TimesOC: Advocates look for environmental justice in Orange County

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TimesOC, a newsletter about Orange County, is published Wednesdays and Fridays.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning and welcome to the TimesOC newsletter.

It’s Friday, Oct. 22. I’m Ben Brazil, bringing you the latest roundup of Orange County news and events.

As climate change threatens to worsen environmental health disparities in communities throughout Orange County, the low-income and Latino neighborhoods of Santa Ana are particularly vulnerable.

That’s known all too well by people who work and live near Santa Ana’s industrial corridor.

My colleague Gabriel San Román wrote this week about two workers for a Kingspan Light and Air factory who used monitors to measure indoor air pollution for an independent study led by Dr. Shahir Masri, a UC Irvine scientist. Israel Maldonado and Micaias Pacheco had been concerned about the air they breath at work.

Their concerns were warranted.

San Román reported that the study showed that the average concentration of indoor air pollution exceeded outdoor levels in Santa Ana during last year’s wildfires by 25%.

“To see workers being exposed to levels for hours at a time each day that were far in excess of what I have measured outdoors during wildfire events, it was just very shocking to me,” Masri said.

Santa Ana also has a massive problem with lead contaminated soil in low-income and predominately Latino neighborhoods.

A few years ago, the nonprofit Orange County Environmental Justice partnered with UC Irvine researchers and other community members to study the lead levels in Santa Ana soils. About half of the soil samples exceeded the California safety recommendation of 80 ppm in a residential area. The findings were particularly glaring for children, with researchers finding that neighborhoods housing more than 28,000 children had maximum lead concentrations exceeding 80 ppm, and 12,000 of those children were in neighborhoods with lead concentrations above 400 ppm, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation for play areas.

“It’s a generational issue that’s been affecting us for decades at this point,” said Patricia Flores, who leads O.C. Environmental Justice. “It’s an issue that is particularly affecting poor communities of color, and so we see that as a form of environmental racism ... There’s been no initiative to do something about it on the part of the city, the county or the state. So it’s time that something be done to address this issue that’s been affecting our health for generations.”

Micaias Pacheco, left, and Israel Maldonado took part in an indoor air pollution study.
Micaias Pacheco, left, and Israel Maldonado took part in an indoor air pollution study.
(Scott Smeltzer / TimesOC)

Flores pressed the city and county over the last year to solve the problem. In response, the city added several policies to its general plan, which it is currently updating. Flores is hoping the city and county will follow through with the remediation efforts.

“We think that while there are some good policies in place now, it is not necessarily sufficient to address the full extent of the problem,” Flores said.

Alana LeBrón, a UC Irvine assistant professor who worked on the lead research with the nonprofit, said that health and environmental disparities in Orange County are relatively understudied. She and her UC Irvine colleague Jun Wu have partnered together to start a center dedicated to researching and advancing environmental justice issues. They hope to make an impact locally by seeking out partnerships and forming a community advisory board to help direct efforts.

LeBrón said that Orange County is a tale of two cities.

“We’ve got the elite, wealthy, predominantly white residents and coastal communities, and then in more inland areas in northern Orange County, we have lower-income, working-class communities and communities of color who are burdened by the differential concentration of industrial land uses in their communities,” LeBrón said. “Plus, significant population density that’s not counterbalanced by access to green space, parks and cooling spaces.”

Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Westminster and Stanton, cities with high Latino and Asian populations, face some of the worst environmental and social obstacles in the county. Research has shown that decades of racist housing and environmental policies have led to Black and Latino communities being subjected to polluted air and soil.

“We have a long way to go in terms of translating that research into action,” LeBrón said. “I think that a key part of doing so depends on community engagement, on really having affected communities be at the center of the process.”

Public Health professors Jun Wu and Alana LeBron.
Public Health professors Jun Wu, left, and Alana LeBron will lead the Center for Environmental Health Disparities Research.
(Kevin Chang / TimesOC)


Beachgoers haven’t had it easy the last few weeks in Huntington Beach with a historic oil spill and a 250-gallon sewage spill. The city closed Huntington Harbour to swimmers and others this week after the sewage was accidentally released from a boat’s holding tank. Apparently, sewage spills are uncommon in Huntington Beach.

Here’s some rare good news from out of Huntington Beach. Eleven rehabilitated Canada geese were released back into their habitat this week after being cared for by the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center for fishing hook injuries. Meanwhile, animals that were injured in the massive oil spill continue to be released.

In the latest in the never-ending saga of the anti-maskers, a woman who refused to wear a mask in a Costa Mesa supermarket was found guilty of trespassing. Why was Marianne Campbell Smith taken to court for trespassing by Orange County prosecutors? Smith, a sixth-generation heir of the Irvine development family, certainly found it unfair. “I’m innocent,” Smith said as she walked out of the courthouse. “Even though the verdict was guilty, I committed no crimes except to be able to breathe oxygen. I have a medical disability, and it was not honored at Mother’s Market that day.”

A Costa Mesa homeless facility temporarily suspended new admissions after seven shelter residents have had to be isolated due to contracting COVID-19. Clients and staff are undergoing weekly testing. The shelter won’t begin taking new people in until they get two weeks of COVID-free tests. Reporter Sara Cardine has the story.

Janice Munemitsu, the author of "The Kindness of Color," poses for a photo in front of Johnson Middle School in Westminster.
(Scott Smeltzer / TimesOC)


A small farm in Westminster played a role in one of the most famous civil rights cases in Orange County. A new book by Janice Munemitsu details how her Japanese American family’s farm was leased to Gonzalo Mendez, a Santa Ana cantina owner who took the school district to court for not allowing his Mexican-Puerto Rican children to enroll in a white school. My colleague Gabriel San Román wrote about how Mendez used the profits from the farm to fund legal fees from the case.

Tustin Mayor Letitia Clark wrote a children’s book to explain her role as mayor to her children and other adults. The book also discusses the need for diverse representation in government. “What I learned was that only 12% of children’s books feature people of color,” said Clark, “I am happy to add to that percentage.”

Despite the burger chain’s subpar French fries, Orange County Public Libraries is partnering with In-N-Out for a children’s reading club. The Cover to Cover Club incentivizes children to read books with burger-related rewards. My colleague Sarah Mosqueda said that readers can get a free hamburger or cheeseburger after reading five books. Notice how they didn’t attempt to incentivize children with their soggy fries.

Orange County Soccer Club's Eric Calvillo, center, celebrates after scoring a goal.
(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)


The Orange County Soccer Club, a United Soccer League team, clinched a playoff spot this week despite only scoring three goals in its last three matches. Reporter Andrew Turner noted that the team has had to rely on its defense to step up. Luckily, they did in a 1-0 win over the San Diego Loyal on Wednesday.

The Ocean View girls’ volleyball team swept Bolsa Grande in their playoff opener. The team had a disappointing regular season but is looking to put that behind them in the CIF playoffs.

Here’s a high school sports roundup from coastal cities in Orange County, including the Corona del Mar girls’ tennis team claiming a win against Los Alamitos. Also, Edison defeated Fountain Valley 12-6 in a Wave League rivalry.

Goodwill of Orange County is celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
(Don Ryan / Associated Press)


Nicole Suydam, president and chief executive of Goodwill of Orange County, called on local employers this week to hire people with disabilities. Her words come amid the nonprofit’s celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just over 21% of Americans with disabilities participate in the labor force. “Goodwill of Orange County envisions a community where there is a job for everyone who wants to work,” Suydam wrote. “We want to ensure that every individual who wants to work can work — and that they have access to the services that enable them to do so.”

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