Jerilyn Lopez Mendoza is policy director for the Los Angeles Environmental Justice Project Office of Environmental Defense. Her work focuses on greening the built environment, increasing green space in L.A.’s urban core, and ensuring transportation equity for the working poor.

Monday, 5 May 2003

LOS ANGELES, Calif.

Monday mornings are rough, especially when you’re trying to be healthy and kick caffeine. Truly awake or not, my first task is to check my calendar. On the Los Angeles environmental front, that means lots of meetings to coordinate campaigns and share information with local partners or my Environmental Defense colleagues.

Yes, you read that right. I’m an environmentalist in Los Angeles. In spite of L.A.’s reputation as a vast wasteland, there are a lot of us “enviros” in the City of Angels. We work on a variety of issues, from protecting wetlands near the Pacific Ocean to fighting freeway expansion in low-income, minority neighborhoods. Neighborhood groups work side-by-side with health clinics, environmental attorneys, and organizers to create a healthy, more livable environment — a demanding challenge with many rewards.

I work for a national environmental advocacy group that has over 300,000 members. Environmental Defense is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the environmental rights of all people, including future generations. We work to link science, economics, law, and innovative private-sector partnerships to create breakthrough solutions to the most serious environmental problems.

I’m the policy director in the Los Angeles Environmental Justice (L.A. EJ) Project Office. The L.A. EJ project is part of our new Living Cities program, which aims to solve the most critical urban environmental problems. Here in Los Angeles that means giving marginalized residents a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, such as land use and environmental policies. Using the resources of Environmental Defense and applying environmental justice principles, we work with diverse community organizations and residents to achieve the goals that we set together.

L.A. EJ is presently working on a number of projects to bring positive land-use change to our fair city. One involves creating a land trust to develop vacant lots into an oasis of community space. Another organized a broad coalition to encourage equitable smart growth principles in local land-use decision-making. You’ll probably hear more about those efforts later this week.

But today, I’m focused on a national Environmental Defense effort that resonates with all L.A. residents — smog. I’ve got a conference call today with several Environmental Defense colleagues to strategize on how to reduce diesel pollution, a major contributor to smog.

When residents of L.A. or other major cities are warned about high ozone or smog levels, they naturally assume cars, trucks, and buses are the culprits. But what about the pollution from other large engines such as those in lawn tractors, construction equipment, or household power generators? This class of non-road diesel vehicles and their pollutants contribute to a host of public health and environmental hazards including cancer risk, premature death, respiratory ailments, asthma attacks, smog, acid deposition, and haze.

Environmental Defense recently published a report, Closing the Diesel Divide, that articulates the risks of non-road diesel emissions and offers solutions to reduce the public health and environmental threat. At the same time our report was hitting the streets, the U.S. EPA proposed a rule to regulate non-road diesel emissions nationwide. The proposed rule was very positive and would be equivalent to removing 90 percent of all cars from the roads.

In June, the EPA is holding hearings across the country to compile public comments on the proposed rule. Environmental Defense is rallying troops to attend those hearings and give input. We are encouraging the EPA to move forward with this necessary regulation. Strong policies like this one spur the transition to cleaner engines and a healthier environment.

So what’s my role in this national effort? I’ll be helping to coordinate and encourage Angelenos to testify at the EPA hearing here in L.A. on June 17. I’ll also work to reach out to Spanish-speaking communities about our diesel report and the upcoming hearing. In light of our diverse and growing population in Los Angeles, Environmental Defense makes a point to translate relevant materials into multiple languages.

Because air quality is such a huge issue here, we’ve translated our diesel report into Spanish as a first step to sharing the information with Spanish-speaking populations and encouraging their participation in the issue. According to recent government and academic studies, there are strong correlations between diesel emissions and cancer rates and asthma in the L.A. basin, especially among children and the elderly. Anything we can do to improve air quality and decrease toxic emissions helps us all.

A final check of my calendar tells me it’s Cinco de Mayo, a cultural celebration for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. On this holiday I’m reminded of the importance of livable communities that guarantee healthy air and open space so that extended families can gather to visit, picnic, and play. Being an environmentalist in Los Angeles certainly has its challenges, but the rewards are far greater!