Over 3 decades, Gerard Mikell watched his neighbors grow sicker and sicker. Toddlers were developing severe allergies. Children were struggling to breathe. Teens were in and out of the hospital. And to Mikell, it seemed obvious who was responsible.
Mikell had grown up in northern Charleston, SC, where red maples cast shadows over flowering azaleas every spring, and where he’d spent many a summer day frolicking in the nearby Ashley and Cooper rivers with the countless cousins who lived around the corner.
As an adult, Mikell gradually realized that things weren’t as idyllic as they’d seemed. He worked various jobs in the chemical manufacturing plants that sandwiched his historically Black neighborhood of Union Heights. He watched as those plants used the same waterways he’d played in as a child for dumping waste. And, as the factories spewed fumes into the skies and refuse into the rivers, he watched the people he knew grow increasingly ill.
Asthma was a particular menace; Charleston is sixth in the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s list of asthma capitals of the U.S. For Mikell, the connection between asthma and pollution was hardly a surprise. “The relationship between respiratory disease and [air pollution] too often is not recognized,” he says.
But these days, it’s not just the chemical plants he worries about. Now, he’s afraid of the port, too.
The Port of Charleston is one of the busiest in the country. Massive ships anchor there after journeys that began an ocean away; millions of maroon, cobalt, and ivory steel cargo containers stack from the ground to the sky; longshoremen scurry to and fro, loading the trucks and trains with the goods that will eventually make their way to retailers around the country.
And since the beginning of the pandemic, at the Port of Charleston – like others across the country – business has been booming. And 2022 was a banner year: the port set records for 11 out of 12 months last year. Billions of dollars to expand capacity helped break those records, Bill Stern, board chairman for the port, wrote in the organization’s annual report. Given that “a great deal of South Carolina’s success is intrinsically tied to our world-class port system,” Stern went on, the state’s government is investing hundreds of millions more taxpayer dollars into the facility to float barges, lay track, and pour concrete to support the record-setting growth.
All the while, diesel sludge combusts in the engines of the ships, belching out harmful chemicals. This, also, is not unique to Charleston: Ports – and specifically, container ships – are responsible for numerous toxic pollutants that harm communities and “contribute to nonattainment” of national air quality standards, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In other words, not only are these chemicals dangerous – especially to historically redlined, often Black and Brown communities that abut them – but they may well be illegal. It’s a problem that’s not going away: The EPA expects some forms of ship-related pollution to triple in the next decade. But the EPA, which has been hollowed out in recent years, is struggling to keep up.
“People should expect to be able to breathe clean air – that should be a natural expectation in America today,” Mikell says.
“[But] these are the communities on the other side of the tracks,” he says. “The bottom line has always taken priority.”
‘I don’t want to be a statistic’
Before her uncle died in his early 60s, before the exhaustion and the gasping for breath and the cancer diagnosis – before all that, Leticia Gutierrez remembers driving across an overpass at night and peering down on the shipyard’s shimmering lights, marveling at how romantic the scene looked.
“You saw all the lights,” she says, “and you thought … it looked like possibility – like opportunity.”
Her family had given up a lot to find opportunity. When Gutierrez was an infant, they’d left their home in Mexico to work as migrant farmhands in California’s blazing sunshine. By the time she was in elementary school, they’d moved to Houston’s East End: an area of town that, since the early 20thcentury, has housed cotton compresses, textile factories, and panaderías, or bakeries.
The East End also houses the Port of Houston – the country’s busiest, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And it smells like it too, Gutierrez says: a perfume that alternates between “lighter fluid, rotten eggs, and garbage.”
At first, the smell was an irritation. But over time, things took a turn for the worse.
First, she watched her beloved uncle – a “fun-loving man” who could make freezer pizza feel like a banquet dinner – become a husk of himself, too tired to walk a couple of blocks, let alone run laps around Ingrando Park the way he once had. Then, she watched her son suffer similarly, as persistent asthma took the air out of his lungs and the wind out of his sails.
“For a while, I hadn’t put it together – [their] ailments, and where we lived,” says Gutierrez, who is the government relations and community outreach director for Air Alliance Houston. “Now, I’m just that mom who tries to do all the things … to combat the bad stuff all around us.”
Gutierrez’s family isn’t alone. According to historical estimates, up to 21% of asthma cases in children living close to ports are linked to ship emissions. This kind of pollution has also been connected to lower birth weights in babies; higher rates of developmental problems; and lower school performance in children living nearby. A recent workshop held by the National Academy of Medicine labeled air pollution an “existential threat” to the health of American kids.
It's not just kids, either. Rising levels of pollutants like those that come from ports have been linked to, among other illnesses, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary artery disease, and dementia in adults. Overall, a recent EPA-funded study found that port air pollution leads to increased hospitalization rates in communities within 25 miles of the shipyard. Around the world, one study found that over 250,000 deaths in 2020 alone were linked to shipping-related pollution.
Of her advocacy work now to limit pollution from the port, Gutierrez says that “we’re just trying to have them do the right thing by us – not to poison us.”
“But when I sit around and think about it, I’m afraid,” she says, “because I don’t want to be a statistic.”
‘This is what happens to kids’
In April 2021, Long Beach’s skies turned gray. Dense clouds shrouded the typical sapphire-blue, causing mornings and afternoons to blend together amid the haze.
Yet, those meandering the coastline looking for answers quickly found them in the horizon: lines of dots floating on the Pacific, as far as the eye could see. The Port of Long Beach – another of the country’s largest – was clogged. The ships were gushing exhaust into the California city’s formerly spotless skies.
Chris Chavez, a Long Beach lifer, remembers the first time he had an asthma attack. He was 8 years old, it was 3 o’clock in the morning, and he was shaken awake by this “really, really profound tightness in my chest.” Gasping for air, Chavez remembers feeling terrified because “you’re trying to do the simplest thing … but you can’t – you simply can’t breathe.”
For years, he struggled. Steroid nebulizers, rescue inhalers, oxygen filters, hiding from bad air days – none of them had much of an effect. Chavez became more familiar with the local emergency room than any kid ever should.
He wasn’t the only one. “People said, well, this is what happens to kids,” he recalls of the ubiquity of asthma in the community’s children. And today, little has changed: “now, it’s one of those things that’s just assumed,” he says.
Chavez, who is now deputy director for Long Beach’s Coalition for Clean Air, also knows the prevalence of asthma in the community is not a coincidence.
In the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) sketched Los Angeles. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the HOLC was responsible for helping Americans, crippled by the Great Depression, refinance their mortgages. To guide its investments, the HOLC took markers to maps, shading certain areas of town green, others yellow, and still others red.
Today, the legacy of those maps – and the “redlining” they started by withholding money from communities with worse “residential security” scores – lives on. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, nonwhite communities, like Long Beach, were often deemed “hazardous,” receiving the worst scores and the least money. Property values suffered over the long term.
It also made them prime targets for the large-scale industrial operations upon which their cities depended. Like ports.
Discovering this legacy of segregation in greater Los Angeles proved a lightbulb moment for Chavez. “That made it much clearer, and much more personal,” he says. His home, and his grandparents’ home, were squarely within the redlined districts. In that context, his asthma was in part a vestige of history. Looking at the maps, “you could see the long-standing damage,” Chavez says. “Many of the disadvantaged communities of today were formerly redlining communities of a century ago.”
That damage bears out in the statistics. According to data from the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services, emergency visits for children with asthma in parts of Long Beach closest to the port are up to 53% higher than their neighbors up the road in Los Angeles; hospitalizations are up to 63% higher. For adult residents of Long Beach, emergency and hospital visits for asthma peak between 266% and 316% higher than for Los Angelinos.
These patterns are not unique to greater Los Angeles.
They hold in Gutierrez’s East End community in Houston. They hold in Mikell’s Union Heights community in northern Charleston – a phenomenon he calls “environmental apartheid.” And they hold in Margaret Gordon’s community in West Oakland, CA, where, according to the recent National Academy of Medicine workshop, asthma due to air pollution is 250% more likely than it is in Oakland Hills. More than 70% of the residents of downtown Oakland are Black and Brown; in the Hills, less than 30% are.
“Zoning means inclusion for some people, and it means exclusion for others,” Gordon says. “Privilege, [in Oakland], means being able to open your windows.”
During COVID, those disparities may have gotten worse. In places like Long Beach, pandemic-era rises in digital commerce and labor shortages amid the so-called great resignation left container shipsidling offshore. According to a study by the California Air Resources Board, in Los Angeles and Long Beach, idling ships were pumping out over 15,000 more pounds of pollution per day, compared to pre-pandemic levels – an amount equivalent to 50,000 16-wheelers’ worth of exhaust.
Meanwhile, school and day care closures kept kids and families at home – windows closed, perhaps – but nevertheless unable to escape the fumes. For example, one study found that higher levels of soot-related air pollution just before a COVID diagnosis led to up to 12%-21% more hospitalizations in Southern California.
As a result – now more than ever – pollution-related illness feels like a sure thing in Long Beach, Chavez says.
“You’re either getting it from the ships, or you’re getting it from the trucks, or you’re getting it from the trains,” he says. “So the real question is, now that this is here, how do we combat it?”
‘We keep having to clean up their mess’
That’s the question Mikell, Gutierrez, and Gordon are trying to answer, too. Each is a part of grassroots efforts – Mikell through the Charleston Community Research to Action Board, Gutierrez through Air Alliance Houston, and Gordon through the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project – to advocate for environmental justice in their communities.
They’re also working with the EPA. Ship exhaust produces a variety of specific toxic substances – nitric oxide, sulfur oxide, ozone, black carbon, and microscopic dust known as PM2.5 – the regulation of which comes under the EPA’s purview. But in recent years, that regulation became increasingly lax.
Under the Trump administration, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) took a turn. In 2017, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt forbade scholars receiving agency grant funds from serving on the committee, which is the agency’s primary body responsible for reviewing, and recommending, regulation around air pollution. These are “precisely the highly respected scientific leaders that the committee needs,” H. Christopher Frey, PhD, an air quality expert who served on the committee for a decade, wrote after the decision.
Later, in 2018, Pruitt – a self-described “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” who later became the subject of over a dozen Capitol Hill investigations into graft, corruption, and ethics violations – disbanded CASAC altogether. In 2019, the Government Accountability Office found that nearly a quarter of Trump-era appointees had failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest, and raised concerns that the agency failed to appoint “the best qualified and most appropriate candidates.” And in 2020, the agency proposed rules that left regulations unchanged from 5 years prior, despite "scientific evidence show[ing] unequivocally that these standards are not adequate to protect public health,” Frey wrote at the time.
During the Biden administration, the EPA has been playing catch-up. This administration “has made scientific integrity a core value,” Tom Brennan, director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board Staff Office, wrote in an email. In spring 2021, administrator Michael Regan “made the decision to reset the CASAC,” Brennan said, purging the committee of its Trump-era remnants entirely. But as of January 2023, a “stressed-out, stretched-thin” EPA was “still reeling from the exodus of more than 1,200 scientists and policy experts during the Trump administration,” The New York Timesreported.
Together, this means the agency is falling further behind than ever. The EPA has blown through its own deadlines for regulation around PM2.5, ozone, and other pollutants by months if not years. It’s doing inspections at historic lows. It’s taking legal enforcement actions less often, even less than it did during the Trump administration. And updates to decade-old regulations – updates that Brennan said would prevent thousands of premature deaths every year – are mired in procedural limbo.
The shortcomings are leaving advocates like Mikell frustrated. “If we know there’s a harm, we need to [regulate] it proactively, rather than reactively,” he says. “We need to think about what’s the very best we can do to help people – not, ‘what can we get away with.’”
Gordon agrees. “We keep having to clean up their mess,” she says of the EPA’s shortcomings. Meanwhile, day after day, she sees the real effects of the bare-minimum regulations in her community: the deserted church pews, the empty chairs at community coalition meetings, the silence that too often greets a knock one door over.
To Gordon, premature death is not an abstract concept. It “means losing your neighbors,” she says.
Still, she’s pushing forward.
“You always have to be ready to play the game,” Gordon says, “and the game is survival.”