California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris on Thursday ventured into a community known as a "diesel death zone" for its heavy truck pollution and announced her intention to join a lawsuit challenging a massive warehouse project to be built nearby.
Harris' visit to smoggy Mira Loma, where thousands of trucks from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach come to off-load cargo, underlines an aggressive stance on environmental justice issues by the state's highest law enforcement official.
On Wednesday, she proposed a $24.5-million settlement with Chevron to resolve allegations that the company failed to properly inspect and maintain underground storage tanks at 650 gas stations statewide. A month ago, Harris announced a settlement with cargo terminals at the ports requiring that they warn thousands of neighboring residents of the dangers posed by high levels of diesel emissions.
The Mira Loma project, in Riverside County, calls for 24 warehouse and industrial buildings totaling 1.4-million square feet near the 60 Freeway and Etiwanda Avenue in the city of Jurupa Valley. It would result in an estimated 1,500 additional daily diesel truck trips in the vicinity of 101 modest stucco homes where particulate pollutant levels are among the worst in the nation, according to environmental impact documents.
A USC study of 12 Central and Southern California communities found that Mira Loma children had the slowest lung growth and weakest lung capacity compared with similar areas — a handicap likely to affect them for life.
"This intervention is about giving voice to a community that has been voiceless for a long time, and maintaining the health of its residents," Harris said in an interview. "This is not about stopping the project. It is simply about mitigating the harm to the people who will be impacted."
Harris filed a motion in Riverside County Superior Court to join a lawsuit brought by the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice against the county and project developers that alleges the county failed to adequately analyze and mitigate the project's impacts on Mira Loma. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Sept. 16.
Riverside County Counsel Pamela Walls declined to comment pending a review of the lawsuit, but said the parties "could be expected to oppose the attorney general's intervention."
"To have the full weight and legal resources of the state of California behind us has lifted the spirits of a community that had come to think no one cared," said Penny Newman, executive director of the Center for Community Action. "These families are suffocating. Yet, the county approved new facilities at the fence lines of their homes, even though its own guidelines call for a 1,000-foot buffer zone."
Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, whose district includes Mira Loma, a low-income Latino community developed in the 1930s, said the approval of the project "represents a compromise that creates new jobs in our county and protects its citizens by placing the strictest conditions on diesel emissions anywhere in the state, and probably the nation."
Those conditions include a requirement that no trucks manufactured before 2007 be allowed to enter the facility. "That means every truck that enters it will have particulate traps on it, and particulates are what cause cancer," said John Field, Tavaglione's chief of staff.
"Each truck may have lower emission levels," Newman responded, "But when you add 1,500 trucks to the area it adds up to an even greater bowl of pollution."