September 27, 2016 - From the September, 2016 issue

LA Supervisor Hilda Solis: Sustainability & Climate Adaptation Must Engage Low-Income Communities

For more than 25 years, Hilda L. Solis has served disadvantaged communities at the state, national, and international levels by pushing environmental justice, labor, and civil and human rights to the forefront of her politics. As a California senator, her pioneering legislation to protect low-income and minority communities from pollution made her the first woman to receive the Profile in Courage Award in 2000. This month at the annual California Adaptation Forum in Long Beach, Solis addressed how she has continued to make environmental justice a priority at the local scale since returning to Los Angeles as a County Supervisor—in particular by championing the recent effort to shut down and clean up an illegal Exide battery plant contaminating her district. She also urged voters to approve Measure A this November to fund parks in park-poor areas throughout the county. TPR is pleased to present a lightly edited excerpt of her remarks.


Hilda Solis

"After two weeks of lobbying, the governor announced that, not $70 million, but $176 million would be provided as a down payment to start cleaning up around the Exide plant." -Hilda Solis

Hilda Solis: I’m glad to be able to come home to Los Angeles as a County Supervisor, and to get engaged again in what I believe are some of the most important priorities we’re facing today: climate adaptation and, more importantly, equity.

If I may be very candid, coming back from Washington, D.C., you realize that some things change and some things don’t really change. The good thing now is that I only have to deal with four other members of the County Board. We’re equally divided, representing 2 million people each.

Currently, I’m serving as chair of the board. That gives me a little bit of leverage—not a whole lot, but I can at least raise issues that I think are important and shed some light on them. That has made my life a lot easier, compared to years of serving in cabinet positions and going before committees that are dominated by the other side—that don’t even believe in green jobs, that don’t even believe in scientific evidence of changes in climatic conditions. I dealt with that for the last 12 years—eight of them as a House member—all while championing legislation to create green jobs.

At the time, even within our own Democratic caucus, there were members asking, “What are green jobs?” Green jobs are sustainable jobs. Green jobs are jobs that help to decrease the carbon footprint that would be otherwise generated from the job. That encompasses so many parts of our infrastructure—transportation, buildings, healthcare, and more. Once you start peeling that onion, you find so many more reasons it’s important to support green jobs.

We did a lot, before President Barack Obama became president, to lay the groundwork for how green jobs could help revitalize our communities, and to broaden the discussion. We worked to allow more people of color and people in areas that are heavily impacted by negative environmental conditions to be a part of, not just the discussion, but also the navigation team. To be honest, that shouldn’t be so foreign to some of us.

Some people think: “Why would Latinos or low-income people even care about cleaning up the environment?” Well, most of us had to grow up in a dirty environment—and we still do. I represent a district that still faces some of those harsh realities every single day. People have to wake up and go to work across the street from a factory that’s spewing out negative air emissions that could kill you. There’s lead poisoning; there are battery recycling plants and explosive magnesium containers adjacent to very densely populated communities—like, say, Maywood.

Maywood is less than 10 miles from here. It’s a very compact city—no bigger than 15,000 people. Most of the folks there are immigrant, low-skilled workers, working in factories because that’s the only thing that’s available to them. They don’t know that the factories they’re in are not compliant with a lot of regulations from not just the county, but also the state.

All the different agencies that have jurisdiction over these facilities—many of them have to be reminded that they have to communicate with our communities.

There are many working-class people that have to run businesses. I understand that. But I also understand that we have to take a different approach. Part of that is education. There has to be an education campaign that explains why it’s important to know what the signs are and how to provide the prevention, education, and better health for everyone, regardless of where you grew up or where you live.

When I was in the Legislature working on environmental justice, people on the other side of the aisle would ask me: “Why do you want to carry legislation that kills jobs? These are the very jobs that people in your community need. That’s the way that they pay the rent. Why would you want to impose environmental regulations on them?”

My comeback to them was: “Because they deserve to be treated equally to the people that live in 90210.” You don’t see a lot of battery recyclers in Beverly Hills. You don’t see as many hardships caused by industries that get away with spewing things. There’s a big difference. That’s where we are today, but we need to move, collectively, to help educate everyone. That’s why I carried environmental justice legislation back in the mid-90s.

I grew up in a small-town community maybe 20 minutes from here called La Puente—“the bridge.” It was the bridge to where—to what? Adjacent to us was the largest landfill this side of the Mississippi, known as the La Puente Hills Landfill. We grew up around that. We didn’t know there was methane gas. We didn’t know what methane gas was. We didn’t know that whatever was being spewed there could also impact our water and cause diseases, including cancer, or other things that lead to deteriorating health.

I’ve learned that where I grew up, there were a lot of different environmental hotspots. In fact, eventually, when I ran for Congress and the area I represented grew to almost 600,000 people, I learned that I now represented about 17 different industrial cities. Boy, I learned a lot about bad air—about what it means to a child, to a senior; about asthmatic attacks, and heart disease.

But where I grew up, we thought, “This has nothing to do with where I live. I’ve inherited this; it’s genetic.” That’s the rationale that our community believed, because nobody told them differently. Nobody told them that where you live matters: the air you breathe, what you live next to, what you drink. All of that has impacts.

All we’re asking for in this discussion about equity is a chance to have choices and information. When people have choices and information, they make better decisions; we all do. There are a lot of folks in our communities who would want to be more proactive if they knew where they could go what they could do. 

Many of us, like myself, grew up in households where our parents were immigrants and both working very hard. My father worked in a battery recycling plant—Quemetco in the City of Industry. He got involved in the union movement to help organize workers and to understand the health impacts of that industry. He fought to get protections in the workplace, because where you work and where you live are equally important to your health and wellbeing.

That’s something that I learned from my father that stays with me even now. I know how important it is that our communities are represented, like the southeast communities not too far from here that have hotspots. Until we get regulations moving, and hopefully all working together, we’re going to have to advance our issues of equity through getting the grassroots community engaged.

I want to share one example that I’ve now experienced in the short time that I’ve been on the board. About a year and a half ago, communities of East LA and surrounding areas came to me and said, “Hilda, we need your help. We have a battery recycling plant here. We know it’s impactful, and we have more than 100,000 households. But we don’t know what we don’t know. Can you help us?”

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I looked into it, and what I found is that the county really doesn’t have a great regulatory authority. It comes through the state: the Department of Toxics and Substance Control, the Air Quality Management District, the Air Resources Board, the Water Quality Board, etc. But none of them was really talking to each other, and none of them wanted to touch getting involved and engaged in a poor community. They thought, “That’s too bad—that’s where they chose to live, and that’s where this plant is sited decided to run its operation.”

But it had been running on an illegal permit for 31 years. How come the state didn’t catch that? It took almost an act of God from the community to change that discussion. Over five or 10 years, the community—particularly the Mothers of East LA, and East Yard Communities—got together with the Natural Resource Defense Council and got some lawyers involved. They started to figure out that some of the things happening there were so egregious that they ought to be able to have somebody come in and intervene. And so, after several years of advocacy by the communities and some legislators, we were finally able to get the permit terminated, and they closed the Exide plant down.

The DOJ had to get involved. That’s the level we had to go to. Now they’ve stopped working there, but Lord knows, they still have to clean it up. There’s still residue there that has to be transported through the blocks of the neighborhood. That’s going to cost a lot of money.

I was asked to help, and I didn’t know what I could do. But we called the County Counsel together and we started to listen. The best thing that the county can do, and that I’m obligated to do, is to provide assistance for healthcare. We could go through the DA’s office to try to put someone away, but that takes a long time. Eventually I decided that, because of my background in the Legislature, it would be wise to go up and talk to people in Sacramento.

We decided to take a busload of 50 people from the impacted area. That’s actually very easy; it doesn’t cost a lot. And you’ve got to have people go through the halls, knock on doors, and talk to everybody—including the governor’s office, including DTSC, and including the lawyers that represent Exide. Having that grassroots effort made the difference.

When I went up there, I was told: “Maybe you can ask for $70 million to start the cleanup.” I knew that number was very low. It would cost upwards of $500 million to really clean that area. Yet some members of the Legislature even told me: “Don’t even bother asking for money, because you’re not going to get it.”

I’ve been told that most of my life. “You’re not going to get it.” “It’s not about you.” “Step away.” But if I did that, I don’t think I’d be here today. And I’m glad to say that, after about two weeks of lobbying and talking to people, the governor announced that not $70 million, but $176 million would be provided as a down payment to start cleaning up around the Exide plant.

That community organizing was really important here. Don’t take anything for granted. I don’t, because I know how important it is to hear different voices, to work with our institutional structures, and to start thinking about how to change lives.

Now the County Board is also looking at sustainability: How do we recapture water?  How do we retool our parks? How do we start using technology that’s been out there for about 25 years? My county is still, in many ways, behind. We’re trying to bring them up to speed. We have some good thinkers. We’re going to make those investments. We want to change from the old model to a new model—a cleaner model, a safer model, and a more inclusive model. 

That takes time. It’s like moving a battleship. That’s why I’m here today: to say that we need partners. We need more forums like this, and we need elected officials at the local level understand that they do have power. It doesn’t all come from the feds or the state. 

A lot of it is people power—getting people energized, and helping them understand that they can take ahold of these issues and mold them, and that they can get their elected officials to do something by sharing information and by testifying at some of the board meetings we hold. All of that is very important.

I think we need to take this a step farther. There are a lot of people in this room who are probably my age. Where are the younger people? Are they hearing these conversations? Do they know that they are also part of the discussion—that this is going to impact them in the next 10 or 15 years? The County of Los Angeles employs more than 100,000 people, and a lot of them are over the age of 50. They’re going to be retiring. I want to see new blood. I want to see diversity. I want to see people who share the kinds of experiences that I’ve had coming into these jobs, being part of the system, and making these very important changes. I think there’s a place for everyone; I really do. And I think Los Angeles County could come to be held up as an example of a change agent. 

We just went through a Parks & Recreation needs assessment for the first time. Over 18 months, we held more than 122 forums in communities to justify what parks mean to people—old, young, poor, rich, and in-between—and how they could be a benefit to our environment and people’s physical wellbeing in so many different ways.

There are a lot of people out there who don’t want to pay a new half-cent tax on their parcel. For an average homeowner in Los Angeles County, with around 1,500 square feet, that amounts to about $20. That’s, what, four cups of Starbucks? Is it worth not buying coffee for the day or the week and putting that money away to pay for parks? 

For restoring and keeping watersheds clean, recycling water, putting up solar panels? For hiring veterans and at-risk youth to restore parks, and putting people to work? For making parks that are safe havens for everyone—dog parks, library parks, parks that could be lively places? For giving people a sense of hope that there’s something there for them?

This is about connectivity as well. People get to our parks through transit—through our rail system and bus lines. It’s about reducing our carbon footprint, making our lives better, and making places accessible for people who want to walk or .

I’m a big supporter, not just of parks and a clean environment, but also of the good-paying jobs that go with the clean environment. That’s our future. 

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