Spurred by several pieces of legislation approved during the last few years, California's state government agencies are gradually making advances in environmental justice.
At least five agencies have adopted environmental justice policies or mission statements. The Governor's Office of Planning and Research has conducted environmental justice training for employees of more than 50 different agencies. The California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) is working on a broad environmental justice strategy and implementation measures, all of which are intended to serve as a model for other state agencies.
These steps mark a significant change from only a few years ago. Not until 1999, when Gov. Davis signed SB 115 (Solis), did California codify a definition of environmental justice. The law (Government Code § 65040.12) defines environmental justice — commonly called simply "EJ" — as: "The fair treatment of all races, cultures and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of all environmental laws, regulations and policies."
The Solis bill was followed in 2000 by SB 89 (Escutia), which required creation of an environmental justice working group and public advisory committee to assist Cal EPA in developing an EJ strategy. Senate Bill 828 (Alarcon) from 2001 gave the agency until December 31, 2003 to adopt the strategy and to identify obstacles in state government to environmental justice.
The EJ movement grew out of 1980's protests over "environmental dumping" or "environmental racism." The idea is that the government ought not place an inordinate number of unwanted land uses in poor or minority neighborhoods, and that agencies ought to consider how development projects and government programs impact — and serve — those neighborhoods.
Caltrans might be farther along in actually carrying out EJ policies than any other state agency. Because it gets so much funding from the federal government, Caltrans has been involved in EJ efforts since President Clinton signed an executive order mandating environmental justice considerations in 1994, said Greg King, chief of Caltrans' cultural and community studies office. Caltrans' project delivery process has included an EJ analysis since the mid-1990s.
In late 2001, Caltrans Director Jeff Morales signed a director's policy that states, in part, "The Department emphasizes the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of all races, cultures and income levels, including minority and low-income populations, from the early stages of transportation planning and investment decision-making through construction, operations and maintenance," King said.
Caltrans, said King, has found that environmental justice often can be advanced through early and frequent communication with members of the public, and then responding to public concerns. "We're trying to move environmental issues up early on in the planning process so you have more latitude in the decision-making process," King said. That means thinking about EJ long before a project gets approved for funding through the State Transportation Improvement Program. "By the time we've done our environmental studies, we need to have worked with the communities."
In the heyday of freeway construction, the state frequently bisected or wiped out poor neighborhoods to accommodate new roads. When Caltrans officials return to those neighborhoods 40 and 50 years later to talk about new projects, the officials learn that residents have not forgotten past mistreatment.
When Caltrans rebuilt the Cypress freeway in west Oakland after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed a portion of the elevated highway, the agency met resistance based on the original construction of the freeway through a poor, African-American neighborhood, King explained. Now, both Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration point to the reconstruction project as an example of EJ success. The agency realigned the freeway away from the neighborhood and nearer to military property. Caltrans also spent $2.5 million on construction trade training for members of the community, and the agency awarded contracts to minority-owned businesses.
Nowadays, communities that might have gotten steamrolled back in 1950s can tie up a project in court for years. Caltrans engineers and planners well know this, which further encourages community outreach efforts. This outreach involves local meetings, providing information in multiple languages, and working out mitigations for project impacts, such as sound walls, landscaping, providing linkages over a freeway or even choosing a different route. It's all part of what Morales calls "context-sensitive solutions."
Environmental justice training for Caltrans employees is ongoing, and reactions among workers is mixed, conceded Peter Bond, an associate transportation planner who helps conduct training sessions. "About half the people are saying this is just common sense, and about half the people are shaking their heads and saying what in the world are you talking about," Bond said.
The Office of Planning and Research has provided EJ training for hundreds of government employees. The training is broad and addresses EJ history, issues and controversies, as well as best practices, said Bonnie Chiu, of OPR's environmental justice office. She said OPR recommends full public involvement in projects and programs, using GIS as a tool, and completing a checklist to ensure that impacts are considered and all community members have access to the process.
"We're hoping to do more specific training for just one agency [at a time] so we can get into the details," Chiu said.
Cal EPA's ongoing development of an EJ strategy is the most comprehensive efforts in the state government. During a two-day meeting in March, Cal EPA's 17-member advisory committee refined recommendations it has been developing. The recommendations, contained in a lengthy report, are based on four elements:
• Ensuring EJ is integral to the development, adoption, implementation and enforcement of laws and policies.
• Ensuring and promoting meaningful public participation.
• Improving research regarding the health and environment of "communities of color and low-income populations."
• Ensuring multi-agency coordination and accountability.
The advisory committee is scheduled to complete its work this spring. Working group hearings on the proposed EJ strategy will follow.
Bonnie Chiu, Office of Planning and Research, (916) 323-9033.
Greg King, Caltrans, (916) 653-0647.
Cal EPA environmental justice website: www.calepa.ca.gov/EnvJustice/
Governor's Office of Planning and Research environmental justice website: www.opr.ca.gov/ejustice/EJustice.shtml