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Advocating for Southern California Communities of Color Impacted by Environmental Injustice

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Photo of Idalmis Vaquero
Photo of Idalmis Vaquero

By Idalmis Vaquero, a 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Stern-Hughes Family Fund and the Ottinger Family Foundation. Idalmis is hosted by Communities for a Better Environment.

East and Southeast Los Angeles communities consistently get the highest score in a competition no one wants to win—the communities most impacted by myriad environmental and social harms including high levels of pollution, which results in serious health impacts on Latinx, Black, and similarly historically oppressed peoples. Among the many sources of pollution in Los Angeles, the now-shuttered Exide battery processing facility has single-handedly inflicted significant harm by broadcasting high levels of lead to its neighbors.

Throughout its 30-year operation, Exide spewed more than seven million pounds of lead over the households of 100,000 residents and produced the greatest risk of cancer among all pollution-emitting facilities in the South Coast Air Basin. Even seven long years after the facility’s permanent closure in 2015, more than 6,000 properties still require cleanup by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), and the extent of the cleanup of the former facility is still unknown.

As a young Chicanx woman growing up in one of the East Los Angeles communities impacted by Exide and many other pollution sources, I believed that the constant noise of semi-truck trailers, unbearable smells of animal carcass from the nearby rendering plants, and sights of smokestacks from my window were normal. The moment I realized these sights, sounds, and smells were not at all normal was the moment I understood how environmental racism imposes injustice on our communities of color.

The moment I realized these sights, sounds, and smells were not at all normal was the moment I understood how environmental racism imposes injustice on our communities of color.

In late 2020, Exide was allowed to walk away from its obligations to fund the facility and community cleanup in California—in addition to 17 of their former sites across the country— after finalizing their bankruptcy plan. This has left victims with a hefty bill to pay for cleanup and a dysfunctional DTSC, resulting in delays and cost overruns in the cleanup process. While I knew that the legal system was not designed to protect communities of color or to provide environmental justice, with Exide I began to see the deeply rooted injustices perpetrated by bankruptcy laws firsthand.

My lived experience as a woman of color coming from a community directly impacted by pollution motivated me to pursue an Equal Justice Works Fellowship that would allow me to fight alongside my community in pursuit of environmental justice.

I developed my project with the goal of developing the legal and policy expertise of residents so we fight together to ensure that our state government is transparent and held accountable for cleaning up our homes in the aftermath of Exide, and in protecting against future improper land uses.

Photo of Idalmis Vaquero
Idalmis (left) with Jennifer Ganata, senior staff attorney, Irene Franco Rubio, USC Agents of Change intern, and Gabriel Grief, legal fellow (right) in front of Estrada Courts apartments where the Department of Toxic Substances Control recently completed soil cleanup.

Despite the structural and institutional challenges we face in the Exide cleanup, I have found the strength and support from my community who motivate me to continue advocating for solutions in pursuit of attaining justice. One of the first in-person meetings I attended as part of my Fellowship was an outdoor gathering with mothers living in Maywood, one of the cities impacted by Exide’s contamination. I listened as they expressed their fears regarding their children’s continued exposure to lead and their disappointment and distrust of our state governmental agencies that failed to protect their families.

Most importantly, I noticed that a recurring theme in the conversation was their strong sense of resilience. In community, they shared knowledge resources, home remedies to heal their sick children, and voiced their commitment to continue advocating for safer and more efficient clean-up of their homes.

It is my community’s resilience that informs the vision and work of my project. I continue to research legal and policy tools most relevant and effective for members of my community in East and Southeast Los Angeles, in addition to surrounding communities CBE supports, to give residents the support they need to determine the future use of the former Exide site and other abandoned sites.

It is my community’s resilience that informs the vision and work of my project.

I have also written to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with recommendations on policies and strategies to equitably tackle our national lead poisoning crisis, given our experience with Exide. In addition, I have engaged in state-wide advocacy efforts in a coalition of other environmental justice and public health organizations to obtain structural reform at DTSC, seeking more transparency and accountability. These advocacy efforts aim to ensure that another experience of exposure like Exide does not occur again.

Through this work, I look forward to creating a future where communities of color thrive and live comfortably without worrying about the health impacts a zip code or socio-economic status have on the life outcomes of a child. At CBE and through my Fellowship project, I hope to continue working with residents to ensure our vision of living in lead-free communities becomes a reality.

Visit here to learn more about the Idalmis’ work advocating for communities of color impacted by the Exide contamination.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow