Environmental attorney Jerilyn Lopez Mendoza remembers vividly the night police officers showed up at her home, instructing her and her neighbors to evacuate because of a chlorine-gas leak nearby.

Mendoza, a sophomore in college at the time, fled with her family shortly after midnight to wait out the chemical scare in nearby Whittier. By then, she had grown accustomed to the oddities of living near the industrial section of Montebello, from the dozens of freight cars that stopped traffic each morning at railroad crossings to the strange smell that wafted through her city each summer.

But those experiences meant little until after college, when Mendoza went to a teach-in on the Persian Gulf War in San Francisco and heard an African-American community activist talk about lead-paint poisoning among low-income children. Suddenly, Mendoza began asking whether her working class, Mexican-American neighborhood suffered from its own disproportionate share of environmental problems.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen a person of color talking about environmental issues, and it just blew me away,” she says. “I was asking lots of questions, and she gave me a newsletter she was working on called ‘Race, Poverty and the Environment.’ It was like a light switched on in my head. All these things I had experienced were suddenly put into context.”

Mendoza soon found a way to tackle environmental justice issues head on: by getting a law degree and becoming an attorney with the group Environmental Defense. That organization worked with Los Angeles World Airports to come up with a plan for reducing the impact of jet noise on the neighborhoods that surround LAX, securing $500 million to pay for the soundproofing of homes and other environmental initiatives.

Even more significant, the 38-year-old Mendoza was tapped as one of five people assigned by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to oversee the Port of Los Angeles, which, combined with the Port of Long Beach, is the biggest source of diesel pollution in Southern California.

Since her appointment to the city’s harbor commission in July 2005, Mendoza has supervised the port’s effort to convert industrial stretches of waterfront in Wilmington and San Pedro into public space. And she has worked with the port to prepare a clean-air action plan, one that calls for the replacement of 16,000 “dirty” diesel trucks and upgrades to the ships and locomotives that move through the port.

Now a resident of Valley Village, Mendoza is frequently overshadowed by the harbor commission’s more flamboyant environmentalist — the cowboy-hat wearing S. David Freeman, a former Tennessean who speaks in a colorful, occasionally profanity-laced, drawl. But she is also the one who brings rigor to the commission’s deliberations, asking hard questions about the port’s business practices and its efforts to make port neighborhoods more liveable.

“She doesn’t let David just run the show,” observes Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes the port.

Under Mendoza’s watch, the harbor commission hired the port’s first female executive director — Geraldine Knatz, formerly of the Port of Long Beach. And its next step may be the most controversial yet: levying a fee on each container that passes through the port on its way to Southern California and the rest of the nation, and using the proceeds to pay for new environmental measures and port transportation projects.

The container fee has been vetoed repeatedly by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger up in Sacramento. But with Mendoza and Freeman in charge, the measure may just serve as the next big change at the nation’s busiest port complex.

LA Weekly