‘It’s chemical and psychological warfare’: A heavily polluted waterway torments L.A. communities

The Dominguez Channel runs through an industrial area
The 15-mile-long Dominguez Channel remains a neglected, trash-strewn waterway designed to flush pollution discharged from surrounding neighborhoods, industrial facilities and oil refineries out into the Pacific Ocean.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, March 10. I’m Justin Ray.

Most mornings, I wake up around 8 a.m., make some breakfast and head to my local gym. On Sunday, I was performing this routine and feeling refreshed. I slept well. I was listening to one of my favorite vibe-setting tunes:“Porch Song” by Orchid Mantis, by a band from Atlanta. As I made my walk, the sun was hitting my face, yet there was a slight breeze. Needless to say, it was one of those, ‘Thank you, California’ mornings.

But eventually, I began to smell something foul. I quickly discovered that the source of the stench was a road being repaved by a group of men. The odiferous work created heavy clouds that made it hard to see. Although the pandemic has led to a lot of misery, the upshot is that, most likely, people have a mask handy for such situations. The construction also ceased after an hour or so. But for some people in the city, being unable to escape the odor of chemicals in the air is a daily experience.

Staff writer Louis Sahagún published a story that’s at times hard to read. It details the lives of those living in neighborhoods near the 15-mile Dominguez Channel who have to endure the putrid body of water. Thousands of residents are angry at government agencies meant to oversee their health and safety that, they argue, do far too little to protect them.


“It’s chemical and psychological warfare that I feel we are fighting here in our communities — in our homes,” said Monique Alvarez, 40. She has joined a 10,000-person class-action suit after a toxic spill in early October that caused air quality officials to get bombarded with thousands of calls. Residents complained of respiratory ailments, nausea and other symptoms due to a foul smell that vexed neighborhoods in the South Bay and Harbor region.

“My 3-year-old daughter was curled up in a ball at the foot of my bed crying, ‘Mommy, my tummy hurts,’” Alvarez said. A similar disaster in a wealthier, whiter community, affected residents say, would have been met with a more urgent response.

Sahagún’s story explains why the Dominguez Channel has become so hazardous, and its legacy of environmental racism. It also explores the channel’s many hydrologic quirks, including what led to hundreds of thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer adding additional pollution to the waterway.

Programming note: I will be out next week for a vacation.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

The Biden administration on Wednesday reinstated the state’s authority to set motor vehicle pollution standards stricter than the federal government’s. That includes tighter restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. The decision, announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, reverses an attempt by the Trump administration to block the state from using its vast market power to push the auto industry in a greener direction. Los Angeles Times


At least 20 women say they were sexually assaulted over the course of a dozen years at Camp Scott, Los Angeles County’s all-girls juvenile detention facility, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday. The women allege a culture of abuse at the Santa Clarita Valley military-style boot camp, where no fewer than 10 staff members subjected them to repeated sexual assault. Los Angeles Times

Camp Scott youth sit at attention on their beds and wait for movement instructions during lunch break.
(Los Angeles Times)

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The truth about L.A.’s most notoriously expensive gas stations. Gas prices in Los Angeles have climbed to new heights this week. But a handful of notorious gas stations across town are extreme, offering $6.95, $6.99 or even $7.05 for a gallon of regular unleaded, seemingly in defiance of economic sense. We explain why those stations seemingly go overboard with prices. Los Angeles Times

The Mobil station at the corner of La Cienega and Beverly
Some gas stations advertise prices higher than the norm.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Drake is selling the ‘Yolo Estate,’ his Hidden Hills party compound. The rapper has been compiling the compound for a decade, first buying an English Tudor-style mansion for $7.7 million in 2012. He bought the ranch right next to it for $2.85 million in 2015, and three years later, he bought another neighboring ranch for $4.5 million, creating a triple-lot estate that spans 6.5 acres. Los Angeles Times


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Column: Of course, Black people should get reparations. The question is which Black people. Jonathan Burgess and his twin brother Matthew say a swath of state-owned land in El Dorado County was settled by their formerly enslaved relatives and rightfully belongs to their family. But the brothers have gotten bogged down in the bureaucratic realities of reparations. “If California does decide to pay reparations, who should get it? All Black people? Or only Black people who can trace their lineage to chattel slavery?” columnist Erika D. Smith asks. Los Angeles Times

Jonathan Burgess and twin brother Matthew stand at Sutter's Fort State Historic Park
Jonathan Burgess, left, and his twin brother Matthew tell their story in a children’s book, “Gold Rush: Burgess Descendants.”
(Erika D. Smith / Los Angeles Times)

The city of Fresno lost about $400,000 in 2020 due to a phishing scam. Then-Mayor Lee Brand’s administration didn’t disclose the loss to the Fresno City Council and taxpayers, The Fresno Bee has confirmed. The Fresno city attorney’s office also rejected a December 2021 public records request from the paper seeking city communications regarding the fraud. The city told the paper no records were located; however, the Bee recently obtained emails that existed prior to the records request. In an interview Wednesday, current Mayor Jerry Dyer said two payments were made. A council member said city officials believe the money was sent to an account in Africa. Fresno Bee


Former San Diego for-profit college Ashford University and its parent company have been fined $22.37 million in a long-running California lawsuit over hardball admission tactics that left some students deep in debt and without a degree. San Diego Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon ruled last week that Ashford and Zovio — formerly Bridgepoint Education — violated unfair competition and false advertising laws by giving prospective students bogus information to lure them to enroll. San Diego Union-Tribune

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A police K-9 bit a woman in the head, she says, as she hid in an attic crawlspace. The incident happened a year before the same dog ripped the scalp off a shoplifter hiding in bushes. The German Shepard named Marco made headlines when video of the second gruesome attack in February 2020 was made public. In a statement, city officials told KTVU the incident was reviewed by the Brentwood Police Use of Force Committee which found the use of the K-9 to be within policy and law under the circumstances. KTVU

Silver Lake had an unusual visitor Tuesday night — a mountain lion. Residents of the hilly Los Angeles neighborhood reported sightings on social media and warned neighbors to be aware and stay cautious if they were out walking. Los Angeles Times


San Francisco’s first tiny home village for homeless people opens. At $15,000 a pop, the city says it’s cost-effective. DignityMoves, a nonprofit dedicated to getting people off the streets, has raised $2 million to construct small living spaces. So far, 30 men and women have been promoted from a tent city on the city-leased lot into the tiny structures where they can live for at least a year. Eventually the site will hold 70 units in modular duplexes. San Francisco Chronicle

New ties between Fresno State’s former president Joseph I. Castro and former vice president of student affairs Frank Lamas have been revealed. The close relationship between the two left victims and employees in the department of student affairs hesitant to come forward about allegations against Lamas. A staff member who approached Castro about Lamas’ bullying was allegedly told, “Well, I’m in a really tough spot because Frank is babysitting my son this weekend.” Fresno Bee

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Los Angeles: Overcast 67 San Diego: Overcast 62 San Francisco: Sunny 64 San Jose: Sunny 68 Fresno: Sunny 68 Sacramento: Sunny 67 A Corgifornia Roll.



Today’s California memory is from Jodi Lewis (more context here):

I was jolted awake, as though the bed had dropped from beneath me. Silence as I tried to comprehend, and then tremendous back-and-forth shaking like no other earthquake I’d experienced before. The 1994 Northridge earthquake stranded Santa Clarita when the Interstate 5 overpass collapsed. That morning and the following week, before I could get back to college in Los Angeles, I experienced hometown community: neighbors extinguishing a fire caused by a gas line eruption, sharing stoves and lanterns in their campers so that we could boil water before utilities were restored, chatting in lawn chairs on the driveway each evening.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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