Lisa Engdahl, SP staff in Pomona, California, reflects on years of community engagement working toward an environmentally just city.
People living in urban poor communities bear a disproportionate and unjust share of pollution and exposure to toxins in both the US and around the world. In Pomona, California, there are over two dozen waste and recycling businesses. The community bears the impacts of large amounts of regional trash being processed near their homes, including exposure to dust, fires, odors, rats, and flies. All the zipcodes in Pomona are in the top 5% worst for air pollution in California, contributing to respiratory ailments like asthma and to incidents of cancer. Children, elderly people, and people with serious medical conditions are most vulnerable to the negative effects of pollution.
First Presbyterian Church of Pomona, a Servant Partners ministry partner, has worked with ICON-IAF, a broad-based community organizing network, to address these issues with other Pomona institutions since 2009. I (Lisa) worked with SP Board member, Tom Hsieh, and other members of our church and neighborhood to partner with ICON in founding Clean&Green Pomona, a grassroots organization of residents working for greater environmental justice and health in Pomona. Christians are responsible for the stewardship of God’s creation, which often involves addressing systemic injustice and its serious impacts on people’s lives in poor communities. Confronting systemic injustice is a long, slow process with many obstacles and setbacks.
On January 22, 2014, a huge fire broke out at a recycling facility on Second Street in Pomona (pictured right). This blaze required the intervention of 300 fire fighters—one was hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Ash from the fire covered properties within a one-mile radius. Clean&Green Pomona members spoke to the city council about the lack of adequate enforcement of waste and recycling facilities and the danger of this and three other serious recycling fires that followed (pictured above).
Together with ICON, Clean&Green proposed a moratorium on new waste and recycling businesses and the formation of a task force. The moratorium was secured for two years, and the task force drafted an ordinance. When that ordinance disappeared for months into a city council subcommittee, Clean&Green and ICON proposed a ban on new waste, recycling and pallet facilities, including no expansion at current facilities. The ban passed without amendment in the summer of 2017. By stopping the influx of more waste businesses, residents are able to focus on holding polluters accountable.
Being organized has inspired neighbors and built the capacity of residents to work for change in Pomona. Clean&Green Pomona worked with the School District to eliminate the use of diesel school buses by May 2017. Residents are planting over 400 trees at local schools with the help of Clean&Green Pomona and California ReLeaf. Neighbors have also begun to hold industries accountable by documenting issues to bring local business back into compliance with regulations. In South Pomona, one Clean&Green leader documented idling trucks in her neighborhood, resulting in citations and a decrease in the practice. She is also working with other Clean&Green leaders to reroute trucks in Pomona so there is less diesel traffic near homes. Her passion for eliminating diesel exhaust exposure comes from seeing each of her family members develop asthma over the past few years. Her tireless efforts, in the cracks between her two jobs, are bearing fruit and inspiring others with hope.