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By William J. Kelly
Just off Washington Boulevard in the City of Commerce lies the Bandini neighborhood. At first glance, it looks like many other residential areas in Southern California. Rows of houses with well-trimmed lawns line the streets. Early in the morning, people depart in their cars for work. Things are quiet at the local elementary school where the children have settled down for the morning lesson.
However, to reside in Bandini is far different from living in most other places in California. Just beyond the neighborhood's residential streets lie two of the busiest inter-modal shipping facilities in the nation -- one operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and the other by the Union Pacific Railroad. More than 30,000 trucks come to these yards each day, carrying shipping containers between the trains and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which combined are the biggest and busiest in the United States. The neighborhood also lies along Interstate 710, a freeway that Caltrans has proposed double decking with special lanes to accommodate a projected doubling of freight trucks serving the port complex over the next 20 years.
The environmental assault here is palpable. The freeway roars, trucks rumble along Washington Boulevard, diesel train engines hum, bright lights in the train yards illuminate the area like a football stadium at night, and even on a blustery day the acrid odor of diesel exhaust pervades the air. Just west on Washington Boulevard lays a row of factories, including a chemical plant, chrome plating facility, and two lead smelting companies. To the east, a refuse-to-energy facility burns garbage to generate electricity across the street from apartments. Chemical drum recycling shops with barrels stacked two stories high are tucked between the factories. Across the Burlington Northern Santa Fe yard is a large rendering plant. Drivers on the congested boulevard -- where trucks puff soot while inching toward the freeway -- smell whiffs of odors from the many plants, as well an indescribable stench that covers a wide area.
The Badini neighborhood -- where the 2000 census shows that residents are 95 percent Latino, predominantly speak Spanish, have a median annual household income of $33,065, and have a one in five chance of living below the poverty line -- illustrates a dangerous flaw in California environmental laws. Scores of environmental justice groups across the state have spent the last 10 years making their case that people of color and low income in California bear a disproportionately high level of exposure to environmental contaminants -- from pesticides sprayed on farm fields, which blow into farm worker communities and contaminate well water, to diesel fumes and factory emissions in crowded cities. The dozens of community-based groups, which operate independently of the major environmental organizations, say these exposures have increased the levels of cancer, asthma, learning disabilities, and other diseases in working class and poor communities.
The groups' top priority is to address these unhealthful exposures by changing the current law that allows each individual polluting facility to be measured and regulated separately. Neighborhood advocates want state policy makers to adopt a method for assessing the cumulative impact of several toxic sources on a single neighborhood and using that finding to make development decisions.
They appear to be nearing success. All sides seem to agree that California is on the verge of becoming the first state in the nation to assess and regulate pollution based on the cumulative health risk to a specific neighborhood.
"Health should be a priority and commerce should be secondary," said Angelo Logan, who has organized 100 Bandini residents into a group, known as the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. "I grew up in the neighborhood. A lot of my family and friends were sick. Even as a young child I noticed that this is not a normal environment. The pollution in this area was disproportionate to other neighborhoods."
Supported by a modest $10,000 grant from the Liberty Hill Foundation, the East Yard group is one of the many grass-roots environmental justice organizations making waves in the halls of the state's environmental agencies. About six months ago, for instance, the group convinced the local air pollution control agency to install a monitoring station in the midst of the Bandini neighborhood in a bid to assess the cumulative risk of cancer and other diseases from all sources of air pollution in the area. The agency has completed the air monitoring in Bandini and after analyzing the samples in its laboratory will report the results in the months ahead. The step, though small, reflects the changing attitude among California environmental regulators toward environmental justice concerns.
Bandini, while different from most California communities, is hardly unique. Throughout urban Southern California, communities of color breathe higher levels of cancer-causing pollutants, such as diesel soot, according to Rachel Morello-Frosch, professor of medical environmental epidemiology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. "We found that there was persistent racial and ethnic disparities in lifetime cancer risks associated with outdoor air toxics exposure regardless of income," she said. In rural areas, low-income families in farm worker communities are forced to buy expensive bottled water to drink because their small community wells have been poisoned by pesticides, according to Raquel Donoso, senior program manager for the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco.
While state environmental agencies have reduced pollution on a macro scale, environmental justice groups argue that regulators have neglected micro scale pockets of toxic pollution in working class neighborhoods like Bandini, which are predominantly of color in most of the state. Moreover, they say that, historically, industries and government agencies have found it easier to locate polluting facilities in poor communities because their residents lack the political clout of upscale communities.
"Political power matters," according to Manuel Pastor, who has studied the pattern of location of hazardous waste facility sites and factories that emit toxic pollution in California. "No matter how you slice or dice it, there's a racial disparity," said the University of California at Santa Cruz economist who directs the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community.
To achieve equity, the groups have long argued for a more holistic approach to environmental protection that goes beyond setting limits for individual pollutants and facilities in isolation. Standards, they argue, must take into account the cumulative effect of all pollutants in the environment.
"When you live by it, you can't help but prioritize these issues," said Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando), who chairs the new Select Committee on Environmental Justice. Montanez, who was raised in an area surrounded by four freeways and dotted with landfills, is sponsoring AB 392, which would require developers of new projects to analyze cumulative health risk in their environmental impact reports. Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) has introduced SB 532, which would set similar requirements.
Even before the legislation, state regulators are already taking steps to make similar changes. Officials at the California Environmental Protection Agency and South Coast Air Quality Management District in Greater Los Angeles are heeding the call to assess and reduce cumulative environmental health risk. "We often compartmentalize our decision making process," said Romel Pascual, assistant secretary for environmental justice at Cal EPA, "but we need to figure out how to look at the community as a whole."
That is why, he said, Cal EPA is soon likely to begin developing comprehensive scientific methodologies to assess cumulative risk from pollution in the air, water, food and soil. The California Air Resources Board already is developing a methodology for assessing the cumulative risk of air pollution, hoping to make the methodology available for use by local air districts and urban planners by the end of the year.
In the four-county Los Angeles region, the South Coast Air District is moving beyond assessment to outline policy options for reducing cumulative risk. A white paper outlining staff recommendations to the agency's board is due this summer. An agency study published in 2000 showed wide disparities in the risk of cancer from outdoor air pollution in the sprawling region of 14 million people. The lifetime cancer risk ranged from as high as 1,700 cases per 1 million residents to as low as about 300 per 1 million in affluent Malibu Beach. "The problem is a real one that deserves agency attention," said Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast district. "Some communities have higher levels of exposure or risk than we would consider the norm. We have to ask if the regional programs are sufficient."
In a draft of the cumulative risk white paper, the agency outlines a plan to establish an acceptable level of cumulative health risk and a series of new requirements it would impose on sources of air pollution when that level is exceeded in individual neighborhoods. The acceptable level of risk for cancer and other diseases from all sources of air pollution in local neighborhoods is yet to be determined. But one option for reducing excessive cumulative risk would be tighter restrictions on businesses in polluted areas than those applied to the same types of businesses operating in cleaner areas. Also, businesses seeking to locate in areas with high cumulative risk could be rejected or they might face extra requirements, which in some cases may make it more economical to locate in a cleaner location. "What we've asked for is cumulative risk assessment, and we're going to get it," said Carlos Porras, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment. "We're on the verge of developing the first cumulative exposure mechanism for the country."
California businesses are supportive of efforts to assess cumulative risk from pollution. "It is important to determine if there are communities being exposed to a much higher level of pollution," said Cindy Tuck, general counsel for the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance. However, business representatives believe that environmental agencies should carefully identify which communities actually are bearing disproportionate exposure to toxic pollutants before rushing to regulate. "It's hard to start developing solutions until we define what the problem is," said Mike Carroll, an attorney with the law firm of Latham & Watkins, who represents a number of industries. Tuck warns that unless good data on cumulative exposure is developed, the South Coast district's upcoming cumulative impact rules could have "a very serious impact on jobs and new businesses."
Porras, who became one of the state's early environmental justice organizers in 1993, said that compromises would be a reality as the South Coast air district develops its cumulative risk regulations. Yet he said he is "very optimistic" about the prospects of the environmental justice movement today. "In 1993, everybody was still in a state of denial," he said. "To move a state to legislation and regulatory progress that is on the cutting edge of the nation is clearly a success."
Porras originally led a group of residents from the heavily industrialized central core of Los Angeles that was seeking to have the South Coast Air Quality Management District impose tight restrictions on toxic emissions from factories. The casually dressed group of young students, parents and workers carried banners and signs to the hearings on the issue in the early 1990's, but were roundly defeated by the well-dressed business lobbyists armed with overhead presentations and legal briefs.
Not dissuaded by such early defeats, California's environmental justice groups pressed forward, managing to defeat or win mitigations on several industrial projects planned for poor and non-Caucasian neighborhoods.
"The aggregation of experience from siting battles has lead to policy initiatives and policy change," said Luke Cole, one of the first attorneys to practice law in the yet "un-coined" environmental justice field for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation in 1989. By the late 1990s, the movement had won the attention of Latino legislators, who managed to enact a series of bills that focused California agencies on environmental justice concerns, according to Cole, who now heads the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in San Francisco.
In 1999, then state Senator Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) shepherded SB 115 through the enactment process to require Cal EPA and related agencies to administer and enforce its programs in a way that "ensures fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and income levels, including minority populations and low-income populations." In 2000, the Legislature enacted SB 89 sponsored by Senator Martha Escutia (D-Montebello), which required Cal EPA to form a working group, aided by an external advisory panel, to identify and address environmental justice "gaps" in existing programs. A later measure, SB 828 sponsored by Senator Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley), placed a 2003 year-end deadline on that process.
This summer, the recommendations of the task force will go to Cal EPA Secretary Winston Hickox for consideration, according to Pascual, who is heading the review process. He said he expects that the three leading recommendations will be to:
Develop a methodology to determine the cumulative exposure to toxic pollutants that Californians receive in the food, water, and air.
Improve public participation in state environmental policy by involving affected communities at the outset of the decision-making process and providing for real influence.
Provide technical assistance and grants to environmental justice community groups to facilitate the effectiveness of their participation.
Pascual said that a new state grant program, modeled after a federal Environmental Protection Agency program, would begin providing support to environmental justice groups in the coming year under AB 2312, a bill from Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) that was enacted last year. Financial support is helping to level the playing field between environmental justice groups and industry representatives.
"The funds we've been able to provide have really been the life blood for the groups," said Michele Prichard, director of special projects for the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles, which has provided some $1.5 million in funding to about 50 environmental justice groups since 1996. "Their ability to self-finance this work is very limited. They've been running their organizations off their kitchen tables."
Over the past four years, Liberty Hill also has trained 200 residents interested in organizing grass-roots environmental justice groups, covering such topics as environmental law and science in layman's terms.
Aside from cumulative risk, better integrating environmental impacts with land-use decision-making will become more of a priority for state environmental agencies in the years ahead. "Almost all of the decisions that are most damaging are made at the local level by city councils and county boards of supervisors," noted attorney Cole. Accordingly, Pascual said he expects that Cal EPA and other environmental agencies will become "more engaged" in land-use issues, traditionally the exclusive domain of local government.
At the South Coast air district, Wallerstein said his staff would be "offering more frequent and better advice and creating more awareness for local land-use decision makers." For instance, the agency's draft cumulative impacts white paper envisions requiring builders of new homes, schools and hospitals to notify homebuyers, parents and patients of high cumulative risk. Such notices would discourage builders from constructing homes and schools near factories, freeways and other sources of toxic air pollution, district officials maintain. In addition, AB 1553, which was sponsored by former Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek) and enacted in 2001, requires the Governor's Office of Planning and Research to incorporate environmental justice principles into its guidelines for development of general plans by local governments, a process now under way.
In the final analysis, however, state and regional environmental agencies would be limited to an advisory role in land-use decision making. Local city councils and county boards of supervisors will still have the final say on projects.
While environmental justice often is seen as a mainly urban concern, it also is an issue in suburban communities, where land-use decisions have juxtaposed polluting facilities, housing and schools. For instance, in the morning, the stacks of a large auto body repair and paint shop cast a shadow over the backyards of residents on Maris St. in the mostly Latino suburb of Pico Rivera in Los Angeles County. Odors of paint fumes waft into the yards, complain the residents, who have organized a group known as Residents of Pico Rivera for Environmental Justice.
"The city planners do what they want, figuring people up here won't do very much," said Joe Caballero, vice president of the group. He became concerned about the facility when his two granddaughters, who lived in his home for many years, developed respiratory problems and eventually were diagnosed with asthma. For five years, the residents have been fighting to clean up the facility, which is one of five auto body shops in a one-square-mile area full of homes and schools. Recently they persuaded the South Coast air district to form a task force that will seek to address their concerns.
In a moment of reflection, Caballero confided, "There used to be a lot of racism in the past. It's classism now. We've learned a lot. One lesson is to have patience."
Pico Rivera's Caballero, Bandini's Logan, and hundreds of other
neighborhood activists surely have learned the virtues of patience through
the years. Now their persistence has finally moved California's
environmental bureaucracy to focus on the long neglected business of
equitable treatment for working class and poor communities.
William J. Kelly is editor and publisher of California Environment Report, on the web at www.southlandreports.com. Comments on this article may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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