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Climate and Environment

In Southeast LA, 'Toxic Tours' Teach Students About Local Polluters And Community-Led Resistance

A short-haired woman is surrounded by students. She is using a megaphone to share information. In the background, there is a bus, telephone poles, and empty buildings.
Dilia Ortega, youth program coordinator for Communities for a Better Environment, took students to the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon to explain its lasting environmental impact on surrounding communities.
(Julia Barajas
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On a cloudy Saturday morning earlier this month, about two dozen students gathered around Exide Technologies in Vernon, a now-shuttered car battery recycling plant that exposed surrounding communities to toxic pollutants for decades.

Rossmery Zayas, one of four people guiding the group, told the students to avoid making contact with the empty buildings.

“Lead can be absorbed through skin,” she said, “so please don’t touch the walls and stuff.”

Using a megaphone, she and her colleagues provided some context: Exide used to be among the largest battery recyclers on the planet, with 80 locations worldwide. For 30 years, state regulators allowed it to run on a temporary permit, without proper oversight. State officials later found that arsenic leached into the groundwater and soil, exposing workers to health risks like brain damage and cancer. The pollution then spread beyond the plant to residential neighborhoods, so much so that at one point, regulators warned parents not to let their children play in their yards.

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And yet, after filing for bankruptcy, Exide left California taxpayers to foot the bill for cleaning up contaminated soil throughout Southeast L.A.

“There are no repercussions for their actions,” said Fabiola García, a 17-year-old at Bell High School. “They disappear and nothing happens to them,” she added with disgust.

The lessons surrounding Exide and other instances of environmental injustice were part of “Toxic Tours,” four-hour journeys that highlight the impact of industrial polluters on residents’ health and quality of life. The tours are conducted by Communities for A Better Environment (CBE), a nonprofit that’s advocated for clean air, soil, and water in California’s working-class neighborhoods since the late 1970s.

Creating Space To Discuss Environmental Justice

The purpose of the tours is two-fold, said Dilia Ortega, the organization’s youth program coordinator. One is to provide a space to “talk about environmental injustice in our communities.” The other is to highlight “the history of organizing and community power that has challenged a lot of the really messed up conditions we live in.”

The tours are part of growing efforts to promote environmental justice, which calls for the prevention and reduction of pollution while holding power plants, oil refineries and other industries accountable for the disproportionate health impacts that have been borne primarily by communities of color.

A teenager with long hair smiles at the camera. Behind her there are trees, a fence, and a walkway cutting through the grass.
Fabiola García, a senior at Bell High School, helped spread the word about Toxic Tours at her campus.
(Julia Barajas

CBE has been hosting Toxic Tours since the ‘90s. The organization aims to raise leaders through its student program, Youth for Environmental Justice (YouthEJ), which has chapters at seven high schools. Most of these branches are in Southeast L.A., but there are also some in San Pedro and Wilmington, where cancer, asthma and other ailments tied to industrial pollution are also widespread.

Viridiana Preciado, a 21-year-old psychology major at Cal State Northridge who now works for CBE, was drawn to the organization with the promise of pizza when she was a freshman at Linda Marquez High School in Huntington Park. But after showing up to a meeting, something inside told her that the group would help her grow.

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“What I wanted to do was be a part of my community, because sometimes I felt very disconnected,” she said. “And I would see all these issues, but I didn't know how to use my voice.”

The Roots Of Toxic Tours

Prior to boarding the bus, the students gathered on the third floor of a brick building in Huntington Park, which also houses immigration services, a hair salon and an optometrist.

Most were from nearby communities that have been disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice, including Bell, Cudahy, South Gate, Maywood and Walnut Park. Others came from farther out, like South Central, Gardena and Pico-Union.

“Raise your fist if you live five miles away from a freeway, major street, or train track,” Preciado said.

“The closer you live to a freeway,” she explained, “the more likely you are to develop cancer.”

We're not polar bears waiting to be saved. We have to actively be doing the work.
— Rossmery Zayas, tour leader, Toxic Tours

Preciado pointed to a map. Southeast L.A. residents, she noted, live by several major freeways.

Uriah Blackwell, a UCLA graduate who majored in African American Studies and minored in environmental studies, is also a CBE employee. He continued: “Raise your first if you see stacks or bad odors in your community.”

“Raise your fist if you or someone you know has asthma, bronchitis or other breathing problems.”

“Raise your fist if you or someone you know has or had cancer.”

Time after time, more than half of the participants held up their fists.

A young woman with shoulder-length hair holds up her right fist while smiling at the camera. There is a playground with a few children behind her, along with trees and grass.
Viridiana Preciado joined CBE as a volunteer when she was a freshman.
(Julia Barajas

Blackwell then pointed to a map of L.A. County that showed where people of color make up the majority, in relation to those neighborhoods’ proximity to “toxic release facilities,” like battery recycling plants and oil refineries. Students readily saw the overlap.

As students got on the bus, CBE employees distributed factsheets. On the left side of the page, students could quickly look up terms like “superfunds,” which are contaminated sites that result from the improper handling of hazardous waste. The sheet also defined acronyms like EIR, referring to the environmental impact reports that inform the public and decision-makers about the potential effects of proposed projects. On the right side of the page, a graphic explained how to interpret color-coded hazard signs.

As the bus made its way through the streets, Ortega asked students to look closely at the neighborhoods and make note of who lives in the area. She also asked: What does their housing look like? How often do you see parks? How are they getting around? How close are their homes and schools to industrial polluters?

First Stop: Exide

The first stop on the tour was Exide.

The plant was forced to shut down years ago, but thousands of people are still waiting for California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control to remove the lead and other toxic chemicals from the soil in their homes.

Contaminated soil is especially perilous for communities in Southeast L.A., who have roots in Mexico and Central America, said Ortega. “A lot of our families not only like to grow their own produce, but it's also part of their ancestral knowledge, it’s part of their culture.”

The students also noticed that the area around the plant really stinks.

“It smells like a dead animal,” said Montserrat Hidalgo, a 16-year-old junior at South Gate High School.

A teenager with her hair pulled back in a ponytail stands in front of a small building. She smiles at the camera. A sign on the wall behind her lists the agencies and politicians involved in transforming the space into a park.
Montserrat Hidalgo said she can sometimes smell the stench from Vernon at her campus in South Gate, about five miles away.
(Julia Barajas

Most people attribute the stench to the Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon, which is scheduled to shut down next year. The city is also home to rendering plants, which take leftover animal parts to make things like pet food, Ortega explained.

“Rendering plants are notorious for leaving dead animal waste outside in the open air,” Ortega said. CBE is working on getting rendering plants to build enclosures and use technology to keep the stench from emanating.

“We’re not asking them to shut down, we’re asking them to do better,” she said.

For Zayas, 25, the defunct plant is full of memories. She joined CBE when she was 14. Along with other groups, like East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, she staged protests to shut down Exide, including street theater and die-ins, in which participants pretend they’re dead.

“If you look this up in the news, you’re not going to see what I just said —i t’s a lot of government officials and agencies saying: ‘We did this and it’s closed now, and now we’re cleaning up,’” she said. “But we really want to recognize [that] it was us who put the pressure on them.”

Visiting A Superfund Site

At lunchtime, the Toxic Tour headed to Maywood Riverfront Park, a former Superfund site. It was a chemical mixing facility up until 1991.

García, the senior from Bell High School, thought about what this meant for the community. “Every house around here has been affected by it,” she said.

“I’ve lived in Southeast L.A. all my life,” she added, “and I didn't even know that this land that we're standing on was a toxic site.”

Three people make their way onto a large, commercial. A park restroom is in the background, along with palm trees and a cloudy sky.
After stopping for lunch at Riverfront Park in Maywood, the Toxic Tour made its way back to Huntington Park.
(Julia Barajas

Aside from learning about local polluters and community-based resistance, the Toxic Tour also gave students from different schools an opportunity to connect. By the day’s end, many had exchanged Instagram handles. Some hugged new friends goodbye.

Like Preciado, the promise of pizza also piqued Zayas’ interest when she was a student at South Gate High School. She’d planned to grab a slice and go. Then, she noticed that YouthEJ was the only club campus “that didn't have a president or secretary or anything like that.”

“They said: ‘We don't do that here. We're going to build all of us in this room to be community leaders.’ And I thought that was pretty cool.”

Now that Zayas works with high school students throughout Southeast L.A., she maintains this philosophy.

“We're not polar bears waiting to be saved,” she added. “We have to actively be doing the work. At the end of the day, solutions will only come from the people who live here and who understand what it takes to really hold spaces accountable.”

What questions do you have about Southern California?

Corrected September 26, 2022 at 3:14 PM PDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of CBE's youth program coordinator. She is Dilia Ortega, not Dillia.
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