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Port in a Storm 

Dealing with the polluting ways of world trade

Thursday, Mar 20 2003
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Photos by Ted Soqui

THE MAIN DRAG OF WILMINGTON, CALIFORNIA, looks as if someone transformed a 19th-century Eastern seaport village into a latter-day Tijuana but forgot to finish the job. On one corner is a clapboard house built in the style of the Eastern shore of Delaware, where Phineas Banning, Wilmington's founder, was born in the early 1800s. Down the street, a hand-painted sign on a porticoed stucco building festooned with plastic flowers advertises lanteras — tires — and a music store called Ritmo Latino pumps a salsa beat into the night. The wide street is empty of cars at night, but people cluster at the doors of bars and restaurants, making Wilmington feel more south of the border than South Bay.

In the cavernous municipal building, women's laughter eddies like the Pacific Ocean, which is tamed by massive breakwaters and piers at the Port of Los Angeles just a few blocks away.

One of the laughing women is Maria Ortiz. Ortiz, 61, has salt-and-pepper hair and a faint resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor, if Elizabeth Taylor were Mexican and lived in a housing project. Ortiz is meeting with other mothers who are concerned about the effects that air pollution from the Port of Los Angeles is having on their children. Like a lot of local residents, she believes the port, for all the benefits it brings the region and the country, is a plague on her house. For Ortiz, the metaphor is literal. Her son Fernando was diagnosed with asthma when he was 40 days old. In high school, Fernando was on the football team. He wanted to be a boxer, but doctors told him he had to stop playing sports. Vigorous exercise makes asthma worse. So, he went to work in one of the half-dozen refineries whose smokestacks define the sky in the South Bay.

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As he reached his 20s, Fernando's asthma grew worse. The nights were the hardest. His lungs closed down, he sweated. In desperation, he would throw open the windows of his room. Says his mother: "He would say to me, 'No puedo, no puedo. No puedo esto, no puedo hacer lo otro. [I can't do this, I can't do that.] Why? Because I'm sick.'" When the asthma interfered with his relationship with his girlfriend, his depression became unendurable.

One winter night, Ortiz heard something clatter to the floor in an upstairs bedroom. She remembers seeing her son's feet as she opened the door. Then she saw the gun he had used to shoot himself.

At first glance, Maria Ortiz and the other Wilmington women do not appear to be formidable opponents for the global interests responsible for the pollution causing health problems in their community. They clean other people's houses. They work in factories. Few speak English. They live in a city that is 85 percent Latino and where at least 26 percent of the population is poor. Their children, or their friends' children, are sick with asthma and other diseases, including leukemia, linked to air pollution from cargo ships and diesel trucks at the rapidly growing Port of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, suit-and-tie shipping executives pass through a metal detector on their way to conference rooms decorated with nautical memorabilia. The broad-shouldered building that houses the Port of Los Angeles stands like a monument to a sense of unquestioned rectitude last glimpsed in 1950s America. That appearance is deceptive. The Port of Los Angeles is, arguably, the country's largest portal to the 21st century, if the 21st century is defined by globalization. This is the busiest seaport in the U.S., an entrepôt for more than $100 billion in international trade, mostly from the Pacific Rim and Latin America. The nearby Port of Long Beach is the country's second largest port. The two ports combined handle 45 percent of the imports entering the U.S. With the baseball caps and dish racks on their way to Target and Wal-Mart comes an extraordinary amount of air pollution.

The pollution is from foreign ships that use high-sulfur fuel; heavy-duty, diesel-powered "yard goats" that haul containers onto truck beds; and an estimated 34,000 trucks that arrive at both ports daily. The Port of Los Angeles has become the largest single source of diesel pollution in the L.A. basin. Diesel emissions are known to cause cancer, lung disease, heart disease, spontaneous abortion, birth defects and infant mortality. Diesel accounts for 70 percent of the pollution-caused cancer risk in the region, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Given the port's expansion fever and history of unchecked growth, the air blowing inland from Los Angeles Harbor could get worse before it gets better. For years, port officials have contended that air pollution isn't their responsibility; that it's the terminal operators, the shipping lines, and the Wal-Marts and Targets who need to clean up their operations.

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