Jesse Marquez grew up in Wilmington, across the street from the old Fletcher Oil refinery. When he was 16, the refinery blew up. With the first explosion, the house vibrated. Two more blasts generated enough heat to force the family to flee over the backyard fence. Two workers were killed and 150 people — workers, as well as neighbors — were burned.
Forty years later, Marquez still is coming to grips with that formative event. He's the executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment, a one-man environmental-justice outfit that occupies a former 99-cent store on Wilmington Boulevard. As such, he is a constant burr in the side of BP and ConocoPhillips. For that, they can thank Fletcher Oil.
"When you're a child and you experience something as tragic as that, you never forget it," Marquez says.
Over the last decade, he claims to have stopped 14 projects at the Port of L.A. and two at the Port of Long Beach. He has filed complaints with the Air Quality Management District against four Harbor-area refineries. Marquez comments on environmental impact reports, generally churning out 40 pages or more. Sometimes, he sues.
Marquez's mission is to see that his predominantly Latino community is no longer a dumping ground for industrial pollution.
"I was told by Assembly members and senators that Wilmington is the sacrificial lamb," he says. "There was no way I was going to accept that."
Marquez came of age during the anti-war movement and the grape boycott, and was influenced by Chicano academics and activist group the Brown Berets.
He made his living in the defense industry, working in electronics for a series of aerospace companies.
In 2001, he was among those who organized to stop the Port of L.A. from building a 20-foot wall along C Street to accommodate a terminal-expansion project. The port ultimately agreed to create a 30-acre park along the "Wilmington waterfront."
That early effort flowered into the Coalition for a Safe Environment, which has dedicated itself to tying the port in knots at every opportunity.
"He's quite certain of his point of view, and he makes it very forcefully," says David Freeman, former chair of the Harbor Commission, which manages the Port of L.A. "I give Jesse credit for being a visionary of sorts. The problem is, he doesn't know when to quit."
Marquez comes out of the militant Brown Beret tradition, so he often has a more extreme take on things than his allies at the Sierra Club.
When BP was proposing a carbon sequestration project in Carson, Marquez warned that liquefied carbon dioxide could seep up through the ground and kill people — not a claim many other environmentalists were willing to make.
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"Some people find him abrasive or over the top," says Ken Melendez, co-chair of the Port Community Advisory Committee. "A community like Wilmington needs somebody like Jesse, who will speak up and push the envelope on issues."