Elizabeth Alcantar was at work when she began receiving a swarm of Twitter and Google alerts about a jet dumping fuel on her city.
She immediately texted her boss and said she had to go. Her day job was as a coordinator for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. But a week earlier, the 26-year-old had been appointed mayor of the small city of Cudahy.
Alcantar rushed to City Hall, navigating around fire engines and police cars. Then she began trying to figure out just what had happened to her town — a snakebit place that has struggled in the past with political corruption and environmental pollution. Several nearby cities — Whittier, Pico Rivera, Downey and South Gate — were doused with fuel by a Delta airplane overhead.
But it was in Cudahy where almost two dozen students at Park Avenue Elementary School got splashed by the fuel. Soon, TV trucks and reporters descended on the city. Anger rose from the confusion.
“There were a lot of thoughts running through my mind,” Alcantar said. “Why our city?”
The week of the fuel drop, Alcantar organized a town hall where hundreds of raucous residents voiced anger toward Delta Air Lines in a cramped room. A Delta spokeswoman was booed and heckled. Jessica Barragan, a 30-year-old Cudahy resident whose 5-year-old daughter attends Park Avenue Elementary, asked the Delta representative: “Why did it only hit where Latinos live?”
“This is environmental racism!” another resident shouted from the back of the room.
Since then, four teachers have sued the airline seeking compensatory damages for the emotional and physical distress they and their students suffered.
In a statement, Delta said: “We deeply regret any impact this may have had on you and your families. We mean it when we say we are an airline led by our values ... and we will continue to work with community leaders to assist those affected by Flight 89.”
The Delta fuel drop struck a nerve in Cudahy, a small working-class and immigrant community that has been no stranger to environmental problems. The city is one of Los Angeles County’s smallest but densest. About 24,000 people are squeezed over a paltry 1.2 square miles. Cudahy sits along the cargo truck-choked 710 Freeway corridor.
In 2015, when the Exide battery recycling plant in the nearby industrial town of Vernon was shut down after spewing arsenic and lead into southeast L.A. communities, Cudahy was one of the most affected cities. Though the city doesn’t lie in the 1.7-mile Exide cleanup zone, blood samples from children in Cudahy tested positive for high amounts of lead.
Twenty years before the Jan. 14 Delta fuel dump, Park Avenue Elementary students saw its ground bubbling up. It turned out the school had been built on toxic waste. Officials discovered the playground was contaminated by petroleum. For eight months, students were bused to schools outside of Cudahy.
Los Angeles County has 88 cities, including L.A. and other large ones such as Long Beach, Glendale and Pasadena. Being the mayor of the vast majority of them does not confer substantial power in any broad sense. What politicians in cities like Cudahy can do is relatively limited, especially in the face of events that, by their scale, end up transcending their borders.
In many ways, what local politicians like Alcantar can best do is act as a bridge between residents and officials with more legislative might and authority, to help channel frustrations and to give an audience for them. To help the people they represent feel as though they are being heard.
Derek Humphrey, a California political consultant, said Cudahy council members can use their “bully pulpit” to draw attention to the Delta fuel drop and other environmental injustices.
“Sometimes it takes something awful, like an airplane dumping fuel on schoolchildren, in order to get media attention,” Humphrey said. “This is a community that’s used to environmental injustices, and I think [Alcantar] did a good job of mirroring the outrage of residents.”
In the weeks since the Delta fuel incident, Alcantar’s first agenda item was securing healthcare services from Delta for affected residents. When the airline finally offered three days of free healthcare at Alta Med clinics, she pushed for more. Delta agreed to two extra days of care, more than a week after the dump.
Alcantar said that growing up in Huntington Park and Cudahy, two working-class majority Latino towns, has given her a perspective on the haves and have-nots of L.A. County cities. Cudahy, she said, is firmly in the latter category.
“It’s environmental racism, it’s environmental classism,” she said. “It’s a whole slew of things we’re affected by because we have less money in our pockets.”
Years ago, she watched with her neighbors as Cudahy’s council collapsed amid allegations that city officials attended meetings while intoxicated, rigged elections and were part of an illegal sex business, among other claims. In 2012, two council members and a city official were arrested by federal agents and charged with bribery.
“I starkly remember the image of our mayor at the time being called out of his hiding in a store with his hands above his head and the police calling him out,” she said. “That image, it’s ingrained into my head forever.”
As a field deputy in county Supervisor Hilda Solis’ office, Alcantar accompanied dozens of southeast L.A residents to Sacramento to campaign for funds to clean up the mess left by Exide, which closed in 2015.
This history has informed the frustration of residents not only in Cudahy, but other surrounding cities.
Since the jet fuel dump, she and her colleagues have asked for soil sampling in people’s backyards and gardens. They have asked for Delta representatives to go door to door and inform residents about what happened and have demanded they release information about additives in the fuel that was dumped, so they can better assess long-term health effects.
Delta has either dragged its feet in providing services or offered no answers at all, citing an ongoing investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, Alcantar said.
Alcantar points to the 2015 gas leak in affluent Porter Ranch, when residents were given vouchers to five-star hotels. The mayor said there’s no reason why Delta, a multibillion-dollar company, can’t reimburse Cudahy.
“We absolutely have a sense of urgency and we are conveying that … but it doesn’t seem like it’s reciprocated from Delta’s side,” Alcantar said.
The council is preparing a reimbursement proposal to Delta asking that the airline create a fund that would cover fuel drop-related claims as well as workforce development programs to assist residents in securing employment with the company.
In a statement, the airline said: “For Delta, safety always comes first — this includes the safety of customers onboard our aircraft, our employees and those in the communities we serve.”
In recent weeks, the news cycle has moved on: to the death of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven other people in a helicopter crash; the spread of the coronavirus; the impeachment hearings. But Alcantar said her small town remains determined to keep the jet fuel dump in the forefront.
“When I became mayor, I definitely did not expect that, seven days later, I would have to fully jump into action,” she said. “You don’t expect it. But I’m grateful I’m in a position to help my community in a time of dire need.”
Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.