California making environmental justice tenet of air policy

By Leon Drouin Keith The Associated Press
Thursday December 13, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Soto Elementary School’s next-door neighbor is a spaghetti network of concrete connecting four of Los Angeles’ busiest freeways. 

Dust and fumes from the rumbling interchange — and from the big rigs using the predominantly Latino school’s Boyle Heights neighborhood as a short cut — are among many signs around California that the state’s air quality is full of inequality. 

Activists have long complained that low-income and minority communities bear a disproportionately large share of the pollution burden. Now their calls for “environmental justice” could be heeded as never before. 

The state Air Resources Board — the most influential state-level, air-quality agency in the country — is set to vote Thursday on a policy that would require it to fully consider how every decision it makes affects low-income and minority neighborhoods. 

The board, which regulates emissions of everything from gasoline to adhesives, also would conduct monitoring and research to better define how communities are sickened by multiple sources of pollution. 

“This goes a long way toward leading the way for other California agencies, and hopefully other states,” said Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, D-Los Angeles, who co-wrote legislation calling on state agencies to put environmental justice policies in place. 

Margarita Sanchez, a community activist who lives across the street from Soto Elementary School and the freeways, said she hopes the rules will give the concerns of poor communities more credence. 

Just after classes let out at the school, scores of children play ball on a concrete playground as freeway traffic buzzes by and tractor trailers cough up soot on surface streets. 

It takes about 10 minutes for a visitor to feel his chest tightening and head aching from the pollution. Sanchez, the mother of two grade-schoolers, said ailments from asthma to bloody noses are common among neighborhood children. 

After two years of lobbying by residents, school and transportation officials have agreed to build sound walls and limit truck traffic on some surface streets, but Sanchez said more work is needed on both fronts. 

“We’re getting some fruits out of the struggle, but it never should have been that hard,” Sanchez said. 

Alan C. Lloyd, chairman of the Air Resources Board, said that although the state has made strides in reducing pollutants such as those that produce ozone, poor communities haven’t seen enough of the benefits. 

“California (air quality) is much better than it used to be, but when you get down to ground level it’s not that evenly distributed,” said ARB spokesman Jerry Martin. “All Californians have the right to clean air, regardless of whether they live in Beverly Hills or next to a landfill.” 

Environmentalists and public health advocates applaud the proposed policy, but about 20 groups are calling on the board to amend it to assure funding for environmental justice work. They also want 12-month deadlines for producing guidelines on how local governments and air districts should consider low-income communities in making decisions on land use and complaint resolution, and evaluating neighborhood pollution problems. 

“Our fear is that if the ARB does not allocate resources, this could just become another paper policy that does not materialize into action,” said Bahram Fazeli, staff researcher for Communities for a Better Environment, a Huntington Park-based group. 

Air board decisions on how much industrial facilities and motor vehicles can pollute have a great effect on low-income communities. But the board has little direct involvement in one of the highest-profile environmental justice issues — placing and permitting polluters such as power plants in low-income areas. 

But Lloyd said the policy will require the agency to provide more research and advice to the local governments and air districts that do make those decisions. 

How the air board will pay for additional work focused on low-income and minority communities is unclear. With the state facing a projected $12.4 billion deficit this budget year and next, a big jump in air quality funding is unlikely. 

“There’s room to do some internal shifting,” said Firebaugh, who has written legislation that would have allowed automakers to escape some impending obligations to produce electric vehicles in exchange for spending money to improve air quality in low-income communities. 

Firebaugh supports work to advance zero-emission vehicles, which air regulators say will be necessary as California’s population growth continues. 

“But on the front end, it’s a costly endeavor with limited payoff,” especially for low-income communities, where residents can’t afford electric cars, he said.