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

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.

LA Weekly