Air Angels

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
John Miller
The crusading doctor

Kaiser Permanente emergency-room physician John Miller sees the illness caused by pollution every day, and wants it to stop. “The big picture shows us people are sick and are dying because of air pollution,” says Miller during an interview in his small house at the base of the San Pedro Hills.

Sipping coffee on a sunny morning and looking out at the shining ocean, Miller piles a stack of documents onto the countertop of his combined kitchen and living-room space. He picks up a copy of a “full arrest” sticker for a 14-year-old patient whom paramedics brought to his emergency room. “This is a kid who stopped breathing. People do die from asthma,” he exclaims. “They do die.

“I’m the one who has to walk down the hall and tell their relatives they didn’t make it. That’s a heavy job.”

Next he displays an X-ray of the lungs of a 55-year-old woman who came into the emergency room complaining of chest pain. She had never smoked, but Miller points to a cancerous mass the X-ray shows on her lung that had spread.

“This lady had stage-four disease,” says Miller, voice rising. “This is a dead woman’s X-ray in 2003. She’s dead now.” He then pulls from the stack a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, published in 2002, showing that the risk of lung cancer climbs as people are exposed to higher levels of fine particles.

Miller’s emergency-room experience — from helping the asthmatic children gasping for air brought to him by frantic parents on “white-knuckled rides” to delivering the bad news to middle-aged patients who have never smoked that they have lung cancer — has turned the plainspoken doctor into a clean-air crusader. He has pushed for cleanup of the growing cloud of diesel pollution hovering over Southern California as an activist with the Coalition for a Safe Environment and the San Pedro Homeowners Association and on port task forces.

“If I can address the causes of illness,” Miller says, “I will have done a lot more than I could for an individual patient.”

Christine Kehoe:
Force cities to plan

State Senator Christine Kehoe represents downtown San Diego and uses her knowledge of city-planning issues for aesthetic and environmental ends. As a member of the San Diego City Council and state Coastal Commission, she made sure the city received its fair share of state funding for wildlife and water-resource protection. She beautified the city by cleaning up Balboa Park and redeveloping the formerly slummy and unhealthy City Heights. Elaborating on why good city planning makes for better air, she says, “It takes into account traffic usage and density relief, by making mass transit more practical and increasing density along transit lines.” One bill, SB 44, currently in the appropriations committee, would require cities and counties to include strategies to improve air quality in their general plan.

Kehoe also authored SB 757, “the oil-conservation, efficiency, and alternative-fuels act,” which seeks to curb gasoline consumption by requiring state policies that reduce the growth of petroleum demand, upgrade refineries, and find uses for alternative fuels. “What I was thinking of when I authored the bill was the height of the energy crisis,” Kehoe explains, “when Californians voluntarily reduced their electricity usage by 20 percent.” The oil companies “are enjoying record profits, while we, the California drivers, are paying through the nose.”

Donald Shoup:
Tear up the parking lots

Off-street parking, the kind found near strip malls and concert halls, is in UCLA urban-planning professor Donald Shoup’s words “the biggest barrier to the density of cities and the biggest single contributor to sprawl.” L.A. already contains more parking spaces per acre than any major city on Earth; nationally, three parking spaces exist for each of the 230 million vehicles in the U.S., amounting to an area the size of Connecticut. In his just-published 576-page tome, titled The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup attacks the California parking-allocation laws, which mandate that no buildings can be constructed without the prior securing of off-street parking spaces, often in a ratio disproportionate to the number of residents or clients serviced. Needless to say, the explosion and availability of free parking worsens air quality by encouraging people to drive. Drivers inevitably get caught in the universal search for parking once they reach their destination. UCLA, which has more parking spaces for undergraduates than UC Berkeley has for all staff, students and visitors, charges $57 a month. Each space has an original value of $31,500. Shoup helped devise California’s parking cash-out law, which gives employers the option to replace free parking with a cash payment if an employee relinquishes a free space and finds alternative means of travel. Though the 1992 bill is ingenious, California has not publicized it to the degree necessary for wide-scale use: “The state simply hasn’t done anything to enforce it.” Free parking is like an invisible subsidy most low-income public-transport users don’t know they are missing out on. Enforcing parking cash-outs helps counter that class disparity: “People who walk to work don’t get anything, while people who drive get a subsidy; if parking cash-outs were implemented, everyone would get the same subsidy.”

A dehumanizing aspect of California’s obsession with parking places shows up at Disney Hall: “We spent $110 million on a parking structure there seven years before the hall was built; people never set foot on the sidewalk.” The L.A. Convention Center is even more nightmarishly planned: Its minimum parking requirement is 50 times the maximum requirement at San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

Fran Pavley:
Think hydrogen

Assemblywoman Fran Pavley’s 41st Assembly District stretches from Oxnard to Santa Monica along the coastal range. She’s one of the reasons for California’s reputation as an air-quality trailblazer. She has authored a bill that inspired the recent decision by the California Air Resources Board to establish the world’s most stringent auto-emissions-reduction rules. While some organizations have pushed for lesser scrutiny of California’s role in greenhouse-gas emissions, arguing that global warming is a universal phenomenon, Pavley wants California to be a leader. She cites plenty of ways in which greenhouse gases harm California: snow melt in the High Sierra, the nonsustainability of water, warmer temperatures, particularly in the summer, worsened air pollution (since smog corresponds to heat), loss of property value because of rising sea levels, and saltwater intrusion into our water resources. “California has a history of taking the lead on environmental issues; our Clean Air Act is more stringent than federal regulations,” says Pavley. “Nine other states have indicated to us they’ll adopt California’s regulations as regards reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.” Canada, our model neighbor to the north, has in one instance imitated the U.S. (or a part of it), signing deals with auto manufacturers to emulate California standards more closely.

Pavley introduced the Clean Air, Clean Water and Coastal Protection Act (AB 740), currently in committee, a $2.9 billion general bond for air- and water-quality protection. The bill would spend $500 million for hydrogen infrastructure development and consumer incentives for purchasing fuel-cell vehicles. Pavley also introduced AB 1660, the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Purchasing Program, which would require the Department of General Services to negotiate the lowest possible prices on energy-efficient vehicles for state and local agencies that want to buy them. “Emissions from hydrogen are attractive to me — there aren’t any,” Pavley says. For the program to succeed, hydrogen production must occur alongside an increase in renewable energy, like solar or wind: “It takes a lot of energy to create the hydrogen, separating the oxygen from the hydrogen. What we don’t want to do is increase our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Alan Lowenthal:
Starts with dirty windowsills

Alan Lowenthal has been working on air-quality issues for more than 14 years, ever since his election to the Long Beach City Council. A community activist in the harbor area, he ran his campaign on fixing up neighborhoods and could not ignore the pleas of many residents. “People would say, ‘Put your finger on my windowsill,’ and this black soot would come off.” Now a state senator, Lowenthal distinguished himself as an environmentalist with his work reducing open petroleum-coke piles in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. He then took on the nuisance of thousands of idling trucks, with their engines needlessly spewing pollution for hours as they waited to load their cargo. He devised a “no net increase in air pollution” bill, and won legislative approval for it; it was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The senator reintroduced it in a less-demanding form, and it’s now making its way through the ranks. He has also worked on bills mandating fees on shipping containers and establishing an “environmental” zone — all aimed at cleaning up the pollution caused by the ports.

Lowenthal believes in the untapped potential of the Los Angeles rail system as an alternative to cargo trucks: “I think rail is much less polluting, so I’m working on getting trucks off the freeways so they don’t have to expand.” The Alameda Corridor, a 20-mile rail express line that connects the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the transcontinental rail network east of downtown Los Angeles, “has not been used to its full potential.”

Long-term, the senator wants to reform the way developers (often reluctantly) approach environmental concerns. “It’s usually only after we develop a project that we think of a project, its consequences, mostly as an afterthought,” Lowenthal says. “We’ve reached a point where that model is no longer effective because growth is so overwhelming, we’re always playing catch-up.” Economic growth and environmental concern can coexist. Such approaches “are going to be more expensive but that’s the future,” a future whose technologies “we can reproduce and sell to other cities” like New York, Oakland and Seattle, all of which have port-pollution problems that mirror our own.

Angelo Logan:
Don’t ignore the human toll

Angelo Logan, director of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, grew up in East L.A. and the City of Commerce. Intersected by two major freeways and hosting some of the largest inter-modal rail yards in America, the densely industrial East Yard communities have experienced a neighborhood health crisis that has been largely ignored. Diesel exhaust is responsible for 71 percent of the area’s cancer risk, according to a report by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Most cancer victims go undiagnosed until they have to make an emergency-room visit, says Logan. “Unfortunately, most of the communities exposed have very limited clinics and hospitals, and some of the hospitals we do have are slated to be closed down.”

Logan’s activism started when he realized that poor communities of color are disproportionately affected by polluters, and can do little to alter their role as the city’s dustbin. “You don’t need an air monitor to see that there’s a problem,” says Logan. “Just get a bike and go to people’s houses and touch the soot.” It didn’t take long before the deleterious effects became omnipresent: “Every time you’d turn around, people were talking about a neighbor diagnosed with respiratory illness.”

The spiraling situation galvanized Logan and his community to get organized. At the state and local level, Logan’s group has initiatives in the works: a California EPA “environmental justice action plan” geared toward communities of color and engineered in cooperation with several agencies and departments, and an environmental-justice task force exploring strategies to mitigate pollution’s impacts on the area’s more vulnerable residents. “Elders who’d never smoked a day in their lives were coming down with lung cancer,” Logan recounts, “and other folks were coming into the office saying that during specific weeks they had to take their children to the emergency room.” Diesel exhaust, he says, has been revealed as a trigger for, and cause of, asthma. “This is not an abstract thing for us,” he explains. “It’s not that we can’t see the mountains or that the sky doesn’t look blue enough; there are real outcomes and people getting injured.” One of the air monitors recorded an air-filter sample that had turned from a brilliant white to charcoal black over the span of 24 hours. “We are breathing this every day,” says Logan, “and for some community members who’ve lived here for over 50 years, it takes a big toll.”

Logan maintains that the reckless pollution occurring in the East Yard communities was fully premeditated and that developers exploited the residents’ inability to stop industrialization at the political level. When it comes to environmental justice, the oft-asked question is “what came first, the industries or the communities?” Logan says that “research has shown that the people came first and industries later encroached.” He cites documents reporting Caltrans discussions, in which it targets poor L.A. communities for construction. “Originally, there were freeways planned to go through Beverly Hills and the Westside,” Logan explains, “but then they were diverted to other neighborhoods with less resistance and political pull.” The East Yard communities ended up with the East L.A. interchange close to elementary schools.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >