How air pollution is disproportionately impacting minority communities in San Diego

There is new evidence about the disproportionate impact of air pollution in this country. A study out this week from the University of California, San Diego shows that California's environmental regulations have systematically protected the state's white residents over people of color. Amna Nawaz reports on one community in San Diego grappling with the best path forward.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    There is new evidence about the disproportionate impact of air pollution in this country. A study out this week from the University of California San Diego shows that state environmental regulations have systemically protected the states White residents over people of Color. My colleague Amna Nawaz recently traveled to one community in San Diego grappling with the best path forward.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Emily Villagrana has lived around San Diego's Barrio Logan neighborhood most of her life. She loves this area. Neighbors look out for each other and it has a booming arts and restaurant scene. But there is a persistent problem here, the air.

  • Emily Villagrana:

    I can always tell when I go hiking outside of this neighborhood, you know, like my breathing improves.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As a kid, Villagrana said she'd get frequent bronchial infections and headaches. She now has sinus pressure and a consistent itchy nose. Her mom and aunt have health issues too. They've never received an official diagnosis, but Villagrana believes it all comes back to pollutants in the air.

  • Emily Villagrana:

    I question whether or not to have a child because I'd most likely raise it here in Barrio Logan and I'd be concerned about their health, knowing the impacts that the environment would have on their health.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Barrio Logan sits right next to the Port of San Diego, a hub for heavy trucks, cargo equipment and ships.

    And decades ago, the neighborhood was sliced by Interstate 5 and the Coronado Bridge, which carry tens of thousands of cars a day. The combination has left the area with higher levels of diesel pollution than almost anywhere in the state of California.

    That is evident in its asthma rate, about seven times higher than the wealthy, mostly White community of La Jolla, some 15 miles away. And who calls Barrio Logan home, more than 70% of residents are Hispanic and about 40% live below the poverty line.

  • Emily Villagrana:

    It feels like this is environmental racism.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Millions of Americans across the country live in communities just like this, where the confluence of emissions from nearby industrial activity and major roadways means significantly higher levels of air pollution and greater health risk. And people of color are over three times more likely than White people to be breathing the nation's most polluted air.

  • Diane Takvorian, Executive Director, Environmental Health Coalition:

    We've done a lot to reduce some of the emissions, but we need to do a whole lot more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Diane Takvorian is the Executive Director of the Environmental Health Coalition, or EHC, a nonprofit that's worked on environmental justice issues in San Diego for years. Takvorian applauds the clean air plans put forth by the Biden administration and the state of California.

    A year and a half ago, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order requiring trucks like those going in and out of the port to be 100% zero emission by 2025. But Takvorian says that's not enough.

  • Diane Takvorian:

    Kids are going to grow up in that period of time, from now to 2035, so they're going to be stuck for that entire period with significant diesel pollution. We have to look at this in the face and say this is not Okay.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So EHC has pushed local leaders for broad policy shifts. They notched a major victory last fall when the Port of San Diego's board of commissioners signed off on a sweeping plan to curb air pollution. It calls for all trucks and cargo handling equipment at the Port of San Diego to switch to zero emissions by 2030, five years faster than the state mandate.

    And it sets an interim goal of 40% of yearly truck trips to be zero emissions by 2026. Many residents and activists cheered the move, but some were less enthusiastic.

    Sharon Bernie-Cloward is the President of the San Diego Port Tenants Association, a group of about 200 businesses and industries working up and down this bay. Businesses here also want cleaner air, she says, but they worry about the technology, infrastructure and money as the port moves to meet those goals.

  • Sharon Bernie-Cloward, President, San Diego Tenants Association:

    Our concerns are if we put some restrictions on just our port, the truckers are still going to have to deliver the material, they'll just go up the street to the neighbor. We don't want to lose that because you don't want to lose jobs during that. It's complicated.

    We're not against stuff, we're just showing that there are some complications and there are some things that are hard to get to. It doesn't mean we're opposed to it, it means that we need these extra things.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dan Malcolm is the Chair of the Port Board of Commissioners. He opposed the 2026 interim benchmark for zero emission trucks but supported the overall 2030 goals.

    Dan Malcolm, Chair, Port of San Diego Board of Commissions: I understand that industry can be nervous. There is uncertainty. We don't know what technology is going to become available, we don't know economically what it's going to cost to implement that technology, but you have to start with the goal.

    And as Chairman of the Port of San Diego, I would rather set that goal very aspirationally that shows the people of the community that we care, we care about their health.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For some in this area, the Port's strategy signals a larger shift in the politics around environmental justice. In 2020, Nora Vargas became the first woman of color ever elected to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Born just across the border in Tijuana, she grew up in San Diego South Bay, the area she now represents, and has made health equity a priority.

  • Nora Vargas, Supervisor, San Diego County Board:

    I always say to folks how is it possible that your zip code determines whether or not you can have access to clean air? And so, for the first time you're seeing a real true change in this area.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Vargas points to other developments like a new community plan for Barrio Logan that could add green space freeway lids over the interstate and create a buffer zone between houses and the working waterfront. And with money from the county and the port, EHC is distributing air monitors and purifiers to more than 500 port side homes, like Emily Villagrana's. She says cleaner air can't come soon enough.

  • Emily Villagrana:

    I don't know how much more time we can give. I mean, people are suffering, their health is heavily impacted. We get promised a lot of things and they say yes, we're going to do it, we're going to do it or this or that, plan gets approved, but then it's like 20 years later and it still hasn't happened.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This time around, she and other residents of Barrio Logan are hoping it's different. I'm Amna Nawaz in San Diego.

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