An L.A. youth soccer league frequently plays games at the Kenneth Hahn Soccer Fields, which sit alongside the Inglewood Oil Field where hundreds of pump jacks drill for oil. (Credit: Tara Pixley)

Photo project documents environmental injustices “next door” to L.A. residents

Da Vinci Communications High students Arianna Goldfarb, CJ Lucey, Joey Peinado, Mia Rios, Nick Torres, Rogerick Watts and Brian Winbush contributed to this report.

Special thanks to the artists, residents, researchers and experts who made this project possible, and Los Angeles Center of Photography for generously providing space for Next Door: Environmental Injustice in Our Neighborhoods on display from June 6-29, 2024 at 252 S. Los Angeles St, Los Angeles, CA 90012.

“The trucks back up with storage containers and create dust that gets into our home. I’m constantly cleaning,” said Gina Gamez. 

A layer of dust rains down and settles on every surface, inside and outside Gina and Arnie Gamez’s home in Wilmington. Trucks lined up near their home travel between the nearby Port of Los Angeles and warehouses in the Inland Empire. 

“We have problems with air quality from truck pollution,” said Gina Gamez. Not only is it “stressful,” it’s impacting her health. She said she’s seeing specialists for asthma and a skin allergy of unknown cause.

A man shows the dust on his fingers after wiping his hand across a furniture cover.
Arnie Gamez collects dust on his hand by gently swiping a plastic cover in his Wilmington backyard in November 2023. (Credit: Hanna Leka)

The Gamezes are among the residents profiled in Next Door: Environmental Injustice in Our Neighborhoods, a new collaborative art exhibit produced by AfroLA, Black Women Photographers and students at Da Vinci Communications High School.

The legacy of historic redlining and environmental racism have resulted in policies and development that disproportionately impact people of color, specifically Black and Latine communities. Next Door documents the everyday lives of L.A.-area residents impacted by poor air quality, contaminants in their water, oil infrastructure, and dust and pollution resulting from commercial trucking and warehousing in their neighborhoods.

Black Women Photographers
Tumi Adeleye
Jessica Bethel
Amber Clemons
Amari Dixon
Hanna Leka
Tara Pixley
Nia Symone
Anisa Williams

Curator: Tara Pixley

Project Coordinators: Dana Amihere, Jessica Bethel, Amari Dixon and Tara Pixley

Da Vinci Communications High students
Arianna Goldfarb
CJ Lucey
Joey Peinado
Mia Rios
Nick Torres
Rogerick Watts
Brian Winbush

DVC Instructor: Adam Watson

AfroLA: Dana Amihere

* * *

Roughly 90% of Wilmington’s nearly 60,000 residents are people of color and many are immigrants. The area is only about 9 square miles, but about a third of the community is industrial, and uninhabitable.

“We’re not an industrial community. It’s just been the last 20 years or so,” said Wilmington Neighborhood Council President Gina Martinez. “But, it’s not by residents’ making.” 

A woman stands near a basketball goal in her yard that's next to a fence with barbed wire. Semi-tracks are parked on the other side of the fence.
Transportation corridors near her home don’t leave much room for Gina Gamez and her family to avoid noise and dust buildup from neighboring construction. (Credit: Hanna Leka)

The Wilmington Oil Field is the third largest in the contiguous U.S. Since 1932, when oil was first discovered in the area, more than 3,400 onshore wells have been drilled in the field. An estimated 3 billion barrels of oil can be recovered from the field during its lifetime. Both oil and gas are recovered from this 13-mile long, 3-mile wide stretch. 

“There are two 300-metric ton liquid petroleum gas (LPG) tanks that put us [Wilmington] in the blow zone,” she said. Martinez said there have been four refinery explosions in her lifetime.

Severe illness and pollution are a part of Wilmington residents’ lives. 

Oftentimes there are two or three generations of cancer survivors in the same household, said Martinez. She herself has had two bouts with breast cancer, her mother died of ovarian cancer and her daughter had to have her ovaries removed.

A young boy sits on the other side of a glass door with ironwork covered in dust.
Dust covers the floors, furniture, plants, and window screens of Gina and Arnie Gamez’s Wilmington home, even after cleaning them less than an hour earlier. (Credit: Hanna Leka)

During a “toxic tour” event through Wilmington, organized for government officials, lawmakers and the Los Angeles Department of Health to see firsthand how local residents are affected by oil infrastructure. Driving through the community, there are oil derricks everywhere. You might see one on your way to school or work. There are derricks located just over the fence from an elementary school and YMCA.

Alicia Rivera, a community organizer for Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), led the tour segment past the Phillips 66 oil refinery. 

Pointing to a small orange and brown house Rivera said, “The lady has all kinds of health conditions, heart issues and asthma.” As the bus chugged on a bit further, “…You’re gonna start to see the stacks of the refinery… Imagine, we are in the middle of an oil drilling operation,” continued Rivera.

A Los Angeles environmental justice coalition fighting to end neighborhood oil drilling ranked parts of Wilmington among the top 5% of communities with the highest pollution exposure in the state. And, while the cancer risk associated with air pollution in Southern California is generally in excess of 1,200 in a million, the risk in some parts of Wilmington are in excess of 2,000 in a million. Wilmington’s nearly 60,000 residents also suffer higher asthma rates, cardiac disease and overall poor health.

A woman standing to the side, looking toward the sun, with the shadow of an oil refinery in the background.
Environmental justice advocate Dulce Altamirano stands in front of the Marathon Refinery in Wilmington. (Credit: Tara Pixley)

“Everyone here [knows] someone with cancer…Their pets die because there is a wall that separates their property from the [oil refinery] facility. And, nothing grows in their backyard. And there is always some sort of black type of tar at the base of the [wall].”

The home Rivera described was separated by a wall from an oil derrick, a normal sight in Wilmington. Tar, liquidated and hot – the same substance roads are paved with – is toxic when inhaled after it’s freshly extracted from the ground. And if it’s touched, it can cause severe burns. 

(Produced by Brian Winbush)

“Everybody lives less than a mile away from either [an] oil drilling operation or oil refining. So after they take it out of the ground, they pipe it here to create many uses – into the gasoline we put in our cars, the jet fuel when we fly and diesel for the trucks to run on,” said Rivera. 

Residents and those advocating for them like CBE organizers understand the significance of oil in our daily lives. Their fight is to stop putting oil facilities in residential areas, especially in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. 

“People here [in Wilmington] are mostly Mexican, Latinos, and a lot of these homes have been [here] for a generation,” said Rivera. “Again, another example of a community that is sandwiched between polluting activities of the refinery and the traffic on the freeway.” 

“Due to the impact of the oil and gas drilling and refining, census tracts in Wilmington are exposed to more pollution than 80-90% of the state of California,” according to a 2021 Grist report. “Meanwhile, predominantly white Palos Verdes — some 12 miles west of Wilmington on the other side of Interstate 110 — is exposed to less pollution than 85% of the state.”

(Produced by Nick Torres)

The reality is that where and how oil wells exist in communities around Los Angeles directly correlate to the race and income of area residents.

Abandoned oil wells located under the Beverly Hills High School campus were plugged in a $40 million remediation project following a series of lawsuits from angry parents. They argued that a “cancer cluster” was the result of oil and gas operations next to the athletic fields which predated the school’s opening in 1928. The lawsuits were dismissed because the judge found the types of cancers alarming parents weren’t medically connected to the effects of exposure to oil and gas extraction.

Scene of homes on a hill above an oil field with pump jacks and derricks.
Overlooking the Inglewood Oil Field as the pump jacks drill in a residential area. Oil infrastructure in Wilmington and Inglewood impact residents’ lives. (Credit: Amari Dixon)

There are active oil wells in Beverly Hills, but you won’t find any evidence of that near million-dollar homes; they’re carefully, and purposefully, hiding in plain sight.

The Sentinel Peak Resources rig near the Beverly Center included 54 oil wells that tapped into the Salt Lake and Beverly HIlls oil fields to produce tens of thousands of barrels of oil each year. The full expanse, though, was hidden “behind tall walls and foliage, barely visible to passersby on San Vicente,” described a 2018 Los Angeles Magazine article on L.A. oil wells hidden in plain sight. (Fifty-two oil wells in the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood are disguised as an office building. The heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood has a drilling site masked as a synagogue.)

Pollution from oil drilling and refinery has taken its toll on not just Wilmington. The sights, sounds and smells of oil extraction are normalized in Inglewood, too. 

“I just remember when I was a kid, the oil fields were loud, and they were very smelly. And I just remember when I was a child, I would always feel kind of nauseated and sick when we got to a certain part [near] La Cienega and Stockton,” recalled reproductive and environmental justice advocate Regina Martin, who lives in Inglewood.

A Black woman in a blue shirt poses for a portrait withe her arms crosses on the table in front of her.
Regina Martin, a community health and outreach worker with Black Women for Wellness, details her experience as a longtime L.A. resident who has been impacted by pollution. (Credit: Amari Dixon)

“I do know of people that live very close to the oil wells that have, you know, had miscarriages and have had breathing problems…In Beverly Hills, you know, they don’t have to deal with these [effects of oil and drilling] anymore. But we’re still having to deal with them. And we still have a big fight.”

While residents may not be able to see the tangible effects of drilling in their daily lives, some, including Martin, worry about invisible dangers. “The oil wells themselves [are] just a mile down the road. Where are those pipes? You know, and there’s oil and chemicals going through those pipes. So what effect does that have?”

On a Sunday morning in 2010, Martin recounted what she believes was an explosion due to fracking near her home:

“It felt like something, just, it felt like it was an earthquake, and it just shook the building…But it wasn’t an earthquake, because when I went to Google it, there was no earthquake. And I realized it was probably because they were doing fracking over here off of La Cienega. And I really believe that was the incident because it was like a boom. You know, it was like something exploded. And then they shut down Slauson. Not only did they shut it down, they covered the street. I’ve never seen that before. They didn’t want anybody to see what they were doing, or how they were fixing whatever they were fixing.”

Community activism and advocacy are foundational to Martin’s work with local nonprofit Black Women for Wellness. “We actually go down to L.A. City Hall…I’ve written statements I’ve sent via email. I’ve been willing to give statements [at City Hall] in person, [but it hasn’t happened]; they always run out of time for some reason,” explained Martin. “And we’re continuing to show up, you know, as a voice for the community at these meetings. [We’ve hosted our own town hall meetings, and] we continue to inform the community, we continue to rally the community.”

“I do wish that they [the oil wells] could be gone. I wish they could be safely shut down. I wish that the soil could be healthy. And we could use that land for something positive for the community” like a community center or a park, explained Martin. “Just some open space that we could walk in and something beautiful for the community.”

“Angelenos have been forced to live with dangerous oil drilling in our backyards for far too long, putting our families’ health at risk and adding to the climate chaos we’re already experiencing. This historic vote is the direct result of communities coming together to demand better. Ending oil drilling in our communities is possible, and for the sake of our health and our climate, we must do so immediately. We look forward to working with the County to follow through on this vote by phasing out existing drilling as soon as possible, and we urge the rest of Los Angeles to follow suit.”

– Sierra Club Campaign Representative Nicole Levin on the historic measure to end drilling in Los Angeles County

Martin and her colleagues’ efforts seem to be making a difference. A 2021 measure backed by more than 4,000 petitions from more than 150 organizations paved the way for the Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance last year. This made L.A. County the first in the nation to ban all new oil and gas extraction. While the historic ordinance also phases out existing drilling in unincorporated L.A. County, it doesn’t cover drilling the Inglewood Oil Field’s 1,600 oil wells.

* * *

As part of her job with Black Women for Wellness, Martin speaks with Inglewood residents directly about the issues they face. “When I’ve canvassed, I’ve talked to people who said that the water tastes funny, and it’ll have a funny smell coming out of the faucet,” said Martin. 

Martin also has problems with the water in her apartment building.

“It was difficult to wake up, you know, in the morning and get to work…I just always had that fatigue. And, it went away once I stopped drinking the water,” said Regina Martin. 

(Produced by Joey Peinado)

Drinking water quality is another environmental concern of South Los Angeles residents, and rightly so.

“The quality of your drinking water, it’s going to vary depending on where you’re getting your water from, right?” said USC civil and environmental engineering doctoral student Bianca Costa. And, South Los Angeles’s water supply contains groundwater which is minimally treated. The quality of that water is unknown, said Costa, particularly surrounding Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of about 4,000 synthetic chemicals with a similar molecular structure. Since the 1940s, PFAS has been used heavily in the aerospace, automotive, construction, and electronics industries. They’re also found in many consumer products, from non-stick cookware and cosmetics to products that are grease, water, or oil-resistant.

Two women and a man stand staggered on building steps, their hands clasped in front of them.
Bianca Costa (left), Junseok Lee (middle), and Christelle Sawaya (right), Ph.D. candidates of the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Southern California on Feb. 22, 2024. (Credit: Amber Clemons)

“PFAS may enter the environment as they are manufactured, used, or after a product with PFAS is disposed of. Today, because PFAS do not break down, they are widely present in soil, water, air, people and animals.

PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals,” pose serious health risks at micro levels. PFAS are linked to kidney cancer and other serious health conditions. Long term, said USC professor and water quality researcher Max Aung, these chemicals may lead to developmental issues across a lifetime, especially if young children are exposed to them at an early age.

Widespread industrial manufacturing across California, and across the United States can lead to PFAS chemicals in drinking water, said Aung. “We’ve seen it in metal plating facilities, we see it in waste management and landfill.” These chemicals can get into groundwater and different drinking water systems, through contamination, and that’s really one of the biggest problems that we’re trying to focus on, Aung continued. Combating contamination requires “forward thinking.” “What can we do differently at our wastewater treatment facilities to prevent PFAS from ever reaching drinking water facilities or wells or groundwater in communities? 

(Produced by CJ Lucey)

Costa’s work centers on understanding the science of water contamination and treatment. She said Los Angeles’s water distribution systems vary depending on where you are, from groundwater to imported water.The question, she said, becomes, “How do we optimize water supplies and distribution [for our communities]?”

The work of Costa and researchers like her are developing technologies to measure, extract and destroy contaminants. A holistic approach to this work is especially key to “help communities who might be under the radar,” because where some see reasons for concern, others don’t. 

A Metro train passes over brown water of the L.A. River in Long Beach.
A Metro train passes over the L.A. River in Long Beach. (Credit: Amber Clemons)

As of publication, 15 states had laws in place to combat the effects of PFAS in water. California has passed six laws since 2001. While these policies are a step in the right direction, they lack teeth. A new EPA mandate announced in April regulates just six PFAS chemicals, and the regulatory threshold for contamination is 4 parts per trillion (PPT). As little as a one drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools – 1 PPT –  can be hazardous. 

“There are hints of regulation [around PFAS], but nothing enforceable,” said Costa. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that only about 6-10% of public water systems will be required to take action to meet these new standards. 

Boats, shipping containers, and cranes at the Port of Los Angeles.
Boats, shipping containers, and cranes are part of international trade at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. (Credit: Amber Clemons)

Combating contaminants in drinking water like PFAS, said Costa, demands a layered, multidisciplinary approach, including toxicology assessments to inform level of exposure for communities; health sciences and epidemiology researchers to examine how that contamination affects physiology; and exploring treatment plans’ effect on contaminants. 

(Produced by Arianna Goldfarb)

“We’re exploring how to recharge aquifers that might be treated later for drinking water,” explained Costa. “We’re examining direct or indirect potable reuse, that is turning wastewater into drinking water… that’s happening now, but at indirect levels.”

Michael Rankin, research and policy manager of physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, vehemently believes every California resident has the right to affordable, clean, safe drinking water. “In California, not every single community receives that quality of service or water. And that’s the case here in L.A.” 

“Water quality is a little bit trickier when you’re trying to talk about it because there’s two ways to look at it. There’s the aesthetic side of it. And then there’s the the public health side of things,” said Rankin. The aesthetics issue is what gets reported across South and Southeast Los Angeles – “brown murky, smelly water.” But the effects of industry in L.A. aren’t necessarily seen or easily detected. “It’s really hard to determine the quality of the water and the impacts on public health.”

A boy walks in the sand on the beach near a family spreading out a beach blanket. A cargo ship out at sea is in the background.
A family enjoys a weekday afternoon at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo with a cargo ship in view. Credit: Anisa Williams)

“People [in Los Angeles] don’t trust their tap water,” said Rankin, because of historic racial and environmental injustices.

A data analysis from the National Resources Defense Council found unequal access to clean drinking water for communities of color, and unequal enforcement of water protections under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. From 2016 to 2019, drinking water systems in communities with more low-income residents of color and non-native English speakers  “spent more time out of compliance with the law for more violations for more contaminants,” and “even when problems were identified, and enforcement actions were taken, the problems remained uncorrected despite these actions.” The report highlighted examples nationwide, including California.

* * *

Unlike Wilmington and Inglewood, air pollution is one of the biggest environmental concerns in Leimert Park. Residents and business owners say the main driver of poor air quality is construction and development, including a new Metro stop.

(Produced by Rogerick Watts)

Leimert Park is the historic core of the Black community in Los Angeles. It also has some of the worst air quality in Los Angeles A UCLA study found Leimert Park had elevated levels of Ozone, PM 2.5, and diesel pollution. A separate community study found South Los Angeles as a whole had more than 5,000 deaths attributed annually to particulate matter air pollution. 

Related: Unequal air: The pollution legacy of segregation and the freeway boom in Los Angeles

The impacts of environmental degradation and pollution go beyond health; it affects the businesses that make up the heart of the community. 

The pollution has impacted the day-to-day operations of Fabio Assiss’s The Lion Art Gallery in Leimert Park.

A man with a beard, tattoos and dreadlocks poses for a picture in an art gallery with paintings hung on the wall in the background.
Fabio Assiss, artist and owner of The Lion Art Gallery in Leimert Park, shares his experience battling poor air quality and how it impacts his business daily. (Credit: Jessica Bethel)

“I’ve been here for seven years and this location, but I’ve been in Leimert Park for 23 years,” said Assiss. The last 12 years, he said, has been construction. “I say the air quality and everything else over here became worse because of a lot more construction around…you always see construction.” In that time, explained Assiss, they blocked Leimert Plaza Parks to build the train station and they’re always “in the streets to build something else.” I have to clean up all the time, he said.

The gallery owner tries to combat the construction dust by keeping his windows closed. “I don’t have a screen on my window. “Right now, I have to keep the fan on all the time because the quality of the air is so bad.” 

A man with dreadlocks sits legs crossed, holding a pair of eyeglasses in his hand, in front of a window.
Nappily Naturals co-owner Umaar Askia describes the adversities he faces sourcing organic produce at his Leimert Park store. Askia believes it is a disservice to the community to sell locally-sourced produce due to the city’s smog and poor air quality. (Credit: Nia Symone)

For fellow business owner Umaar Askias,  there’s a clear connection between the neighborhood’s poor air and health risks. “…We see the chemical effects of the air, and the effects it has on the body,” said Askias, co-owner of Nappily Naturals on Degnan Boulevard, across from The Lion gallery. We see a lot of people here with long-term skin problems, digestive and immune issues, said Askias. “And, that’s a direct result of environmental factors: food, air, water.”

Los Angeles skyline obscured by heavy smog.
After a rainy day in Los Angeles, the scenic overlook at Kenneth Hahn State Park in Baldwin Hills provides a visual of what Angelenos are immersed in everyday. (Credit: Jessica Bethel)

Another longtime Leimert Park resident, renowned artist and filmmaker Ben Caldwell, also said he’s seen the effects of air pollution. Toxic particulate matter from industry and construction disperses and settles on cars and buildings. “[It] just ate through the [paint on the] top of my car. So iit lets you know what it does to your lungs.” Caldwell attributes the problem to construction dust. “We are building a lot right now,” he said.

A senior Black man in a hat and eyeglasses stands in front of a storefront window that reads KAOS NETWORK.
Ben Caldwell, artist and founder of KAOS Network, photographed in front of his Leimert Park studio. Elder Ben, as he’s called, is well known as a neighborhood historian and has observed a change in air quality over time. (Amari Dixon/AfroLA)

Caldwell started the KAOS Network Media Lab on the corner of 43rd Place and Leimert Boulevard, a community training and arts space for South Los Angeles youth.that for 40 years has focused on South Los Angeles youth. In his 40 years in Leimert Park, he’s seen how Leimert Park and the surrounding area change.

Related: Artist Ben Caldwell on the power of race, place and culture in his beloved Leimert Park

“[Crenshaw] is a major, major artery. And so just along that whole strip, all the way up to even 120th [Street]… you have what? The Hawthorne airport. That’s a dumping ground of poisons, right? And then you have the 105 intersecting that, right? And then, you have the 10 freeway even down there… that whole area.” Caldwell said he tries hard not to even travel farther south because the air “is just more and more poisonous as you go deeper toward Orange County.”

* * *

None of Los Angeles’s problems with poor air and water quality or the impacts of oil drilling in communities are easily solvable. “We need a “10,000-foot” view to issues related to oil and gas, traffic congestion, and what it means for our communities,” said Nemmi Cole, an environmental health postdoctoral researcher and engineer at USC’s Environmental Justice Research Lab. Cole conducted water quality research near elementary schools in San Bernardino County. “To take care of the water, we have to address the source of the contaminants.” 

A man rides his bike along a river trail, with power lines and electrical towers in the background.
Bicyclist on the trail next to the L.A. River in Long Beach. Credit: Anisa Williams)

We’re trying to clean up our natural spaces, to varying results, explained Cole. The cleanup of a site used for rocket and nuclear reactor testing in the Simi Valley located at the headwaters of L.A. River isn’t going well. On the other hand, we see Indigenous peoples trying to “restore the land to its natural state.” The Tongva people are working to get rid of pavement and concrete along the L.A. River, part of their ancestral lands, as part of efforts through the California Native-led Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples

Back in Wilmington, community members like Gina Martinez continue to rally. There isn’t a formal truck route now through her neighborhood, said Martinez, but there’s a proposal before city council to add one. It will only make an already bad situation worse. “There’s one residential road where trucks go through 24/7, but it’s worse from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s bumper to bumper [traffic].” 

Three FedEx semi-trucks backed up against a cinderblock wall against a blue sky.
FedEx and Walmart warehouses are located just a few miles from homes in San Bernardino County. (Credit: Tumi Adeleye)

As head of the neighborhood council, Martinez has worked for years to increase accountability for her home. “If we [neighborhood council] don’t do it, it will get worse.” 

Efforts like the toxic tour through Wilmington force policymakers to confront the impact of their policies, or lack thereof. “How many of them [officials] have visited that community? I always ask. It’s always zero. They’re making decisions dictating how people live, altering their lives and don’t even have the courtesy to go visit it [the community],” said Martinez.

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