In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty is framed by smokestacks from power plants. Children at the elementary school known as Public School 24 can open their windows onto that same view -- and onto the Gowanus Expressway, where 200,000 cars and trucks pass a day.
About 1,600 miles away, Houston’s Manchester neighborhood sits in the shadow of Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Texas Petrochemical, Valero Energy Corporation and Exxon Mobile Corporation. It is also a few miles away from the Ship Channel, one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world.
Both of these neighborhoods are heavily polluted, but they also have something else in common – they are both heavily Latino.
Across the country, in both urban neighborhoods and rural areas, including places along the U.S.-Mexican border, 65 percent of Latinos live in areas where the air fails to meet federal standards. Because of work or housing availability, the Latinos tend to live near some of the most polluted areas in the country.
“For us, it’s about the basic right to breathe,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, whose own father died during an asthma attack in his heavily polluted South Bronx neighborhood who is part of a nascent environment justice movement among Latinos. “For us, it’s about not having to get up in the middle of the night to check if our children are still breathing.”
Latinos Pushing for Tighter Standards
Latinos take in approximately one-and-one-half times the levels diesel exhaust of the average American, based on estimates provided to Fox News Latino from scientists at the environmental advocacy group the Clean Air Task Force. The result is anywhere between 2,000 to 5,000 premature deaths in the Latino community annually. Latinos are 3 times as likely as whites to die from asthma.
“Air pollution in Latino communities is a big problem,” said Adrianna Quintero, senior council for La Onda Verde of Natural Resources Defense Council. “It immediately translates into increased asthma attacks, bronchitis, emergency room visits, all these things that are a tremendous burden on families and workers juggling caring for a sick child and their jobs.”
It's not only poor air quality that threatens Latino neighborhoods.
A recent report released to the Sierra Club indicated that mercury-- often emitted from coal-fired power plants -- is present in high levels in rivers and streams that Latinos fish in. Eating that fish is especially harmful for pregnant women because mercury poisoning can contribute to babies being born with learning disabilities, developmental delays and cerebral palsy.
Now, residents across the country are banding together in a growing movement known as environmental justice. The fundamental principals are not just that the earth should be protected but also that all people be treated equally when it comes to the environment.
Members of the movement who work on a national level say that the Environmental Protection Agency has been responsive to their calls for regulation. But they face many challenges: In places like Texas, the oil is politically powerful and influential. In places like Chicago, taking on polluters and forcing them to comply with clean air standards could result in a loss of hundreds of jobs.
An Uphill Battle
The Environmental Protection Agency determines air quality based on the levels of common air pollutants which include ozone, particles, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and lead. They also measure for other contaminants that the EPA calls toxic, such as mercury.
Studies have linked some ingestion of these contaminants to ailments like asthma and can make existing problems worse leading to heart attack and even death.
There are two main causes of air pollution: diesel engines and coal-fired power plants.
And these neighborhood contaminants are having grave consequences, particularly on Latinos.
In Manchester, there are stacks from which fire and heat are so intense, residents say it’s like looking at the end of the world.
A 2007 University of Texas study revealed that children who lived within a 2 mile radius of the Ship Channel in Houston – including Manchester -- had a 56 percent higher chance of having leukemia than those living elsewhere.
Rosario Marroquín knows this better than anyone. Her son was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 6 ½ years old, and she blames the petrochemical complex.
“I hate them,” she said.
Fighting for cleaner air has been an uphill battle. Activist Juan Parras, who heads a local environmental group called TEJAS, says residents feel disenfranchised.
Getting regional regulations passed in the area is hard when the industry comprises much of the state’s economy, he says. In addition, without one specific polluter, individual families can’t take legal action against companies.
“It’s like if you get into a fight in a bar with 100 people and someone beats daylights out of you and you don’t know who did it,” explained Parras.
In other areas, the source of contamination is from fewer polluters.
In Chicago’s Little Village and Pilsen communities, two coal-fired power plants in predominantly Latino neighborhoods are drawing attack from neighbors.
Coal-fired power plants are among the biggest polluters in the country and 15 percent of Latinos live within 10 miles of one. These plants that use coal, such as Fisk and Crawford in these Chicago neighborhoods, have escaped pollution control requirements because they were “grandfathered” in with the assumption that as technology improved they would be phased out or upgraded.
Local politicians in Chicago are trying to tighten federal emission loopholes with their own emission standards. But if their proposed legislation passes, plant owner Midwest Generation would have to shell out more than $1 billion to comply. The more likely scenario is that they close the plants, leading to the loss of 200 jobs.
Activists charge that the argument that jobs will be lost as a result of more stringent regulations on a national level is simply rhetoric.
Whether that is true or not, the threat is real and, if true, just as costly as the health implications for the residents of those communities.
Marroquín ‘s son, Valentin, is now 14 and his leukemia is in remission.
Memories of chemotherapy and tufts of fallen hair still haunt him the way the smoke stacks around his neighborhood do. As he plays on his block tuning out the shrill alarm from the emergency drill at Valero Chemical that sounds every Friday at 1 p.m., he knows that certain practices are just part of business as usual.
And that breaks his mother’s heart.
“He just lost hope,” said Rosario Marroquín, who fights the epic environmental battle without him by her side.
Soni Sangha is a reporter based in New York City.