In their effort to address the disproportionate health risk faced by working-class blacks and Hispanics, air-quality regulators in Southern California may soon find themselves playing a greater role in local land-use decisions — a prospect embraced by environmental justice advocates but alarming to many in the business community.
Activists have long asserted that poor and minority communities are chosen disproportionately as the locations for polluting industrial operations such as power plants and truck yards, and recent research has provided statistical support for their assertions. A 2001 study by UCLA researchers found that communities surrounding the 100 largest toxic emitters in Los Angeles County had a higher proportion of racial minorities in their population than the countywide average. A 1995 study by Occidental College researchers found that racial minorities in Los Angeles County were three times as likely as whites to live within a half-mile of a toxic-waste disposal site.
Suggested explanations for the pattern vary. Some activists point to racism. Others see it as a matter of varying political clout: Wealthy white communities are more likely than poor black and Hispanic communities to hire experts and attorneys to fight proposals for locally undesirable land uses. Some demographic analysts suggest that working-class residents naturally gravitate toward areas surrounding industrial employment centers, where jobs are plentiful, or that the relatively low real estate values that make sites attractive for industrial developments also mean low housing prices, drawing a high proportion of minorities simply because they tend to have lower incomes than whites.
Whatever the reason for the pattern, activists now have statistical confirmation of their long-held suspicion, and they are pressing for regulatory relief. Increasingly, they are getting it, or at least being promised that something will be done.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had an Office of Environmental Justice since 1992, formed in response to pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus and other groups. The California Environmental Protection Agency established an environmental justice advisory committee two years ago, and Hispanic lawmakers have pushed through a succession of bills since 1999 directing the state to target pollution-reduction efforts at minority and poor communities.
But it is in the area of air-quality regulation that California has taken the boldest steps. In December 2001, the state Air Resources Board (ARB) adopted environmental justice policies, committing the agency to gathering and disseminating data about the cumulative health risk posed to minority communities by various emission sources, from diesel trucks to factories. The policies also ensure that residents in disproportionately affected communities are involved in the public review of permit applications and require the agency to target pollution-reduction programs at minority and poor areas.
The ARB policy document also contained this passage, which seemed to foreshadow a significant new role for air-quality regulators in the land-use arena: "We recognize that local agencies have a primary role in decisions affecting land use, community health and welfare. Local land-use and transportation agencies are directly responsible for the planning and siting of new air pollution sources, and local air districts also play an important role by issuing permits for new industrial sources of air pollution. As such, we are committed to working as partners with these agencies and other stakeholders to develop the technical tools and guidance necessary to consider the cumulative impacts of local sources of air pollution. The technical tools and guidance are intended to assist the local agencies in their planning and permitting actions, including the consideration of siting alternatives …"
The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), which launched its own environmental justice initiative in 1997, has followed up on the state ARB's policy by drafting a set of proposals that could involve pollution regulators in land-use decisions throughout much of Southern California. The proposals are contained in a draft policy paper released in April, outlining the AQMD staff's proposals for reducing cumulative impacts from pollution sources in subregions of the district, which encompasses Los Angeles and Orange counties and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Traditional regulatory programs evaluate pollution sources one at a time, setting limits for single permit holders that are based on overall targets for the entire air basin. Acceptable average levels of pollution over an entire region, however, can mask substantial variations between neighborhoods with few emission sources and those with many sources. Environmental justice activists regard the evaluation of cumulative risks from multiple sources as a key strategy in reducing the disproportionate health risk borne by poor and minority communities.
One of the options described in the AQMD policy paper is requiring developers of new housing subdivisions, schools, hospitals, day-care facilities, and convalescent homes to survey the proposed construction area and disclose to their clients every source of toxic emissions within 1,000 feet. School districts, for example, would have to send a letter home to the parents of every student each year containing that information. In theory, the notification requirement could apply even to sites near heavily traveled freeways, a prime source of polluting emissions in Southern California.
"We think that could influence some land-use decisions," Jill Whynot, a planning manager for AQMD who is overseeing the cumulative-impacts process, told the Environment News Service (ENS).
The notification requirement is one of nine options outlined in the policy paper. They are based on suggestions from state and federal regulators and an AQMD working group, which includes representative of industry, environmental organizations and community groups. Other options include stricter mitigations for projects proposed in areas with multiple emissions sources; neighborhood scoping sessions for projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA); and expedited AQMD and CEQA review for installation of new or modified equipment that would result in a net decrease of pollution in at-risk communities. Many details are still missing, reflecting the policy paper's preliminary state.
So far, the disclosure requirement appears most likely to attract widespread attention. The staff report notes that the disclosure requirement might make for better-informed land-use decisions, but also "may have an unintended effect of restricting growth due to notification requirements or otherwise reducing access to needed services."
Representatives of potentially affected industries are skeptical. "Public safety is a local responsibility," a consultant for the California Coalition for Adequate School Housing told ENS. "We're not trained to do that."
After further review by the working group, the draft guidelines are scheduled to go to the AQMD board for possible action in October. State legislation would be required to authorize the notification program.
Jill Whynot, AQMD: 909-396-3104
AQMD's cumulative impacts program: www.aqmd.gov/rules/CIWG.htm
ARB's Environmental Justice program: