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Jet fuel dump on schools raises heat at Cudahy town hall meeting

A crowd of people, some holding protest signs, at a Cudahy town hall meeting.
Cudahy residents packed a town hall meeting Friday to express anger over a Delta Air Lines jet that dumped fuel over the working-class community earlier this week.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

At a raucous town hall meeting in Cudahy on Friday night, hundreds of residents turned out to express their outrage over a Delta Air Lines jet that dumped 15,000 gallons of fuel over the working-class community this week, injuring children and teachers at local schools.

Several members of the crowd packed into the city’s community center felt a county health official at the meeting was downplaying the effects of the incident.

“Kids got injured, okay, sir,” yelled Gerardo Mayagoitia, a resident who is also the city clerk of neighboring Maywood.

“There are families in the hospital,” resident Vanessa Huarte screamed.

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One woman cried as she held up a cellphone, showing a picture of herself in a hospital bed. Several mothers showed photos of children with rashes and said they are still feeling ill.

On Tuesday, a Shanghai-bound Delta airliner dumped fuel over multiple schools in the area while making an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport. Delta said the pilot was forced to dump fuel in an urban area to reduce the plane’s weight before landing.

Dana Debel, a Delta spokeswoman who attended Friday’s town hall, spoke and took questions from the audience, but was booed and heckled by the crowd.

“This is environmental racism,” Jose Gomez shouted from the back of the room.

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It isn’t the first time the term has popped up in Southeast Los Angeles County, a region made up of mostly working-class Latino families who are routinely exposed to dust and noxious fumes from nearby factories, commercial vehicles, freeways and a rail yard. It also sits in the flight path of LAX.

For decades, residents and environmental activists have waged one environmental fight after another. They have pushed back against the construction of a toxic waste dump and an oil pipeline. Five years ago, environmental activists succeeded in closing down a battery recycling plant in Vernon, which had been spewing lead and arsenic onto residential neighborhoods for years.

So when Delta pilots decided to drop fuel over the area, people took offense.

“It was the final insult,” 21-year-old Marco Perez of Huntington Park said. “You don’t see this happening in white rich communities.”

Jessica Barragan, 30, a Cudahy resident whose 5-year-old daughter attends Park Avenue Elementary, where at least 20 children and 11 adults were treated for minor injuries, couldn’t help but ask Debel one thing: “Why did it only hit where Latinos live?”

Debel said she was limited in her response because of a pending federal investigation leaving Barragan and others frustrated and angry. Debel said that residents could file claims with Delta for any possible health injuries but that the airline could not say how it would respond until all investigations are complete.

The controversial fuel dump occurred Tuesday morning. Delta Air Lines Flight 89 had just taken off from LAX when pilots alerted the control tower that the plane’s right engine had stalled. The air traffic controller asked if the pilot needed to dump fuel.

“Negative,” the pilot is heard saying over the radio. But shortly after, the plane began to release jet fuel as it passed over several cities, including Cudahy, Downey, South Gate and others.

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The fuel hit children and teachers at several area schools. A total of 60 patients were treated as a result of the incident, at least 20 of them children.

Since the incident, four teachers have sued Delta, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the air pollution control agency, also slapped the company with a notice of violation and said that it could face civil penalties for causing a public nuisance.

Addressing the crowd at Friday’s town hall meeting, Mark Lopez, executive director for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit established in response to the increasing concerns about the region’s environmental health impacts of industrial pollution, told residents they should keep demanding answers and never stop.

“We’re dumped on every day; our water, our air, the land under our feet, every day,” he said. “And that’s what is allowed by the government agencies that is supposed to protect us.

“So when we get sprayed on, it’s on top of all of that,” he added.

Lopez led the crowd on a chant: “This is my community. This is my fight. You will hear me tonight.”


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