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Environment & Science

2013 Review: A look back at the year's biggest environment stories

High school friends pose for a group picture at the Huntington Beach fire pits on Thursday evening, June 6. The South Coast Air Quality Management District says the fires release emissions that are harmful to the environment.
High school friends pose for a group picture at the Huntington Beach fire pits on Thursday evening, June 6. The South Coast Air Quality Management District says the fires release emissions that are harmful to the environment.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Southern California environmental headlines in 2013 were dominated by David-and-Goliath style battles among regulators, polluters, and communities where toxic contamination’s a problem.

The terms of that tension were spelled out clearly in the public hearings around the Southern California International Gateway, or SCIG. It’s a transfer yard that the BNSF railway intends to build near the 710 freeway, where cargo carried by short-haul trucks would make its way onto rail cars for distribution throughout the U.S.

BNSF says the project will create thousands of new jobs, and a total investment in the region of up to half a billion dollars. Harbor Commissioners for the Port of Los Angeles and other city leaders touted these benefits as they supported the analysis BNSF offers for the project throughout the last several years.

Still, when the Los Angeles city council approved the SCIG project in May, it heard from an unusual person during public comment: Barry Wallerstein, the executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

“I want to emphasize that the AQMD has in its entire history never appeared before any body to oppose a project until today,” Wallerstein told the assembled council. “With SCIG, truck trips to the project site will double, and the trains will operate as close as 20 feet from homes. All in a community already impacted by port pollution. Tens of thousands of low income residents, numerous schools, and one of the nation’s largest homeless veterans shelters in the entire country.”

Wallerstein, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others remain skeptical that SCIG will provide environmental and economic benefits. And now Los Angeles is in court, defending SCIG against criticisms from community groups, environmental activists, and the City of Long Beach.

Low-income and vulnerable communities found their voices throughout 2013. In October, at an electric town hall meeting at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, the subject was Exide: one of two lead-battery recycling facilities west of the Mississippi. But the targets of the public’s ire were the regulators and public officials.

“These citizens voted for you, not Exide. We voted for you,” said Hector Alvarado. “No more excuses. Close the plant down now.

The Vernon-based battery recycler remains active while air regulators impose new operating conditions. But tests done around Exide by the Department of Toxic Substances Control reveal ongoing risks to people and the Los Angeles River from that operation.

Public frustration about toxic pollution may gain the attention of regulators and elected officials, but solutions to the problems can remain elusive.

In the city of Carson, in what's called the Carousel neighborhood, there's legacy pollution from before the city's establishment. A cleanup supervised by the regional water board is complicated and at times unmanageable. Many residents of the Carousel neighborhood want a buyout.

The mayor of Carson, Jim Dear, lent his voice to that cause in July.

“Put the money up if it's a hundred million dollars, if it's more than that. Put the money up to buy every property in the Carousel tract. Make the people whole. Then once you own the property, you can clean the property. Then you can sell it for another use.”

So far, Shell’s not buying that argument. The company continues to work to clean up the neighborhood to regulators’ standards instead of buying out the whole Carson Carousel neighborhood.

But where enough evidence satisfies regulators and public officials, a response that can also satisfy the community is possible. People living in the University Park neighborhood of LA complained about nosebleeds and bad smells when Allenco activated an oil pumping operation near them. After federal officials fell ill while touring the area, the company agreed to shut down while an investigation continues.

"It really saddens me that regulatory agencies that are supposed to be professionals, that we're supposed to trust, didn't do their job,” a woman named Angelica Romero told KPCC in November. “It took us fighting and staying up late and making phone calls to get you guys to come out at this strength."

Community organizing against urban industrial pollution has risen this year – and most of those fights will continue well into 2014.