The Fight for Environmental Justice and the Rise of Citizen Activism
(And the tenacity of a guy named mark! Lopez)
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.
The Exide Technologies plant in Vernon, Calif., was shuttered in 2015 after years of environmental violations. (AP)
Still, the state did almost nothing. It had allowed the plant to operate with an incomplete permit for more than 30 years. Despite dozens of violations, the plant had actually been fined only seven times in two decades. It wasn’t until 2013, when the company’s elevated arsenic emissions gained public attention, that the state began fining Exide heavily for its infractions and tried to shut the plant down, which Exide successfully fought in court. The plant was eventually forced to temporarily halt operations in 2014, when it could not meet new, stricter air quality standards pushed for by East Yard and other community activists. (Reached by email, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control outlined for Governing the actions it has taken to test for and clean up lead contamination since 2013. But the DTSC did not directly respond to questions about violations before that.)
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating Exide for its violations, which eventually led to the plant’s permanent closure. In order to avoid prosecution, Exide admitted to two decades of infractions, agreeing to permanently close and clean up the plant and to remove lead from homes around the property.
All told, the state believes lead from the Exide plant contaminated six southeast L.A. communities around Vernon, including Commerce. Officials say the damage extends up to 1.7 miles away from the plant, affecting up to 10,000 homes (although Lopez says East Yard has tested homes farther out that are still contaminated). And the health risks don’t stop at lead: Air regulators found in 2013 that arsenic emissions from the plant were presenting an elevated cancer risk to 110,000 people, and “chronic hazards” to more than 250,000.
For Lopez, none of these revelations were news. He and his family had contended that Exide was contaminating the community for three generations. His grandmother was involved in efforts to shut the plant down as early as the 1990s.
But the closing of the plant in 2015 was only the beginning of the work. Hundreds of thousands of people are still living on heavily contaminated properties, many unknowingly exposing themselves and their children to toxic levels of lead. Even in trace amounts, lead exposure can cause serious health problems, especially for children, who might experience irreversible cognitive damage.
As the scope of the damage became clear, the cost of the cleanup climbed into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But Exide’s deal with the Department of Justice only required the company to apportion about $14 million for the effort. Someone would have to put up the rest of the money. Lopez and East Yard turned their eyes squarely onto the state of California. “We really view the state as a culprit in this issue. They are a responsible party [for the contamination],” says Lopez. “A big part of [our efforts] focused on the governor, who at that point would say nothing about California’s biggest environmental crisis.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, who took office in 2011, had previously signed legislation meant to increase the DTSC’s enforcement power. But no state money had been allocated for cleanup, and residents continued to live on contaminated properties without any recourse. Lopez found it hypocritical that Brown, a globally recognized leader in environmental protection, hadn’t taken more action in his own home state. “The governor is known internationally when it comes to conversations around climate change,” Lopez says. “But in a place he actually represents as a public official, he was enabling an environmental disaster.” (Brown’s office declined to comment for this story, as did Exide Technologies.)
East Yard started protesting Brown at public events, but the group was having difficulty attracting attention to its cause. That was until a different environmental disaster 30 miles away shined new light on the Exide crisis.
In October 2015, a natural gas leak occurred in the community of Porter Ranch, a wealthy, mostly white enclave in the San Fernando Valley. The leak released harmful methane and ethane into the air, and it inspired a frenzy of action from the state. Residents were relocated. Schools were temporarily shut down. Brown made multiple visits to the community, and in January 2016, he declared a state of emergency until the leak was finally plugged six weeks later.
The difference in response was hard to ignore. No state of emergency was ever declared for the Exide crisis, even though it affected many more people. For Lopez, the root of the disparity was obvious: Porter Ranch was rich and white; the communities around the Exide plant were mostly low-income and Latino. “When you see the disparity in responses like this, that’s environmental racism,” he says. “We were able to craft a message around that, and that framing and community pressure is really what worked.”
Lopez seized the opportunity to speak with local reporters about the imbalance of the state’s response, and some columnists began criticizing the state for its slow-moving testing and cleanup around the Exide site. At the same time, Lopez was advocating in other ways. He became a part of the Exide Advisory Group, meant to give community members a chance to air out their concerns with DTSC as the agency began its testing and cleanup efforts. It was there that Lopez was able to help push the state to expand its testing area from 209 homes to 10,000. He was also regularly in contact with legislators in Sacramento, testifying about the effects of lead contamination and the community’s biggest concerns heading into cleanup. “[Lopez] strikes me as one of the people who was really responsible for making sure the community’s concerns were known,” says Sivasubramanian, who has worked consistently with Lopez on a number of issues over the last four years. “He is playing a leadership role on that advisory group, and then he’s looking out for other strategic opportunities he can take. When I say he has a sharp strategic eye, it’s because of stuff like [calling the state out on its response to Porter Ranch and lack of attention to Exide contamination].”
Eventually, the mounting pressure on Brown appeared to have an effect. In 2016, the governor apportioned $176 million in state funds for the Exide cleanup effort. Further pushing from Lopez, other activists and some legislators eventually resulted in the Lead-Acid Battery Recycling Act of 2016, which is projected to produce an additional $30 million to $50 million a year for cleanup efforts via a car battery fee. “[Lopez] has been to the Capitol to talk to members, to try to get votes for bills, to testify about problems in the community,” says Cristina Garcia, a California state representative who authored the battery bill. “He has come up here to share the stories, the sense of urgency, the sense of justice, how long this fight has been. He’s being a voice for his community, making sure they’re taken care of.”
The Goldman Prize is considered one of the most prestigious environmental awards in the world; it’s been called the “green Nobel.” Winning the award last year, along with the rush of media in the wake of the Exide scandal itself, has helped make Lopez a quasi-celebrity in environmental circles. But people in the smog-choked communities of Los Angeles County already knew his name. Lopez has lived his entire life in unincorporated East L.A., other than short stints away at school. His grandmother, Juana Beatriz Gutierrez, was one of the founding members of the Mothers of East Los Angeles Santa Isabel, an organization which, according to the Los Angeles Times, “almost single-handedly shut down plans to build a prison in [its] neighborhood” before going on to fight -- and win -- a battle against the construction of a toxic waste incinerator nearby. “I grew up in this work,” Lopez says. “I was always around my mom and my grandma, and they were always community-building and fighting. Before I was even a teenager, I was out there knocking on doors, letting people know about [the effects of] lead poisoning.”
Lopez joined East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in 2009, shortly after graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz. (It was in college that he began spelling his first name with a lowercase “m,” he says, “because I’m anti-capitalist.” And why the exclamation point? “Because I’m very enthusiastic about being anti-capitalist.”) He became the executive director of East Yard in 2014.
In person, Lopez is unpretentious and unhurried. Chatting at the East Yard office in shorts and a T-shirt, he seems mildly uncomfortable with the amount of attention he’s gotten since the Goldman Prize. Indeed, after he met with me in December, he sent a follow-up text message to say, “I want to make sure folx don’t look at me as exceptional, or the Exide fight as exceptional. There are a lot of folx in the East Yard movement that are dynamic community leaders fighting on multiple issues affecting our communities collectively.”
"I grew up in this work," says Lopez. "Before I was even a teenager, I was out there knocking on doors, letting people know about [the effects of] lead poisoning." (Goldman Environmental Prize)
The Exide effort in 2016 earned Lopez his Goldman prize, but it’s far from being the only work he and East Yard have done. For years, the group has been pushing to make the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach zero-emissions facilities; last June, the mayors of those two cities signed a pact to slash emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Separately, lawsuits by East Yard and other environmental groups have stopped the construction of a new intermodal facility in Los Angeles. It’s meant to provide a closer place for trucks to offload cargo from the ports, but it abuts residential communities in Long Beach, and the lawsuits say it would pollute the air around people’s homes. In Commerce, lobbying efforts from East Yard pushed the city to pass a “Green Zones” policy to set up “protective zones” around homes, schools, playgrounds and other sensitive areas now suffering from pollution coming off the rail yards.
Almost by definition, environmental justice groups are a thorn in the side of elected leaders. But East Yard has been a valuable partner, says Lauren Faber O’Connor, the chief of sustainability for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “We want to make sure in the mayor’s office that we’re benefiting the communities that need it most, and mark! has a real finger on the pulse of what the communities need. [His work] sets the bar for L.A.,” O’Connor says. “He understands when it’s important to push elected officials and when it’s important to partner and help elected officials with their end goals. You have to find that balance.”
For Lopez, the push for environmental justice isn’t just political. It’s personal. After living in East L.A. almost his entire life, he and his wife are now raising two young daughters there. A few years ago, when his older daughter was 9 months old, she came down with a cough. A physician immediately prescribed an inhaler “because of where we live,” Lopez says.
People ask him all the time why he stays in a place he knows is so polluted. Why not move? “The reality is, if we leave, who’s going to move into my house? It’s going to be someone like me, with my life experience, with a baby who looks like mine,” he says. “It will improve nothing except my individual conditions in the moment. And this fight is not about the moment.”