LONG BEACH, Calif. – Erick Ramirez is among the more than 2,000 people who traverse Long Beach’s Shoreline Pedestrian/Bike Path every day. But while the 18-year-old enjoys the sunny skies and sea breeze, he, like many locals, rarely thinks about taking a dip in the water.
“The beach can get really messy and dirty,” says Ramirez. “I see a lot of people come down here to exercise but they don’t bother cleaning up whatever mess there is lying around.”
When it comes to the beach here, the common perception is that it’s full of gunk. Local environmental justice activists acknowledge the problem, but they say that given the other challenges in the city the coast is by necessity lower down on the list of priorities.
“We don’t focus on the coast,” says Jan Victor Andasan, Long Beach community organizer with the non-profit East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. Instead, his group focuses year round on policies impacting the city’s air quality, hoping to reduce the disproportionate rates of asthma and cancer for the city’s poor.
Besides, says Andasan, “There’s folks working on the beaches, but we don’t do that.”
The remark points to the divide separating California’s more traditional coastal advocates from an emerging cohort of environmentalists of color, many of whom focus their efforts on lower-income communities away from the coast.
In cities and communities throughout the Central and San Joaquin valleys, for example, environmental advocacy organizations have taken on an array of issues, from polluted air to toxic water and pesticide exposure. Hours from the nearest beach, it’s little wonder why they don’t see the coast as part of that struggle.
But in Long Beach, issues like poor air quality that plague inland communities exist side-by-side with coastal concerns. Still, advocates on either side have yet to take a concerted approach, a division that holds larger implications for the future of the state’s environmental movement as a whole.
“Part of my challenge, too … how have folks working on the coast helped support local communities of color that are fighting these daily issues,” says Andasan. “The coast is important, but we’re fighting on a daily basis to breathe air with dignity.”
East Yard Communities has lately been organizing in opposition to a proposed expansion of the Tesoro refinery. The move would lead to the largest refinery on the west coast and advocates say it would also dramatically worsen already poor air conditions in communities of color.
Portions of Long Beach are in the 90th - 100th percentile in terms of air borne pollutants. The city also has some of the highest asthma rates in L.A. County.
As for the local beaches, Andasan does not mince words. “We all know not to go into the water in Long Beach.”
It’s a sad irony for a city once known as the “Waikiki of the west,” and it’s an issue other local environmentalists contend is worth fighting for.
The environmental non-profit Heal the Bay’s 2015-2016 Beach Report Card gave ‘A’ grades to 80 percent of the beaches in the city during dry weather (likely given a boost during the recent years long drought). But those grades plummet to ‘F’s’ after a heavy rain and the debris that washes up on local shores.
UCLA Associate Vice Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability, Mark Gold, says beach and ocean conditions in Long Beach can be poor because the city sits downstream from over 1,000 square miles of urbanized watersheds in both the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers.
“When it rains, all of the pollution from upstream ends up in Long Beach,” says Gold. “As a result, the beaches are trashed and [the water] often has high fecal bacteria densities after a rain.”
Gold thinks Long Beach can “exert more leadership in advocating for upstream cities to clean up the Los Angeles and San Gabriel River.”
There are efforts underway to do just that, including the installation of trash-capturing devices in neighboring cities that can help prevent trash from entering storm drains and washing out on local beaches. There’s also a $28 million project – LB-MUST – that, when complete, will capture and treat runoff from city streets. The project is scheduled to be up and running by 2020.
But there are other challenges.
“I don’t think people in Long Beach are aware they’re acidizing off the coast,” says Elliot Gonzales, commissioner with Long Beach Sustainable City Commission and member of Stop Fracking Long Beach.
Acidizing involves injecting hydrofluoric acid into local bedrock for gas and oil extraction. The process is widely used in California, despite the high toxicity of the chemicals used and, in the case of Long Beach, the potential for it to leach into local waters.
“You would think people would be concerned,” said Gonzalez, who blames a lack of media attention for the public’s overall indifference.
“We need to start talking about the beach’s protection now and address the issues to prevent more problems in the future,” argues John Kindred with the Surfrider Foundation’s Long Beach chapter. He says with the anticipated impact of climate change and sea level rise, it’s more important than ever to begin protecting the coast.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, brown, disabled, gay or whatever ... this affects all of us,” says Kindred. “We need to pass the knowledge we have down to the next generation to ensure we have beaches for all to enjoy.”
As for Ramirez, he admits conditions at local beaches are a long way from where they were a generation ago, but he remains optimistic.
“People don’t really seem to care too much about our beach, unlike other beaches,” says Ramirez, before adding a note of optimism. “Progress will be steady, but I believe we’ll work our way toward turning around this beach’s reputation.”
This story was written with support from New America Media’s California’s Coast: A Time of Reckoning Fellowship Program.
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