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Pacoima’s Lot

Along Pacoima’s sunbaked Paxton Street sits a 25-acre vacant lot surrounded by green-tarped fencing. A visitor would never guess that this wasteland was once home to the Price Pfister faucet-making plant, an economic engine that provided 1,400 local residents with well-paying jobs. There’s also little to suggest that the area, about the size of two-dozen football fields, is a Superfund toxic cleanup site. Its rehabilitation started in May 2004 and is anticipated to be finished soon. A Lowe’s Home Improvement megastore is expected to be built on the decontaminated land. Although it would seem that the silver lining to America’s pell-mell outsourcing of its manufacturing sector should include cleaner air and water, a closer look reveals that importing the overseas goods once stamped “Made in USA” also means importing plenty of pollution — and the health problems that come with it.

Besides serving as a ground sponge for lead, heavy metals and chromium, the Price Pfister lot is a field of broken dreams — and ironies. In 1997, nine years after the bathroom-fixture company was purchased by Black & Decker, its new owners pulled the plug on the facility in mostly Latino Pacoima and moved operations to Mexico, claiming that California’s environmental standards made continued production here unprofitable. Now there’s a chance that a Lowe’s, which sells many Price Pfister products, will truck in the very items that were once shipped out from the San Fernando Valley — possibly bringing in as much air pollution in the process as the old plant once generated.

Throughout the state, Californians’ appetite for low-cost goods from overseas and across the border is being accommodated by big-box retail stores — along with the mammoth warehouses and intermodal rail-truck hubs that serve them. The surging tidal wave of imports, mostly from Asia (Wal-Mart alone now accounts for 10 percent of all Chinese exports to America), has created a new field of scientific study that examines the impacts of these changes on the environment.

Though some conclusions remain hypothetical, disturbing data suggest a rollback of the gains made reducing L.A. basin smog over the past two generations. One prediction seems based on fact, however — this year Los Angeles will recapture its dubious title of America’s smog capital from Houston and the San Joaquin Valley. For all of California’s restrictions against car exhaust, its attempts to remove gross polluters from the road, and the spread of hybrid cars and clean-fuel buses, the number of tractor-trailer rigs used to distribute goods is on the rise, despite the opening of rail traffic on the new Alameda Corridor.

The mess usually starts at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s two biggest harbors, which, combined, form the largest single fixed source of air pollution in Southern California. The main culprit for harbor-generated smog is diesel exhaust from idling ships, big rigs and vehicles that unload the containers. Diesel emissions, with their microscopic particulates, are known enablers of asthma, bronchitis and cardiovascular diseases. About the only thing more toxic is the asphalt on which the trucks roll.

For years it was assumed that smog aggravated these illnesses, but new scientific research has revealed a much closer link between emissions and breathing problems — especially in children, and particularly in children who live along highways. When a joint 2002 USC-UCLA study found that smog is 25 times more concentrated in communities built along highways, California prohibited construction of schools within 500 feet of freeways. Still, diesel emissions, which carry carcinogens as well as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, are released at ground level and can be trapped within urban architecture and sucked into ventilation systems. According to a 2004 follow-up report to The Children’s Health Study, a 12-year project researched by USC for the state’s Air Resources Board, schoolchildren who play outdoor sports in high-smog areas like the San Fernando Valley are three to four times more likely to contract asthma as kids elsewhere, and are far more likely to experience reduced lung-growth function.

“Asthma is the No. 1 cause of school absenteeism,” says Dr. Andrea Hricko, a USC associate professor of occupational and environmental health. She notes that the 710 freeway supports 47,000 daily truck trips. Studies conducted by the ports themselves predict a doubling of diesel-vehicle traffic over the next 20 years.

Although The Children’s Health Study’s scientists stop half an inch short of unequivocally claiming there is a direct cause and effect between smog and lung disease, the particulate matter found in smog, especially diesel-produced smog (which is considered more lethal than gasoline-generated emissions), is suspected of worsening the health of children and the elderly. Earlier this year, the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force released a study estimating that, nationwide, more people die from the effects of diesel exhaust than from all automobile accidents — or from all homicides, for that matter. Harboring Pollution, a 2004 study published by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Air Coalition, cites one European study that found a connection between rush-hour “peak ozone levels” and specific times of death. In America, smog is blamed for a 17 percent rise in premature deaths associated with lung and heart disease; a 2000 Denver study showed that children living within 250 yards of highways or even heavily trafficked streets were six times more likely to develop all types of cancer, and, specifically, eight times more likely to contract leukemia.

According to the office of state Senator Alan Lowenthal, who is seeking to pass legislation reducing harbor pollution, big rigs at the ports “emit approximately 47 tons of nitrogen oxides each day just within port boundaries,” while ships and commercial boats add another 49 tons a day, and trains 36 tons, with diesel equipment accounting for much of another 181 tons measured in the harbors.

The twin ports were identified by Harboring Pollution as among the world’s most wasteful land managers, which partly accounts for the ports’ chronic need to expand outward into the Pacific, landfilling large swaths of San Pedro Bay. (Although it remains an unstudied threat, harbor dredging is suspected of releasing toxins into the atmosphere when long-contaminated sediments are sucked up and exposed to air.)

“Soon there won’t be any bay left, just a series of shipping channels,” says Mitzy Taggart, a scientist who works for Heal the Bay. Taggart says that the ports’ master plans, while always appearing ecologically responsible, aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, because the master plans are typically changed after the fact to make it seem that whatever consequence has arisen from expansion had been foreseen and approved.

Residents of the port towns of San Pedro and Wilmington already suffer higher-than-average rates of respiratory illnesses, but as the distribution of imports increases, the airborne causes of those illnesses are penetrating deep inland. About half of all goods arriving in our harbors, says a 2005 study from the Southern California Regional Strategy for Goods Movement, remain in the Southland. Most of the hauling is done by diesel trucks, which, while they emit less carbon monoxide than gasoline-driven autos, contribute far more of the ultrafine particulates that are so small they enter the bloodstream through the lungs as microscopic soot. According to the 2002 USC-UCLA study, about 25 percent of traffic along the 710 freeway consists of diesel-fueled trucks, which account for 80 percent of that highway’s smog, while diesel vehicles account for only about 5 percent of the 405’s traffic. However, as imports grow, even the 405 will see more diesel rigs on its lanes — not a small number of which will be headed toward whatever is built on the old Price Pfister lot.

Karen Cobb, a spokeswoman for Lowe’s Home Improvement in the company’s North Carolina headquarters, declined to confirm or deny that Lowe’s is planning to build on the Price Pfister lot. “Choosing a site for a store is a long and complicated process,” she says. “It depends on a lot of factors: access to highways, ease of entry, local homeownership.” There is, in fact, plenty of freeway access to the proposed retail site, which is just up the road from Interstate 5, a stone’s throw from the 118 freeway and not far from the 405. There’s also homeownership in the area — beginning about 30 feet from the proposed site. Like many residences in the area, the low, square houses on Louvre Street, built in 1948, come with neatly trimmed lawns, swamp coolers atop roofs and oil-drum barbecues in their front yards. They’re also surrounded by the Price Pfister lot, a pallet-recycling yard, a fiberglass distribution facility and Whiteman Airport, while a few blocks away, Southern Pacific trains rumble along tracks that follow San Fernando Road.

The step-by-step closure of the Price Pfister plant, which, in its pre-NAFTA heyday, was Pacoima’s biggest employer, was met with community boycotts, petitions, marches and a hunger strike. It wasn’t until several years after the plant’s closing, when a health survey found 28 percent of residents living near Price Pfister had chronic respiratory problems, that members of a local cleanup committee began looking at the site.

“We went to the Department of Toxic Site Control’s Web site,” recalls Marlene Grossman, the motherly executive director of Pacoima Beautiful. “We looked at the charts [about the site], but none of us could figure out what in the world those numbers meant.”

In 2004, when the site’s buildings began to be demolished, Pacoima Beautiful members started asking questions and learned that the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board had designated the site an industrial cleanup zone, meaning no one was taking into account the fact that people lived across the street or what the clouds of contaminated dust could do to them.

“We knew then we had to get involved,” Grossman says. “We learned what all those numbers meant.” And, along the way, the experience transformed a civic cleanup club that devoted most of its time to weekend litter campaigns and the pickup of abandoned couches into a dedicated band of environmental-justice activists. “Our group,” Grossman says, “has slowly worked up to identifying toxic sites, diabetes testing, the amelioration of lead poisoning, and study of asthma triggers and overcrowding.”

In one sense, the pollution fallout from Price Pfister has awakened a Latino community that has traditionally been apathetic toward environmental issues, especially when jobs were concerned. But the “justice” part of the term “environmental justice” addresses the undeniable fact that railroads and major trucking arteries like the 710 and 5 freeways mostly run through low-income and nonwhite neighborhoods. Pacoima and Sun Valley, claims Steve Veres, a spokesman for Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, have the largest concentration of landfill sites west of the Mississippi, as well as the distinction of receiving the CHP’s second-largest number of tickets for highway litter — a result, Veres says, of loose debris flying off vehicles headed for those dumps.

Today, Pacoima Beautiful has engaged local politicians, including Montañez (whose father once worked at Price Pfister) and City Councilman Alex Padilla, on the fate of the controversial site. As part of its efforts to arm community residents with education and self-assertiveness, Pacoima Beautiful programs currently train 130 high school students each year, some of whom investigate possible local toxic sites, do Internet research, conduct interviews and speak in public.

For the time being, it is uncertain when trucks rolling out of the ports (or from Mexicali, Price Pfister’s present home) will be headed straight for Paxton Street. A new L.A. developer, Primestor, has bought the property from a Texas group and is said by Grossman and others to be more sensitive to local feelings. At the moment, the timetable for the completion of the Price Pfister site is unknown, or even if it will end up being occupied by a Lowe’s.

According to Pacoima Beautiful’s youth-program coordinator, Lucia Torres, her organization is not expecting the 25 acres to be turned into a greenbelt.

“We’d like the streets widened and buffers placed between the site and the houses,” she says. “Right now, diesel trucks idle on the street. Maybe we could have some open spaces, a cultural center. We’re not exactly smiling now, but we’re satisfied with the way things are changing.”

When Price Pfister was the place to get a job, Pacoima was the butt of jokes even from people living in Van Nuys and North Hollywood, and was virtually a toxic storage dump. Today property values are rising, and, while industry still has a heavy presence, more thought is going into community planning. Torres even says her group is now having to train its teenage activists to understand the effects of gentrification. Pacoima Beautiful will still have to keep its environmental radar up, however: Last week the city of Los Angeles announced that an asphalt-recycling center located not far from the Price Pfister site is applying to expand its facility and extend its hours.