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Gov. Takes ‘Environmental Justice’ Tour of Areas Ravaged by Pollution

Gov. Jerry Brown got a close-up look Tuesday at the traffic, pollution, and industries that have long wreaked havoc on the health of residents living in southeast Los Angeles County.

It was a rare visit by the governor who has in the been criticized for being more interested in opening casinos than protecting the health of residents living in cities like Commerce and Bell Gardens and other east and southeast neighborhoods.

Brown was there at the behest of Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), who took the governor on a tour of some of the most environmentally challenged areas in her 58th Assembly District.

The tour included stops around the 710 overpass at Florence, the perimeter of the Commerce rail yard, Bandini Park and the brownfield at Garfield and Gage (in Commerce).

Former Commerce City Administrator Jorge Rifa once told EGP that Commerce is the country’s “third largest port,” referring to the number of shipping containers, diesel trucks and trains that pass through the city, bordered by the Long Beach 710 and Santa Ana 5 freeways and a network of rail yards where trains abut neighborhood homes, schools and parks, as well as industrial warehouses.

As a result, several studies in recent years have designated the region as having the most harmful air pollution in the state, or at least being among the top 10 most polluted areas to live.

“Today, the Governor got to breathe the same air as I have all my life,” said Garcia in statement following the tour.

Gov. Brown “looked across the brownfields that surround my communities and met with my neighbors who share our communities’ concerns,” said Garcia who grew up in Bell Gardens.

“…It’s important to actually see and breathe, first-hand, the issues that many Californians contend with their entire lives. It’s not all palm trees and beaches or redwood forests and snow-packed ski resorts,” Garcia said

Brown also took time for a closed door, roundtable discussion at the Neighborhood Youth Center in Bell Gardens where he met with a specially selected group of environmental activists working to improve conditions in predominately Latino communities.

The tour and discussion were closed to the media.

Many of the activists who met with the governor were involved in the fight to close the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant, which for decades spewed toxic chemicals into the air, contaminating as many as 10,000 properties in Boyle Heights, Commerce, Maywood, Huntington Park and other areas nearby.

State regulators were highly criticized for allowing Exide to operate for decades on a temporary permit and with near impunity, and for their slow response to cleaning up the contamination, a process that is expected to take years to complete.

Local officials and community activist demanded action from the governor, but he refused to engage publicly in the process, at one point sparking a demonstration at the grand opening of a Bell Gardens hotel where angry protesters carrying a 10-foot tall papier-mâché effigy of the governor called for him to step up.

“Governor Brown comes to Bell Gardens to acknowledge the expansion of the Bicycle Casino but has not acknowledged the contamination of Exide Technologies,” Mark Lopez, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said at the time.

The tour and discussion come as State Legislators consider extending California’s cap and trade program, which both the governor and Garcia support.

Brown has made the environment and climate change the corner stones of his administration, and an example for the rest of the world. Political observers often refer to Brown’s actions on the environment as his “most important legacy.”

However, like many local environmental justice groups, Garcia does not believe the current program does enough to protect local communities from pollution-related health hazards.

She is pushing for air quality regulations to be added to the next phase of the program, and has introduced AB 378 in hopes of seeing so-called benefits from program reach the overlooked constituents she represents.

“When we talk about California leading the world on climate change, I agree, but we’ve got to really lead by example and address the real and ongoing ramifications in our own backyards at the same time,” Garcia said.

The assemblywoman pointed out to the governor that environmental policies the state takes pride in are not visible in her backyard. “You don’t see solar panels on rooftops,” she told the governor, reported the L.A. Times. “Whether it’s electrification or hybrid cars, or cleaner air, you don’t see it. None of those things have been felt here,” Garcia said.

“… All Californians should be entitled to an equal piece of justice for their environment. That’s what I believe in and what I shared with the Governor today,” said Garcia Tuesday.

“It’s not often any Governor spends a day in my backyard or any working class community of color, but I believe this goes to show Governor Brown’s willingness to work with us while we seek an environmental solution that will benefit every single Californian.”