Latinos in Wilmington face most hazardous pollution levels in U.S.

By Brisa Colón
May 13, 2021

WILMINGTON, CA- The people of Wilmington call themselves “Wilmeros” or “Wilmeras.” Located in District 15 in Los Angeles, Wilmington is home to a population of about 90% Hispanic or Latino. Wilmington is a very industrial city, full of opportunity. As a result, it is home to the third-largest oil field in the continental United States, The Port of Los Angeles, and has many freeways surrounding the area. 

Industry in the city can be great for jobs and the economy, but the people that live next door to these refineries or drilling sites pay a considerable price. People from Latin America came to Wilmington in search of a place to start a family, get a good-paying job, and live the “American Dream.” They are willing to pay any price to come to this country with the hopes of a better life. The infographic below is a quick glimpse further into the statistics that make up Wilmington’s community. 

Like many other low-income, communities of color, some don’t advocate for these issues because they are preoccupied with putting food on the table and taking care of their families. Others possibly don’t speak out because they work in these industries or have loved ones that do.

According to Cancer Health, people who live within 30 miles of a refinery have higher rates of several cancers. Wilmington’s city covers only 9.14 square miles in total but has five major refineries in the immediate area. 

“Most of the patients I see live in working-class Wilmington, home to one of the largest air pollutants in the country and one of the largest concentrations of oil wells in Los Angeles. Many of these patients have oil wells in their backyard. Their symptoms vary, but they share something in common. They are neighbors to toxic pollution.”

– Dr. Lorenzo Gonzalez: Harbor UCLA Medical Center

Wilmington’s people consider themselves desensitized to the environmental health impacts that have been a part of their lives. They grow up thinking it’s “normal” and just a part of everyday life, but these health issues are very severe and can be detrimental. Some of the health issues that the community faces are…

These health issues are passed on from generation to generation as they can cause reproductive and developmental hazards in newborn children. When visiting, one can smell strong odors of oil, gas, and even rotten eggs. 

“It’s different when you go to a community and see what’s going on, when they come here and actually smell the odors that we smell and feel the headaches that we feel. It becomes different. They get a piece of Wilmington when they come here.”

– Nizgui Gomez – STAND LA Town Hall

They call themselves “frontliners,” signifying that they are the people taking the brunt of the environmental repercussions. Every day, these issues continue to get better as community activists continue to organize, industry makes changes to mitigate their pollution, and politicians hold these systems accountable. 

Organizations such as Communities for a Better Environment and STAND LA (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling) have been organizing for years now advocating for healthier environments for communities of color all across California. They’ve made significant progress, but their fight continues.

“I do call Wilmington, Carson, San Pedro, communities that are affected by environmental racism” 

– Isabel Alvarenga: Communities for a Better Environment

Some consider Wilmington as being a victim of environmental racism, while others believe that it is just the coincidence of the location in which they live. Regardless of your belief, no community, should face the environmental consequences of living in an area such as this.

Many of these big corporations try their best to mitigate their environmental repercussions either independently or by legislation. Laws such as Cap and Trade and AB617 have been very effective in lowering pollution levels while at the same time benefiting the industries.

In January of 2020, Marathon Petroleum’s Los Angeles Refinery debuted a new air monitoring system. The system’s goal is to document air quality data in the neighboring community and provide the public with “near-real-time” information. With transparency and communication, big businesses can begin to build a level of trust with their community. 

These companies realize their impacts on the community surrounding them, so in response, they give back to the people through donations, acts of charity, and community service. In a statement from the Valero company, “Valero strives to be a good neighbor and looks for opportunities to work directly with local officials and fence-line residents to improve the quality of life in its communities.” These good works don’t take away the harm caused but help make the community a better place. 

Activists and worried constituents must also remember that these industries support jobs, the entire Los Angeles Area, and even beyond. For real change to happen, the whole system must shift to be more environmentally friendly, with all major stakeholders benefiting—no easy feat. 

Regardless of all of the struggles that the community of Wilmington faces, one thing is for sure, Wilmeros and Wilmeras have tremendous pride in their city. Many Wilmington residents don’t necessarily see the industry as something negative; instead, it is just a part of their lives. It is the reality that they are living. It is their “American Dream.” In the audio clip below, Sergio Carrillo talks about an example of an instance when Wilmington’s community came together to show their resilience and unity. 

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