L.A. City Council adopts rules to ease health hazards in polluted neighborhoods

A refinery complex sits adjacent to a neighborhood in Wilmington.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Addressing decades of complaints from some of the city’s most neglected corners, Los Angeles officials on Wednesday launched a groundbreaking effort to reduce health risks from industrial and traffic pollution that have plagued neighborhoods from the harbor area to the San Fernando Valley.

The City Council unanimously approved special land-use restrictions for some of the L.A.’s most polluted neighborhoods and adopted citywide requirements for higher-rated air filters in new developments near freeways.

The measures mark a significant effort to bring environmental justice to toxic hot spots where residents of largely low-income communities have for years fought for greater health protections from a heavy concentration of junk yards, auto body shops, oil refineries, factories, freeways and other pollution sources situated right next to homes, schools and day-care centers.


It’s also a recognition that residents living near industrial facilities face outsized health effects from pollution and require special considerations.

The ordinance, known as Clean Up Green Up, designates three special districts in the predominantly Latino communities of Boyle Heights on the Eastside, Wilmington in the harbor area, and Pacoima and Sun Valley in the eastern San Fernando Valley.

New and expanding businesses in those “green zones” will be subject to more stringent development standards and restrictions, such as setbacks, landscaping requirements and buffers between their operations and nearby homes.

“These communities have notoriously been the dumping ground for the city’s intense industrial land uses,” Councilwoman Nury Martinez said at a rally at Boyle Heights elementary school before the vote. “Today we take a pivotal first step to address the health of our communities.”

A related measure will change the building code citywide to require enhanced air filters in all new homes within 1,000 feet of freeways. Studies show traffic pollution puts residents at higher risk for asthma, heart disease and other chronic health problems. Filters must meet a rating of 13 on a 16-point industry scale.

Industry groups have opposed the changes, arguing that they create a burdensome new layer of requirements that overlap with existing regulations, discouraging growth. The groups say the ordinance lacks adequate incentives for businesses to make environmental improvements.


“It creates enormous obstacles for anyone wanting to either expand a business or site a new business in those three communities,” said Bill La Marr, executive director of the California Small Business Alliance.

Council members said the proposal underwent scrutiny for more than five years to strike an appropriate balance between community and business concerns.

Councilman Jose Huizar, who in 2011 introduced a motion that launched development of the Clean up Green Up ordinance, said it will “over time ease the conflict between incompatible industrial and residential uses.”

The new standards will roll out as a pilot program and apply to more than 1,000 businesses across the three communities.

The measures also establish a City Hall ombudsperson to help business owners navigate environmental requirements.

Manuel Pastor, the director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at USC, who was involved in the development of Clean Up Green Up, called its adoption “a pioneering move that’s likely to be replicated.”


It’s also indicative of a
recent shift to address
environmental disparities through “more proactive, forward-looking strategies that could protect rather than clean up these overburdened neighborhoods,” Pastor said.

Some of the more controversial provisions were stripped from the ordinance after opposition from the oil industry and home builders. The abandoned measures would have imposed more stringent permitting requirements on oil refineries and required that new housing developments near freeways display signs warning of the health risks from traffic air pollution.

A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said that he would sign the ordinance.

Garcetti called it a “cutting-edge policy that will help protect the public health of the residents of some of our most polluted neighborhoods,” giving them “the tools to reduce pollution, support economic development and improve public spaces.”

Huizar said the need for air filtration is urgent with the amount of development underway. He said the requirements will have a “profound, positive impact on the health and well-being of people living near freeways, particularly our young people.”

Previous efforts to require better air filters near freeways had “been tried before and people have fought it back,” Huizar said.

Huizar, who lives several hundred feet from Interstate 5, said the city should look at additional restrictions such as buffer zones to limit how close to freeways new homes can be built.


The city’s new approach toward greener business regulation comes after a long campaign by environmental justice activists and advocacy groups.

As part of the rules’
early development, residents from the affected communities measured air pollution levels and counted hazardous operations near their homes.

They found a slew of problems that were not being addressed by current government regulations, which typically look at individual facilities with little consideration of the collective effect of multiple pollution sources.

“Our health is being affected every single day because of the amount of industry, the amount of pollution that our community has to deal with,” said Ashley Hernandez, an organizer with the group Communities for a Better Environment from Wilmington, a neighborhood dotted with auto dismantlers, oil operations and port-related trucking businesses — many in close proximity to people.

Although the measure is not a remedy for all environmental hazards, Hernandez hopes it will inspire action elsewhere.

There is some evidence that is happening.

City officials have heard from local government representatives as far away as Minneapolis who are interested in replicating the city’s ordinance, said Hagu Solomon-Cary, a Los Angeles city planner who has overseen the development of Clean Up Green Up.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also supported the measures.

In Long Beach, community groups are looking to L.A.’s ordinance as they explore similar protections for neighborhoods near the port, rail yards and auto shops.

“It’s a very good model,” said Jennifer Chheang, a program manager with the California Endowment, a health foundation. “It shows how a city can think creatively and use the tools it has available to protect residents from environmental pollution.”

Twitter: @tonybarboza


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