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Stopping the Bad, Changing the Rules, Building the New: A Just Transition for the Metals Industry

By Monika Shankar

Alameda Street is identified as a major industrial and commercial artery precisely due to the numerous facilities lining the thoroughfare from downtown Los Angeles all the way down to Wilmington. Along a particularly polluted stretch in Watts sits the S&W Atlas Iron & Metal Company. This facility has conducted metals recycling operations at its current location since 1949. It is bordered by a massive remediation project to the north, Jordan High School to the west, South Alameda Street and the Alameda Corridor Railroad to the east, and the school parking lot to the south. However, the facility appeared on the community’s radar when in December 2002, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) received a complaint that an explosion had occurred on the site sending metal scraps flying into the school’s sports field. Luckily, no one was hurt. Since the incident, the US EPA has removed contaminated waste piles from the site, and a 10-foot masonry wall has been installed on the western portion of the site. However, despite these measures, the facility continues to have impacts on the community’s environment including polluting the air, creating noise and posing potential hazards to the nearby school.

Having a noxious facility in one’s backyard is unfortunately a common occurrence in LA’s low-income communities and communities of color. The Los Angeles Health Atlas states that approximately 1/5 of Southeast LA residents live in close proximity to noxious land uses.[1] And according to PSR-LA’s research, there exist 585 sensitive uses (schools, hospitals, etc.) in close proximity to 1318 hazardous uses (auto body shops and metal recyclers) in the South and Southeast Community Plans.[2] Furthermore, a recent report by the Standing Together Against Neighborhood Drilling (STAND-LA) coalition found that 74.4% of residents who live within 1500 feet of drilling sites in the City of LA are people of color.[3] Unsurprisingly, these same communities experience significantly higher rates of asthma, heart disease and low-birth weight.[4]

It’s an undeniable fact that there is a pressing need to identify immediate solutions and interventions that address these everyday realities. Some communities have elected to approach the problem through land use interventions. For example, the Clean Up Green Up (CUGU) ordinance established Green Zones in the overly environmentally burdened communities of Pacoima, Boyle Heights and Wilmington that increased the regulation of industrial land uses. Other strategies have advocated for increasing regulations at polluting facilities. The Florence Firestone Initiative implemented by the County Department of Public Health has set up a pilot project along the Alameda corridor to assess toxic exposure with the goal of reducing toxic risk. However, despite these inspiring efforts, it is evident that there continues to exist a gap in policy, technology and innovation that hinders the full transition of industrial facilities towards greener, healthier and more efficient operations.

In an effort to start identifying the concrete interventions and solutions, PSR-LA is embarking on a project where we apply Just Transition strategies to our understanding of the metals industry in South and East LA. The Just Transition framework conceptualizes a roadmap from an extractive economy to a living economy. In the former, we see an addiction to fossil fuels and consumerism, environmental racism and an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power. In the latter, we practice deep democracy, hold all lives sacred, and promote systemic change that emphasizes regeneration and ecological and social wellbeing. What could the metal industry look like if we pinpointed the strategies and interventions to justly transition its practices and operations towards something healthier, greener and more sustainable?

To that end, PSR-LA is working with Antioch University’s Urban Sustainability Masters Program to start flushing out various elements of the Just Transition of the metals industry. We are focusing on three key areas:

  • Technology Assessment: What are the right questions/criteria for evaluating alternatives for the existing metals industry? What are some examples from other movements/sectors that could serve as case studies?
  • Policy Assessment: What kinds of enabling policy would help clear the path for solutions – or support the creation and implementation of alternatives to the existing metals industry? What examples of policies have been implemented in other communities, and sectors to address similar issues?
  • Community Engagement: Who are the impacted communities who need to be involved in developing solutions? Who are the stakeholders and existing decision-makers? What are some of the tools and method for engaging with these communities and stakeholders?

In addition to mapping out a comprehensive map of interventions and strategies grounded in the Just Transition model, PSR-LA is building partnerships with communities afflicted by the presence of metal facilities, as well as industry representatives who are incorporating innovative technologies to clean up, and green up, their operations. In the upcoming year, we will work to identify and prioritize strategies that move our solutions forward.

We invite allies and partners to join us in these efforts. Specifically, on Thursday, October 26 at 6:00pm, Antioch University will host a Sustainable Supper panel discussion with advocates, academics and community residents to begin exploring these big questions. All are welcome to join!

If you are interested in learning more about PSR-LA’s work, email Monika Shankar at mshankar@psr-la.org.

 

[1] Los Angeles Health Atlas (June 2013)

[2] 500 Feet Project (July 2017)

[3] Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in L.A (2015)

[4] California Environmental Screening Tool