Pacoima’s pollution problem flies high with Whiteman Airport. For years, regulatory agencies have overlooked Pacoima’s Whiteman Airport pollution since the facility is just under the minimum size to require these tests. Even the airport’s final master plan recommended doing air assessments in 2011, but none were ever done.
Located in close proximity to two other airports, Van Nuys and Burbank, one might wonder why Whiteman is needed. Emergency services has been cited as one benefit, though it should be noted that emergency services aircraft from the LA Fire Department are housed next to, and not on Whiteman airport. Recreation and job opportunities for local community members have been cited as additional benefits.
Meanwhile, the average commute time for Whiteman Airport workers is over 35 minutes, making it fall into the top 10% of areas with the highest average commute times in the Los Angeles Area according to a 2016 study. This begs the question, is this airport really for the benefit of the local Pacoima residents?
Unfortunately, the widespread usage of Whiteman for recreational flight purposes has also led to accidents. In November 2020, an aircraft crashed in front of a Pacoima home and burned 3 vehicles. Emergencies like this and accidents in the past have raised safety concerns for residents.Other questions that linger in the air are how much Pacoima residents actually use the airport for recreation, or own an aircraft. Nobody seems to know. We hope that as the LA Department of Public Works collects this information, it will become clearer who is really benefitting from this airport. This information is urgently needed to help the local community determine whether there are indeed any benefits that would outweigh the harms of Whiteman.
Beside the lack of evidence of how Whiteman benefits Pacoima residents economically and recreationally, it is Pacoima residents that face the burden of its inherent pollution. According to CalEnviro 4.0, a tool created to identify disproportionate burdens of pollution, the residences and businesses that surround Whiteman airport rank in the 80-100th percentile of high pollution overall.
Aircraft are one of the top ten polluters of sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). Whiteman airport also continues to allow lead in its fuel despite other airports discontinuing this practice. Other air pollutants released by aircraft include nitrogen oxides, nitrogen dioxide, ultrafine particles, PM2.5, and lead. The cancer risk in Pacoima is 48% higher than other areas in the SCAQMD jurisdiction. 47.2% of people living closest to the airport do not have health insurance to address complications that may result from these exposures.
The airport’s final master plan stated that there were no noise reduction plans for Whiteman since complaints were infrequent. Residents are living with noise pollution through the night since Whiteman does not have a flight curfew. As many of us know, infrequency of complaints is not a measure of well-being. Too often, low-income individuals and BIPOC communities are told that they must simply deal with their living conditions or they lack resources to make formal complaints to agencies.
As more people learn about the impacts of their environment on their health, we hope that Pacoima residents will feel empowered to challenge the systems and redlining practices that put these pollutants in their communities. Pacoima has been plagued with decades of environmental racism and we now have a chance to replace community harms with community benefits. It’s time to shut down Whiteman.