The news media have reported widely on the Superior Court ruling that may stop the development of the Southern California International Gateway (SCIG) rail yard and its threat to the health of surrounding communities like West Long Beach. Yet, we cannot forget the important role that the voice of the community has played in this struggle to prevent the rail yard next to our homes and schools. My personal story is just one of many neighbors who have been involved from the beginning.
I have lived in West Long Beach for approximately 20 years and have two children who graduated from university during the many years of this fight. Like most immigrants, I was seeking the American Dream and decided to make this neighborhood my home because of an employment opportunity and the presence of others in my family.
Once my children started school and began to make friends, I decided to become active in the community to better address their needs, first through advocating for programs at my son’s Head Start center. However, after my daughter began to attend Hudson Elementary School, I immediately noticed that the campus was near the freeway, refineries and railroads. Once when I was volunteering on the playground, the principal had announced that the children should return to their classrooms because of the dangerous level of air pollution.
I soon joined the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma and learned about the consequences of air pollution on our health. One day, my daughter’s friend had a severe asthma attack and one of us had to run back to her school because that was where her only inhaler was kept. I hated to see this little girl suffering. Soon afterwards my daughter was diagnosed as pre-asthmatic. This experience motivated me to became even more involved in efforts to stop the growing threats to our children’s health.
Because the health of my children became such a personal issue for me, I became preoccupied in preventing the proposed development of the SCIG. I continued working with other residents as part of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, often putting in as many as 16 hours each day. I knocked on doors to share information and soon many neighbors began to respond with their concerns. In truth, my family did not always appreciate my overwhelming focus on environmental justice, especially my constant participation in public meetings that went on for hours, sometimes as late as midnight.
Repeatedly, public officials rejected the community’s voice but this gave me more motivation because I had faith that we would ultimately win. We even went to Omaha to rally in front of Warren Buffett’s headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway because its plans for the SCIG would expand operations of the BNSF railroad. We made a video for him called “Dear Mr. Warren Buffett” and made a giant inhaler that we used at a press conference. He didn’t meet with us but he certainly could not miss the media attention the community created.
After leading these community efforts and getting more people like me involved, I am optimistic about the progress we have made. While many of us now believe that the SCIG will not proceed, we still face other hazards, ranging from the expansion of the 710 Freeway to increased pollution from adjacent refineries. No matter the problem, our community will continue to be at the center of these solutions. As we celebrate this important victory, we encourage everyone to join us in making Long Beach a healthy community that we can all be proud to live in.
Elena Rodriguez is a 20-year resident of West Long Beach. This Guest Commentary was printed in the Long Beach Press-Telegram on April 28, 2016.