In summary

Local officials must commit to environmental justice to reduce exposure to pollution and promote access to public facilities, healthy food and adequate housing.

By Steve Sanders, Special to CalMatters

Steve Sanders is an urban planner who previously directed the Sustainable Communities Program at the Institute for Local Government, sanders.steve@comcast.net.

Social and racial justice protests have cast a spotlight on our segregated communities. Injustice is literally written into the landscape. 

For decades, predominately white and affluent neighborhoods have reaped benefits from public policies and investments – enjoying better schools, parks, and roads, while restricting affordable housing and being shielded from environmental harm. 

Meanwhile, low-income and disadvantaged communities have borne the brunt of toxic industries and pollution, leaving communities of color especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. 

Local officials in California must act boldly to reverse the legacy of discrimination embedded in decades of redlining, disinvestment and environmental injustice. They can start by aggressively implementing Senate Bill 1000 – an environmental justice law already on the books, which aims to reduce health risks in communities plagued by pollution and neglect. 

Authored by state Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino, and enacted in 2016, SB 1000 requires every California city and county with a disadvantaged community to adopt an “Environmental Justice Element” in its General Plan, the document which guides local development and investment. Environmental Justice Elements must include policies to reduce exposure to pollution and promote equal access to public facilities, healthy food, adequate housing and physical activity. 

SB 1000 also requires local governments to fully engage disadvantaged community residents in decision-making and to prioritize investments that meet their community’s needs. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Office of Planning and Research recently stepped up expectations for cities and counties to address environmental justice. On June 24, they released more comprehensive guidelines to implement SB 1000.

“Institutional racism is still real in land use and governance,” said Erik de Kok, OPR’s Planning and Community Development Program Manager, when we spoke last week.

He added that “giving voice to disadvantaged communities is one of the most powerful provisions of SB 1000.” The Office of Planning and Research is collaborating with other state agencies to coordinate assistance for cities and counties committed to advancing environmental justice. 

The state Attorney General’s Office is also working to enforce SB 1000 through its Environmental Justice Bureau, which recently notified several communities about deficiencies in their proposed Environmental Justice Elements. The AG’s advice carries weight, because plans that don’t comply with the law are vulnerable to legal challenges. 

Tiffany Eng is the Green Zones program manager for the California Environmental Justice Alliance, a key sponsor of SB 1000, along with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. Eng believes too many communities avoid critical decisions needed to implement environmental justice: “Cities and counties must carry out the law in good faith to ensure concrete pollution reductions and other benefits for EJ communities.” So far, she says, the results are disappointing.  

No surprise then that  California Environmental Justice Alliance and other environmental justice advocates would like to see SB 1000 strengthened. 

Leyva agrees, which is why she introduced Senate Bill 1070 this year. SB 1070 would shorten the timeline to adopt an environmental justice element and tighten requirements for cities and counties to take specific actions to achieve environmental justice. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn and demands that the Legislature address racial injustice, Leyva decided to defer consideration of SB 1070 until next year. 

In the meantime, local officials still have a legal duty to implement SB 1000 – and they should seize the opportunity to redesign their communities with a commitment to environmental justice and equity. It’s time to right the wrongs of the past. 

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