides need an equal hearing,” responded UC Riverside environmental economist Kenneth Baerenklau, an invited speaker at the forum.

But others suggested that pitting more jobs against healthier air is a dubious choice. Speaking during public comments, Riverside resident Denise Harden said she rejected the premise that in order to curb poverty and unemployment residents needed to swallow polluted air. She pointed to Denver, its skyline currently dotted by construction cranes, as an example of a large metro region that’s made huge gains in dispelling its own “brown cloud,” while racking up an unemployment rate below the national average.

“You do not have to trade economic prosperity for clean air and clean water,” Harden said.

The Press-Enterprise made a similar argument itself. In that same Sunday edition that carried Danelski’s front-page “Cost of Dirty Air” feature package, the paper ran an editorial on the Inland Empire’s plight:

Employment that comes at the cost of degraded air quality and tangled traffic will only hinder the region’s chances of attracting the range of industries required for a thriving, diversified economy. A region where quality of life becomes a low-priority afterthought will struggle to lure good businesses and potential workers.

Building a robust, diversified economy and attracting the kind of companies and employees on which it rests will take more than low-wage jobs and unhealthy air, the editorial suggests. Of course near-term sacrifice for long-term goals is rarely politically expedient. But thanks to Danelski’s deep reporting, at the very least residents now have a clearer picture of what’s at stake as they and their elected officials chart the region’s future.

In the next post, I’ll take a closer look at how evolving research is changing what we know about the health effects of air pollution.

* Danelski's reporting was produced in part with a grant from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health Journalism Fund, awarded by The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

 

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