People who have grown up near the industrial city of Vernon, California are used to the smells the city factories emit: the sweet scent of freshly baked bread from Sara Lee, the invigorating aroma of freshly roasted beans from Gavina Coffee, and what tour guide Roberto Cabarales likes to call "freshly roasted ass" from three fat-rendering factories that break down used animal carcasses for broth and pet food. The Communities for a Better Environment Toxic Tour has just let the group down at Indiana Street and Bandini Boulevard in Vernon, and everybody is trying not to vomit. The indescribably putrid, foul smell of dead animals seems to settle into my stomach, and I can hardly believe it when Roberto admits that the stench hasn't been found to cause any harm health-wise, "but think about the quality of life!"
To raise awareness about the quality of life in pollution-heavy South Los Angeles, CBE started giving their Toxic Tours in 1995. A gritty, nearly three-hour bus ride through Huntington Park, Vernon, Bell, Wilmington, and Long Beach, the tour showcased the region's worst environmental offenders: oil refineries, toxic manufacturing or recycling plants next to schools and residential communities, the 710 freeway, and the Long Beach port. On the tour, community organizer Roberto Cabrales notes happily that over the years, the tour now includes several of CBE's victories, like the huge mountain of concrete dust that is now the site of a proposed park and high school, or the Vernon power plant that never came to be. Still, there's a lot of work to be done, and CBE has had its sleeves rolled up for over twenty years getting the job done.
Executive Director Bill Gallegos lists the victories his organization has accomplished: "We stopped La Montana [a huge pile of concrete dust], there's SUVA elementary where we stopped the chrome plating operation, the Nueva Azalea [power plant]... the CENCO power plant that we stopped, and then we won the flaring regulations for the oil refineries, we stopped the power plant in the city of Vernon..." he trailed off. Board member Alina Bokde put it this way: "CBE takes on international multi-million dollar industries... and wins!"
If you've never heard of CBE before, that might be more by design than accident. Unlike environmental groups like the Sierra Club or NRDC, CBE is an environmental justice organization that empowers people directly affected by the pollution to solve their own problems. In small industrial cities like Huntington Park, Wilmington, Vernon, and Bell, these people are mostly lower-income, working class Latinas. Bill Gallegos boasts about the community he works with, exclaiming "these poor Latina women are slaying more Goliaths than Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio."
Like any good organizing outfit, CBE reflects the community it serves: humble, not inclined to toot its own horn or take the credit. On the other hand, that doesn't bode well for fundraising or for reaching out to other Angeleno communities. Their organization focuses on a three-pronged approach to environmental justice: community organizing, scientific research, and legal victories. Most of the campaigns take years, but they're also successes. Bill admits that it might be nice to have enough money for a Communications Associate to tell tales of fallen power plants and other such victories, but maintaining their current staff of lawyers, scientists, and organizers during the recession is their "number one priority."
You can sign up to take a Toxic Tour with Communities for a Better Environment here.