Japheth Peleti has no shortage of unpleasant stories from decades of living across a fence from a sprawling oil refinery.
He and his family have contended with rumbling noises that rattle their windows, coped with skunk-like odors, plumes of vapor and smoke and seen their whole block lighted up at night from the orange glow of refinery flares. "We're so used to it that it's become a normal part of life," Peleti said.
For nearly as long, the 48-year old has suspected air pollution from the Phillips 66 refinery is one reason most of his family suffers from asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Now, they will be getting some answers from a shoe-box-sized air quality monitor mounted on their roof.
The low-cost, solar-powered device will gather real-time data on air pollution in this working-class neighborhood near the Port of Los Angeles, measuring concentrations of nitrogen oxides, fine particles and other pollutants as well as noise, temperature and humidity. The data will be posted online for public viewing.
The monitoring is part of a government-funded project launched Wednesday by Wilmington environmental group Coalition For a Safe Environment.
The initiative includes a website and mobile application for residents to lodge complaints of bad air, illegal dumping, chemical spills and other environmental problems. A task force of community and government representatives will meet monthly to review complaints and outcomes.
A related, 18-month study by cancer researchers at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health will assess the neighborhood's levels of benzene, a carcinogenic compound released into the air by oil refineries.
The project, called the Los Angeles Community Environmental Enforcement Network is the latest to focus on environmental hazards facing Wilmington, a neighborhood of more than 50,000 residents boxed in by the port complex, rail lines, industrial operations and three of Southern California's six major oil refineries.
The 87% Latino neighborhood has long been a battleground for environmental activists. Jesse Marquez, executive director of Coalition for a Safe Environment, said the new emphasis on collecting data from fence-line residents in Wilmington differs from past campaigns, which have relied on community meetings, door-to-door visits and fliers.
The monitors and online reporting system are being paid for with $30,000 in state and federal grant money. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control said it has assigned a staff scientist to help route complaints to the appropriate agencies.
The project is the fifth community-based reporting system launched in California in recent years, after similar efforts in the Coachella and Imperial valleys and Fresno and Kern counties. Wilmington will be the first to incorporate a home air pollution monitor. The group hopes to install more in neighborhoods adjacent to rail yards, port operations, refineries and other major polluters.
Wilmington ranks among the top 5% of communities with the highest pollution exposure in the state, according to a recent analysis by California environmental agencies. The main polluters are trucks and ships at the port and refineries that air quality regulators say are among the top five sources of smog-forming emissions in the Los Angeles Basin.
Under rules from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, refineries must monitor emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, submit annual reports and undergo inspections at least every week. Restrictions on flaring — when refineries burn off gases to relieve pressure during a shutdown, start-up or maintenance — have cut the facilities' sulfur oxide emissions by 96% since 2000, air quality officials said.
"Our refinery regulations are the toughest in the country and, perhaps, the world," said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the air district.
Atwood said the district expects results this year from a separate study it commissioned into the possible use of remote sensors similar to the one on the Peleti family's roof to monitor pollution levels near refineries.
In a statement, Phillips 66 said that while it is in compliance with its permit limits set by the air district, "we continuously strive to reduce emissions. Since 2008, we have lowered diesel usage in equipment by 75%, thus decreasing particulate matter released."
The Peleti family said they welcomed any new information on those emissions.
"I know the air is polluted," said Sarah Meafua, Peleti's 39-year-old sister. "I'd just like to see the results."