/ 21 August 2008

Take a ‘toxic tour’ through Los Angeles

Whether you want to see the multimillion-dollar home of a Hollywood celebrity or the scene of an infamous crime, Los Angeles has a guided tour to suit almost every taste.

But away from the well-worn tourist routes of Beverly Hills and Hollywood, Robert Cabrales is preparing to take a bus-load of sightseers on a journey that he says aims to expose the city’s ”dirty little secrets”.

Organised by the advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment, the ”Toxic Tour” takes eco-tourists through the sights and smells of some of Los Angeles’s most notorious environmental black spots.

”The purpose is mainly to let people know that there is something going on here, which is the dirty little secrets that pretty much most people don’t know about,” Cabrales says. ”When we talk about tourism and people coming over to visit Los Angeles, they’re not going to see the nasty parts.”

Launched in 2007, the tour departs several times a month, ferrying anyone from environmentally conscious tourists to schoolchildren, activists and even government officials.

Cabrales said the tour aims to shine a light on the ”environmental injustices” of Los Angeles, where residents in poorer neighbourhoods live in close proximity to heavy industry.

Among the tour’s stops are the former site of ”La Montana” — a vast mountain of concrete rubble left over from the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake that for several years was deposited next to a strip of family homes.

It was nearly a decade before the rubble mountain — blamed for worsening air quality and a spike in respiratory illnesses in the adjacent neighbourhood — was removed, and only then after a city council member called on to inspect the site had suffered a severe asthma attack and a collapsed lung as a result.

Backyard oil refinery
Cabrales says Huntington Park is known as ”Asthma Town” because of its high asthma rates amongst children.

He says the community suffers because it is surrounded on three sides by the Vernon, which is almost exclusively an industrial district.

One of the tour’s most striking stops is the Suva Elementary School in the Bell Gardens neighbourhood, scene of a public health scandal caused by pollution from nearby chrome plating facilities.

From 1987 to 1988, seven out of 11 students at Suva who became pregnant miscarried, and of the seven miscarriages, four involved deformed foetuses.

Worried by the rash of failed pregnancies, school officials began conducting their own inquiries and discovered that the high rates of miscarriage and cancer were mirrored in the broader community.

An air monitor later revealed high levels of hexavalent chromium in the atmosphere, which was later linked to chrome plating facilities — one of which had a smoke stack pointing directly at the school’s playground.

Elsewhere on the tour, the bus stops in a quiet residential road that could be anywhere in America, if it wasn’t for the metal towers and columns of a vast oil refinery just over the fence at the end of the street.

For tour group member Patrick Becknell (23), a Los Angeles musician, the stop is the most startling aspect of the tour.

”The juxtaposition of an oil refinery and a neighbourhood was the biggest eye-opener for me,” Becknell says. ”Just knowing that their backyard was literally an oil refinery. It’s inspiring and awing at the same time.

”If your average tourist or Los Angeles resident saw what we saw, I think they’d have more of an appreciation, and also of what organised community action can do.” — Sapa-AFP