By Stephanie Garibay
East Los Angeles College student, Rossmary Zayas was full of emotions when given the opportunity to travel to Paris in order to attend and speak at the 21st annual Conference of Parties, especially traveling weeks after terrorist attacks.
“My family was worried. I remember they kept telling me, ‘“Don’t go, it’s too dangerous,’”, but I was like ‘No, this is something I want to do and I want to experience. I wasn’t going to let that stop me,’” Zayas said.
Zayas was given the chance to attend COP21 to represent Communities for a Better Environment, CBE, an environmental justice organization that she has been involved in since she was 14 years old.
“Rossmery has been a really big part of our organization. She has really made sure that young people are represented in all of our campaigns,” youth coordinator for CBE Milton Nimatuj said.
A couple weeks after submitting her application, Zayas received an email stating she had been accepted to participate in COP21.
“I didn’t know what COP21 was when I signed up for it. I remember I had heard about it on the news and everyone kept telling me ‘Just sign up for it and you’ll learn about it as you go,’,” Zayas said.
When Zayas traveled to Paris in early December, Paris was still in a state of emergency since the terrorist attacks had only occurred a few weeks earlier in late November.
“I remember I was so nervous. I was like ‘Are you sure I’m the right one to represent and talk about climate change?’” Zaya said.
Zayas was first introduced to environmental justice by her older sisters who were also activists. When she became involved in CBE’s youth compartment in her high school, she started to learn a lot more about what environmental justice actually was.
“That’s when I started to understand, ‘ok, so this is environmental and social justice, because being younger, you don’t know any of this, so when you’re able to connect the dots and learn everything, it’s mind blowing,’” Zayas said.
One of the first campaigns Zaya became involved in was the Exide Technologies Campaign.
When Zayas traveled to Paris, she encountered Governor Brown in one of the conferences. This was the first time she had actually met Brown.
Brown had made an opening speech for an organization and talked about how environmentally-friendly California is.
“A lot of people were cheering him on and clapping for him and we were like, “No, there’s a lot of bad stuff going on. Has anyone heard of Exide Technologies?’ and people were clapping over us, so we wouldn’t be heard and calling us rude and we were like, ‘What? What’s going on?,’” Zayas said.
Exide Technologies was a battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, that was illegally storing and transporting hazardous waste. For more than 30 years, the 15-acre battery recycling plant was polluting the soil of more than 10,000 homes and harming the health of more than 100,000 people who lived near the plant.
For years, community activists, including Zaya and everyone at CBE, tried to get the plant to shut down, but no one would listen. They even went as far as going to Sacramento to meet with Governor Jerry Brown, but kept getting rejected.
“We would contact him and say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this, let’s come up with a solution,’ but he would reject all of our meetings. It’s not like he didn’t have time, either., When the new Bicycle Casino opened up, he had time to attend that, plus they were giving him campaign money,” Zayas said.
After years of trying to get the plant shut down, Governor Brown agreed and Exide Technologies was shut down.
Brown also proposed $176 million to clean everything up, but with the amount of damage this plant had caused, it’s not nearly enough.
Although it was a victory, there was still a lot more that had to be done.
“They only tested houses within a two mile radius of the plant, and with the money they proposed, they’re only cleaning up houses within a 1.6 mile radius. That’s like if I spilled Kool-aid on your white carpet and cover it up with napkins. It doesn’t completely solve the problem,” Zayas said.
Zayas is currently majoring in communications and hopes to advocate for people in her community. She is currently a representative for CBE.
“You know unfortunately we still deal with stuff like sexism and agism and for someone like Rossmery a young woman of color she has really been able to shine through that and able to demand what is needed. I think that’s extremely powerful,” Nimatuj said.