Column: Major problems will remain after the Carson stench ceases

On my way to check out the big stink in Carson, I felt like I was driving into a storm of environmental hazards.

Refinery smoke rose and hovered over schools, businesses and homes. Traffic was bottled up on the Harbor Freeway between LAX and Long Beach Airport. Large rigs meandered streets and highways and waddled to and from the nearby smoke-spitting harbor. Oil tank farms sprouted and dozens of drilling pumps, active and abandoned, spread across the landscape.

I parked near the Dominguez Canal, which authorities believe is the source of the rotten egg odor that began six weeks ago. I stepped onto a bridge that spanned the stinking water and took a nap. People say the stench is not as it was when they temporarily moved out of the area, complaining of headaches, wheezing and burning eyes. But I caught a pull of the persistent stench and covered my mouth.

“It smells of dead people,” said Tina Tucker, who told me it’s often worse at night. She has spent most of the last few weeks preparing meals at home for her family of five, including two grandchildren, and then packing them for the hotel they are staying at. It has been a nightmarish hassle, she said, but she had no other options.

A worker walks along the Dominguez Canal.

Authorities believe the Dominguez Canal is the source of the smell of rotten eggs that began six weeks ago.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s not like it’s a little bit bad,” Tucker said. “It hurts in the stomach.”

At some point, the stench will probably be gone. But the rest of the dangers will remain and the residents are tired of it all.

“This aroused Mama Bear in me,” said Monique Saldana Alvarez, who has lived in a Long Beach motel with her husband and three children for weeks. She is one of many longtime residents who organize to demand answers and funds.

Alvarez grew up in 213th Street, a few hundred meters from the canal and across the street from a refinery tank farm. Her family has lived in several units at the site for decades, about 30 of them in total.

Her grandmother died of cancer. Her late grandfather, who worked at the StarKist cannery, had diabetes. Her mother died of a heart attack at the age of 44. Alvarez said several family members when she was growing up had allergies and respiratory problems. It was so common that no one thought much about it.

The Saldana family

Frank Saldana, left, Angelita Saldana and Juan Jose Saldana with photos of family members.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Her brother, Frank Saldana, is Carson Highs football coach and a longshoreman. When I talked to him on the phone, he mentioned the oil tanks a stone’s throw from his house, and I put two and two together.

Six years ago, I wrote about a guy named Martin Saldana, one of thousands who lost their jobs when Boeing’s assembly plant at Long Beach Airport closed down. I remember visiting Martin Saldana and noticing the oil tanks across the street.

“It was my uncle,” Frank Saldana told me.

Martin Saldana, who never found a well-paid permanent job after losing his job at Boeing, died in 2018 of complications from diabetes. He was 59.

“I always smelled gas when I was growing up and we always smelled crude oil,” said Frank Saldana, who has lived at 213th Street in all its 46 years.

Dominguez channel

The stench from the Dominguez Channel “is not like it’s a little bit naughty,” said a Carson resident. “It hurts in the stomach.”

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

His sister, Monique, got her first scare about the dangers of living in the area when she worked as a medical coder at a children’s hospital in Long Beach.

“I wanted to revise medical notes so I was paying attention to details,” Alvarez said. “The amount of children with blood cancer, respiratory problems and neurological disorders was frightening.”

Overall, the air quality in the Los Angeles Basin has improved over the last few decades thanks to pollution control rules. But there is still a long way to go, said Dr. Rob McConnell, an environmental epidemiologist from USC-Keck, who has studied the negative effects of pollutants on children living near industry and roads.

“We still have a lot of health issues, and there are pockets in particular, like Carson, where they have higher exposures and a diversity of exposures,” said McConnell, who put port emissions and car emissions at the top of the list.

Partly because of a history of redlining, McConnell said, as well as the lower housing costs in industrial and highway corridors, many of the most affected areas are colored working-class communities.

“You look at Beverly Hills, and there are no highways, and I think there’s a reason for that … Some communities have the resources to stand up to these exposures, and others do not,” McConnell said.

About 75% of Carson’s population is Latino, Black, and Asian. Several residents, still angry that it took nearly two weeks for the county staff to begin addressing the odor, told me they can not imagine such a protracted crisis in a more affluent community.

“They initially told us it would take three to five days to clean the smell,” said an upset Pamela Brown, a real estate agent whose work has almost stopped as she transports food and clothing between the home and the LAX hotel. where she is. lives with four family members. “It’s like moving every day.”

Although the odor has subsided somewhat, not everyone believes it is safe to return home, or that the harmful side effects from what were identified as high levels of hydrogen sulfide are only temporary.

“I’m really worried about the levels,” said Dr. Jill Johnston, professor of public health science and colleague of McConnell’s at USC. “Not only does this have the annoying factor, but it has also been known to have very toxic effects on the body.”

Johnston has been part of a program called the Community Emissions Reduction Plan, made possible by legislation that brought community groups, businesses and authorities together to set clean air goals and monitor progress. One of her collaborators in that effort is Jesse Marquez, founder of Community for a Safe Environment, an activist for half a century.

“I was growing up on Lomita Boulevard, on the border with Carson, and the Fletcher refinery exploded in front of my house,” Marquez said of 1969 explosion who killed two people and injured more than 150 others. Marquez said he and his siblings all suffered first-degree burns; his grandmother had third-degree burns.

Marquez says he is not convinced the Carson odor is related to decaying material in the Dominguez Canal. He wonders if the 4.3 earthquake centered in Carson on September 17 may have led to rupture of the oil and gas infrastructure or caused the release of gases trapped near thousands of oil drilling sites, many of them abandoned.

Terrence Mann of the Air Quality Management District said local, state and federal agencies are considering all options, but “the prevailing theory among the group” is that the cause of the stench is the “natural decomposition of organic matter” in the canal.

As for the long-term environmental hazards, Mann cited significant declines in smog and particulate matter, saying that major reductions are on the way as the search for further strategies to improve air quality continues.

What we already know, of course, is that most of the environmental hazards in the Carson area are somehow linked to fossil fuel consumption and to catastrophic climate change. We also know that the need for a transition to alternative energy sources could not be more urgent.

We are the problem. We are the solution.

Once the stink is gone, Carson will still be at zero.

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