Real Climate Leadership Starts With California’s Most Impacted Communities

November 30, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Governor Brown is currently in Europe promoting California’s climate policies at the United Nations Climate Conference. Experts from across the globe are weighing in to say that our state could be particularly hard hit by the changing climate, with extreme heat, drought and lack of access to clean water, increased storms and wildfires, sea level rise, and worsening air quality. Here on the ground in California we don’t need experts to tell us how bad things could get, they are life threatening now.

Magali Sanchez-Hall, a member of Communities for a Better Environment in South Los Angeles, lives 500 yards away from the Tesoro oil refinery in Wilmington. From her window at night, she can see the sky light up with flares from the refinery. In addition to the five major oil refineries in a nine-mile radius, multiple freeways crisscross her neighborhood, along with busy port complexes that bring heavy pollution. Most of her family suffers from asthma, so doors and windows are kept closed to avoid the toxic fumes. Every neighbor on her street has a household member who has struggled with or died from cancer.

Smelting operations at the Exide plant in Vernon were shut down by state regulators in March 2014. (Photo by Patrick Connor)

Smelting operations at the Exide plant in Vernon. (EGP Archive Photo)

The community in Wilmington is not alone. Communities living and working next to polluting factories, oil drilling and fracking sites, industrial agriculture, freeways, rail yards and freight facilities, refineries, and power plants are breathing the dirtiest air in the country, and they are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. These sources of pollution are the largest greenhouse gas emitters, and they don’t just release greenhouse gases — they also release a range of other toxic pollutants. Across California, they are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, which have less resources to adapt.

Communities throughout the state, like those in South Los Angeles and Wilmington, are looking to our legislators to step up their leadership on meaningful climate policies, but the reality is, it’s not happening. The most recent climate policy passed – extending cap and trade until 2030 – contains so many loopholes for polluters that it is unclear what level of decline we will see in California’s actual emissions and whether we will be able to reach our 2030 climate targets. Not only does California’s cap and trade program fail to address air pollution directly at the source, but data from the program reveals that in-state emissions in some sectors have actually risen. Despite reduced emissions overall, the level of smog in Southern California has worsened for the second straight year. This year’s cap and trade deal granted Big Oil major concessions, and the consequences will be felt first and worst in low-income communities and communities of color, like Magali’s, that are right next to our state’s biggest polluters.

Both the global climate crisis and the severe health burdens borne by frontline communities require that we stop extracting fossil fuels and thus phase-out both production and consumption. California continues to be one of the nation’s largest oil and gas producers, yet decision makers have failed to create a clear plan to transition off fossil fuels. Without this type of action, conditions will only worsen for more communities across the state. As the Air Resources Board works to design our carbon market, we need to close additional loopholes that will further prevent California from directly reducing emissions. Governor Brown has not made it a priority to transition off fossil fuels, and we must look to community leaders on the ground like Magali as the real climate leaders.

We have the right to live in communities where we can breathe clean air, drink clean water, and imagine a future for our children and ourselves. We must improve air quality and public health by cutting emissions directly at the source to effectively address health impacts, reduce asthma rates, and prevent respiratory cancers and other illnesses. By protecting the communities most impacted by pollution and poverty, we can create a healthier environment for all Californians. Only climate policies and solutions that place equity at the center by addressing existing climate and pollution realities of the most vulnerable communities will achieve our collective vision for a healthy, sustainable future.

Gladys Limón is executive director of California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA).

In California Clean Air Fight, Environmental Justice Takes a Leading Role

August 11, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Inside Climate News – Southern California has some of the dirtiest air in the country, but it’s a lot more breathable than it used to be. Much of the credit goes to the powerful regional agency responsible for stricter rules and enforcing federal air quality standards over the last 19 years.

Now that agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, is at the center of a political power struggle. A new Republican majority has worked to roll back the district’s innovative policies that led to cleaner air. That prompted concern among clean-air advocates and the poor and minority communities disproportionately affected by the region’s dirty air that the board would continue to erode pollution controls. So they are fighting back.

They rallied behind a bill that awaits a decision this month by the state Assembly. It was passed by the state Senate and calls for adding three seats to the district’s 13-member board, to be filled by “a bona fide nonprofit environmental justice organization that advocates for clean air and pollution reductions.”

“The system is broken and the board does not reflect the voice of the people who are suffering in their communities,” said Lizette Hernandez, a Southern California organizer for the Sierra Club, an environmental organization.

Board member Shawn Nelson, a Republican, called the bill a power grab by state Democratic lawmakers. It is a “kangaroo effort all to perpetuate this idea that this board is out of control, doesn’t care about clean air, which is completely ridiculous,” he said.

(Photo by N. Nguyenen New America Media )

(Photo by N. Nguyenen New America Media )

The battle began when Republican appointees gained a majority of the district in January. Traditionally, the board has operated in a non-partisan manner. It was led since 1997 by executive director Barry Wallerstein.

But the new Republican majority immediately changed direction. In a closed-door meeting in March, it finalized a controversial rule allowing oil refiners, power plants and other major polluters to release more smog-producing emissions. It also ousted Wallerstein.

“This was an ‘aha’ moment when it became so clear that the oil industry had so much power and influence over this board,” said Adrian Martinez, a staff attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.

“The board wasn’t doing its job to protect the region and the people who were suffering,” he said. “That had to change.”

Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) introduced the bill to expand the board and it passed the Democratic-controlled state Senate in May.

The state Assembly, where Democrats also hold an edge, is expected to consider the measure

this month. Gov. Jerry Brown has not said whether he’d sign it.

The South Coast district is California’s largest air quality agency by population: More than 40 percent of the state’s 39 million people live within its boundaries, which include Orange County and large portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The strategy of Republican board members is to all but eliminate traditional regulatory enforcement. The district has proposed a voluntary compliance plan that would essentially pay companies to reduce emissions, via financial incentives. Republicans say those would reach $1 billion a year by 2031, but the environmental groups are skeptical it would work.

Nelson defended the board’s change in direction, saying regulations put a burden on business that ultimately affects everyone.

“If our effort to help our local citizens and balance the interests of poor people suffering the effects of increased fuel costs and other things—along with our absolute desire to continue to clear the air—if we didn’t get that perfect, then so be it,” Nelson said. “But it wasn’t for lack of love, effort and appreciation for the people we represent.”

Many lower-income and minority communities are located near power plants, refineries, oil and gas fields, and other facilities that pump out volatile organic compounds and greenhouse gases. For instance, the Los Angeles community of Wilmington and the city of Santa Monica are only 25 miles apart. Eleven refineries and oil and gas extraction facilities are located in Wilmington; 90 percent of the 53,000 residents are people of color and the median household income is $40,000.

5-year-old Alani often gasps and wheezes in the grips of asthma attacks, which her mother believes is aggravated by air pollution. (Courtesy of Carol Hernandez)

5-year-old Alani often gasps and wheezes in the grips of asthma attacks, which her mother believes is aggravated by air pollution. (Courtesy of Carol Hernandez)

In Santa Monica, where 78 percent of the 92,000 residents are white, there are no refineries or oil facilities and the median household income is $73,000 a year.’

A 2014 national study of the demographics of air pollution exposures included parts of the South Coast district. Researchers found that there, on average, people of color are exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide in outdoor air pollution 38 percent higher than those of white people.

“What we have seen for the South Coast is that disadvantaged communities of color tend to have higher exposures to pollutants,” said Julian Marshall, one of the researchers. “It’s a pretty consistent pattern and trend.”

Hernandez, the Sierra Club organizer who lives in a part of South Los Angeles surrounded by refineries and oil and gas production facilities, said the communities most in need of environmental representation are those that have suffered for decades under the weight of racial bias and economic neglect. Putting environmental justice groups in charge of air quality would be a sea change.

Carol Hernandez, 32, a social worker in San Bernardino County, grew up in Fontana, where nearly 60 percent of the population is Hispanic. When she was a girl in the 1980s, the air was foul, and it’s still foul now, she said. Hernandez (who is not related to Lizette Hernandez) said her 5-year-old daughter, Alani, often gasps and wheezes in the grips of asthma attacks, which she says are aggravated by the air pollution.

“We can’t spend a lot of time outside playing because it gets so bad she can’t breathe,” Hernandez said. The air quality in San Bernardino County has been graded F by the American Lung Association because of the health hazards posed by the bad air, though it has shown improvement in the last decade.

“I don’t think anybody cared what was happening when I was little,” she said, “and they don’t care now.”

A longer version of this story was published Aug. 5 on the Inside Climate News website.

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