Lesson from Exide: Elect a Pollution Fighter to School Board 

DECISION 2020--It’s a fact both heartening and heartbreaking at the same time.

Some of the first alarm bells about human impacts of pollution from the Exide battery plant on Eastside LA came from alert public-school educators. 

Why? Because teachers and <principals such as Betty Morin> spotted learning delays in elementary students associated with lead poisoning. The pattern of impairments in play, memory, writing, and reading among the littlest Angelenos proved traceable to toxic emissions from the metal smelter that <operated for more than 30 years on a temporary permit out of the city of Vernon>.

Exide pumped <lethal metallic compounds, including arsenic and lead, into the air that settled onto nearby densely populated neighborhoods> of heavily Latina/o and immigrant families. The <records of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety of the L.A. school district, LAUSD>. testify to the fallout on the lives and lungs of the young.

But Exide is not the only sickening threat to the most vulnerable Angelenos from environmental hazards. One major hotspot for health risks to young lungs and lives is the communities surrounding the Port of LA. in San Pedro and Wilmington. Emissions from refineries and diesel-burning semi-truck haulers burden the air with fine and coarse particles that build up in the lungs and bodies of neighbors who breathe them every day. 

That’s why who represents the Port and Harbor area as L.A. School Board Member hits home for parents of children diagnosed with asthma, adults enduring respiratory diseases, and all hurt by pollution and worried about the disparities it causes in health outcomes and life expectancy. 

It’s why Patricia Castellanos is such a great candidate for the seat on the LAUSD Board to serve the area, which is Board District 7. Castellanos <has a daughter in second grade in local public schools and could become the only L.A. school board member with a current student> in what is, after New York, the nation’s second largest system. 

In addition to having firsthand interest in environmental health and safety affecting kids, Castellanos is uniquely fluent in fighting for clean air and holding polluters accountable. Her resume of community and public service includes <more than a decade of advocacy for clean transit while creating jobs that protect the environment and improve the health and safety of residents>. She has also worked on transportation policy for L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. 
I met Patricia Castellanos five years ago, shortly after residents of Northeast L.A. rose up to resist a scheme by the city of Glendale to expand its <polluting dump in Scholl Canyon, at the north end of Figueroa Street, above Eagle Rock>. At the time Castellanos helped oversee an innovative project of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) to reduce pollution from waste-hauling trucks, hundreds of which dumped at Scholl Canyon on a daily basis.

Castellanos and LAANE colleagues brought an added dimension to the struggle against expanding the Scholl Canyon garbage pile by 180 feet, or more than 15 building stories. They brought expertise in zero-waste policies, which <Glendale had approved in 2011 but was violating and bent on brazenly defying in order to increase profits from dumping> while increasing the mountain of rotting trash and worsening pollution.

All but missing in action from that effort to stop air and water contamination caused by the dump was the former school board member from Northeast L.A., Ref Rodriguez. His hands-off approach was all the more glaring, given the chain of charter schools Rodriguez operated had a campus in the heaviest pollution corridor right by Scholl Dump, on Figueroa Street in Eagle Rock. An ugly <scandal involving phony donors to his campaign from employees of this charter school, money laundering, and fraud later ensnared Rodriguez> and <drove him from the board under a criminal plea deal>.

It was about that same time, in 2015, that Castellanos’ current opponent for the school board seat representing District 7, Tanya Franklin, was <removed from her seat on the Del Rey Neighborhood Council (DRNC) for refusing to attend more than half of the year’s meetings>. This was just 12 months after Franklin had stepped up to serve in that elected role. 

In seeking public offices like the L.A. School Board, first-time candidates have a particular obligation to describe their backgrounds honestly to voters and highlight skills that equip them to serve constituents. In the case of Franklin, her past actions speak louder than words and raise grave doubts about her readiness to fight difficult battles over health threats to kids. Instead she is accepting huge contributions from a network of charter-school promoters and right-wing political donors, including <Frank Baxter, who promotes treating public schools like a business> and privatizing functions to allow some to take profits.

Struggles to stop pollution are often grueling and require staying power in order to win. Just ask Patricia Castellanos. Just this year, in June 2020, California <finalized a rule to transition to clean, non-diesel trucks> that Castellanos and scores of others worked on for many years to approve.

School board members must do the unglamorous work of speaking out for the vulnerable. The duty to rein in wrongdoers who threaten our environmental health makes them the first line of protection against polluters like Exide. Today, irreversible havoc radiates outward from the bankrupt battery plant, from cancers and other illness to tainted soil and degraded property values, in a contamination zone that encompasses Boyle Heights, East L.A., Maywood, Commerce, Bell, and Huntington Park. This month, a <multitude of residents from these communities carried bags of lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil to the federal courthouse in Downtown L.A.> to protest efforts by the Trump Administration and the decision by the federal court to let the polluter off the hook. 

For Angelenos in Board District 7, the antidote to Trump and Exide is a vote for Patricia Castellanos for School Board. 

(Hans Johnson is President, Progressive Victory “Turning Data Into Power” and is an advocate for environmental health, public schools, and civil rights. A winner of a 1998 award from the Society for Professional Journalists for his coverage of racial justice, he is also president of the East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD), the largest Democratic club in LA and California, with more than 1,100 members, who voted to endorse Patricia Castellanos for School Board. He can be reached: Follow on Twitter: @HansPJohnson or cell 323-669-9999.)