Even when she was a kid, Melissa Cervantes knew something was wrong with the air in Wilmington, a neighborhood next to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach where she has lived most of her life. The streets here are verdant with mango, guava and avocado trees. But a brownish haze hangs above the houses. “I kind of figured the refinery was making people sick,” she says. “But when you’re just a little kid, you don’t put it together as a puzzle.”
Less than a mile away are the ConocoPhillips and Tesoro oil refineries, each a colossal system of pipes, towers, storage tanks and smokestacks. Roughly a mile to the south is Valero’s oil refinery. Two more refineries are within three miles. A few blocks from Melissa’s house, diesel trucks groan down the street, on their way to a storage lot full of shipping containers piled higher than the surrounding roofs. Just stepping outside and inhaling can be enough to give her a headache. “Last year, I knew three people that passed away from cancer. And they lived here all their lives,” she says. Her mother, Mary, has had breast and kidney tumors. Mary now has Stage IV liver cancer. The refineries, cargo ships, diesel trucks and factories clustered near the ports generate enough toxic air pollution to put the risk of cancer near Melissa and Mary’s house 20 percent higher than the average for the south coast of California. Many of their neighbors, especially children, suffer from asthma.
It’s no secret that the refineries often break the laws that limit pollution. The Tesoro refinery in Wilmington, for instance, violated air regulations twenty-eight times from 2008 to 2009. Melissa sometimes calls the companies’ public hotlines when she notices a bad smell or a plume of smoke, but they “give you the runaround,” she says. In the fall of 2010, her boyfriend’s mother, Maria Ramos, told her that Tesoro and Valero were backing a ballot measure that would suspend Assembly Bill 32, the state’s groundbreaking attempt to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.
Ramos has a soft voice and speaks little English, but she’s been campaigning in her neighborhood for decades with a scrappy statewide organization called Communities for a Better Environment (CBE). That fall, she and Melissa and Mary Cervantes knocked on doors, urging their neighbors to vote in support of AB 32. “People saw [the refineries] as powerful giants that are always using their power to pollute the air,” says Alicia Rivera, a Wilmington-based organizer for CBE. Rivera didn’t have a big campaign budget, but she turned out hundreds of volunteers to fight against the oil companies’ efforts to prevent the law’s implementation. In November 2010, California voters rejected the ballot measure and upheld AB 32.
A coalition of more than 120 groups, including CBE, kept the law alive: organizers reached out to 250,000 households in the counties that are home to three-quarters of the state’s nonwhite residents. Seventy-three percent of voters of color, versus 57 percent of whites, cast their ballots against the industry-backed measure. That’s partly because those voters had more at stake: of the almost 50 percent of Californians who live within six miles of a major greenhouse-gas-emitting industrial facility, most are people of color.