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Parents Tackle Freeway Pollution and Noise

January 8, 2013


(Parents) hung banners up and down 7th St., with a picture of a truck in a circle with a line across it.

Margarita Sanchez

A mother of two

Next door to the Soto Street School in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights district is a tri-level freeway exchange where the Santa Monica, Santa Ana and Interstate 5 freeways come together. The school has no auditorium or cafeteria, so students meet and eat outside. Walls of portable classrooms vibrate when trucks go by and do little to keep out noise.

When Margarita Sanchez, a nurse and mother of two, began walking her children to school, she felt she was “suffocating” from the pollution and noise of the diesel trucks traveling to the nearby freeway on-ramp.

So in December 1999, Sanchez and other parents started a petition asking for freeway sound walls, air-quality monitoring and a tonnage limit on streets next to the school.

They gathered 450 signatures on the petition and “hung banners up and down 7th St., with a picture of a truck in a circle with a line across it,” Sanchez says. “That showed the unity of the community” and drew more parents into the group. They won city council support and a tonnage limit was in place within a year.

Convincing Caltrans to build a sound wall is a tougher job. With the support of community organizations including Madres del Este de L.A., S.I. and the Boyle Heights Residents and Homeowners Association, parents wrote letters to Caltrans. They met with city council members and state legislators, who then wrote letters themselves.

Parents also went to Sacramento to Caltrans’ headquarters. They won the active support of the LAUSD Environmental Health and Safety Department, which did its own reports on pollution and noise at schools, including Soto Street.

A Caltrans letter sent to school district lawyers in July said that a sound wall at Soto Street School is not needed and would be too expensive. Soto Street parents responded by conducting a letter-writing campaign to Maria Contreras-Sweet, secretary of business, transportation, and housing, asking that Caltrans build a sound wall and close the on-ramp near the school.

Meanwhile, Soto Street parents pushed for their school to be an official site in a statewide sampling of air quality at schools. When a local junior high was chosen instead, Soto Street parents persuaded regulators to install a satellite monitor at their school.

An initial report from the Air Resources Board showed that on 16 of the 22 days tested, the air at the Soto Street School violated the state standard for particulate pollution.

Originally written by Deborah Prussel and Jean Tepperman