Systemic racism and implementation of environmental laws in California

In light of recent events, we all need to be considering how California systematically fails to protect the lives of black and minority residents.  It’s not just turning a blind eye to police misconduct, but also failing to value black and minority lives in implementation of environmental laws.

California smog.   Art Page

Pollution disproportionately impacts minority communities.  As reported by Tony Barbarossa in the LA Times, a 2014 California Environmental Protection Agency analysis found that

Nearly 10% of residents of the most polluted ZIP Codes are black, though they make up only 6% of the population statewide … Whites, in contrast, are more than 40% of the state’s population but only 16% of residents of the most polluted ZIP Codes.


Latinos account for nearly two-thirds of residents in the top 10% most polluted ZIP Codes despite making up only 38% of the state’s population…

The disproportionate exposure to pollution has a very real effects on black Californians.  One of the worst impacts is increased incidence of asthma. According to a 2013 report by the California Department of Public Health, “[c]ompared to Whites, Blacks have 40% higher asthma prevalence, four times higher asthma ED visit and hospitalization rates, and two times higher asthma death rates.” There is no doubt that increased exposure to air pollution is a major contributor.

California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows community groups and nonprofits to challenge projects that would result in increased exposure to air, water, and groundwater pollution. But developers and other rich and powerful interests have sought to undermine CEQA’s citizen enforcement of environmental protections under the guise of “streamlining.”

One of the worst “reform” bills is AB 3279, California Environmental Quality Act: administrative and judicial procedures, introduced by Assemblymember Laura Friedman.

AB 3279 would prioritize hearing of California’s Environmental Quality Act cases over all other civil cases, including civil rights and police misconduct cases, potentially leading to significant delays and increases in costs for those cases. (Section 21167.1 (a).)

AB 3279 would also make it prohibitively expensive for disadvantaged minority communities to challenge polluting projects in their neighborhoods. Current law allows community groups and nonprofits filing CEQA petitions to prepare the administrative record for the court case. This usually results in a substantial decrease in costs for the litigation.

AB 3279 would only allow CEQA petitioners to prepare the CEQA administrative record if the lead agency requests it.  (Section 21167.6) The environmental attorneys I have talked have universally stated that AB 3279’s cost-shifting provision would effectively end CEQA challenges to projects by community groups and nonprofits, and even put nonprofits out of business.

In one widely publicized case, California Oak Foundation v. UC Regents, the UC Regents initially notified the California Oak Foundation that preparing the CEQA record would cost $24,000, but then billed the Foundation for $51,000.

Because AB 3279 would create huge barriers for Environmental Justice lawsuits, the bill was opposed by

  • California Environmental Justice Alliance
  • Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment
  • Communities for a Better Environment
  • Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability
  • Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles

AB 3279 is also opposed by Sierra Club California, the Center for Biological Diversity, and other environmental groups, as well as the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

With the Capitol building on lockdown due to the pandemic, AB 3279 passed the Assembly Monday morning, June 8, 2020. It is unclear that the Assemblymembers who voted for the bill even bothered to consider the reasons for opposition to the bill by Environmental Justice, environmental, and labor groups.

There is little doubt that AB 3279 would have enormous impacts on disadvantaged minority communities throughout the state, as well as resulting in delays for civil rights and police misconduct lawsuits.

One thought on “Systemic racism and implementation of environmental laws in California

  1. It has occurred to me that those us of whatever complexion with access to special places might should remember to occasionally ask people of color if they would like to go for a walk or a paddle. Just something I have rarely done, part because my experience has been that my friends/acquaintances of color usually were not interested in walking up and down step hills and risking accumulating ticks. But still, ought to make the effort.

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