In summary

The Legislature took an important step in protecting environmental justice communities from toxic waste; now it’s the governor’s turn.

By Cristina Garcia and

Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, represents California’s 58th Assembly District, Assemblymember.Garcia@assembly.ca.gov.

Jane Williams, Special to CalMatters

Jane Williams is executive director of California Communities Against Toxics and  serves on numerous boards and advisory groups for environmental justice organizations, dcapjane@aol.com.

Lea este artículo en español.

Communities like ours are called environmental justice communities.

That’s an elaborate way of saying that – among other things – our children are suffering from asthma at abnormally high rates because they literally don’t get clean air to breathe. Our communities don’t all have safe drinking water, they don’t have parks to play and exercise in and, worst of all, they are surrounded by a high concentration of industries that have been allowed to emit toxics for too long.

Environmental justice communities are often comprised of people of color with limited socioeconomic means. Both intentional and unintentional racist policies like redlining created these communities.

In other words, our communities and their residents are treated like we’re disposable.

We need to do better by these communities and fight environmental racism. The Legislature recently just took an important step in protecting our communities from toxics by passing Assembly Bill 995. Let us explain:

One of the culprits was Exide Technologies, a battery recycler in Vernon. Because of Exide, generations of families in the area are suffering from negative health impacts from lead exposure on top of being choked by multiple traffic-clogged freeways that crisscross through the neighborhood.

Exide created the emissions, but the state and its Department of Toxic Substances Control bears major responsibility for allowing it to continue polluting.

Exide declared bankruptcy this year, which means the state is not likely to collect on millions of cleanup dollars that the company owes. We the taxpayers will have to pay to make families safe, and it may cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

A similar thing happened at the former BKK Landfill in West Covina. Like Exide, BKK operated under a temporary permit and eventually went bankrupt leaving the taxpayers the bill for cleaning up their contamination.

The Legislature has initiated multiple efforts to improve the Department of Toxic Substances Control so it will better police companies like Exide and BKK Landfill, but the agency’s moves continue to be inadequate. Partly, that’s because the agency doesn’t have enough money to regulate successfully or clean up abandoned toxic sites.

Introduced by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, AB 995 is a beginning, because it raises funds for regulation, makes the companies more accountable and does not leave taxpayers holding the bag.

Basically, it requires industries with toxics to make stronger financial assurances against pollution, so they can’t just walk away from responsibility like Exide and BKK.

The bill also sets new timelines for permits. To get their permits, industries will have to meet current toxic safety rules, something Exide avoided for years.

There are more provisions, but that’s the bottom line: more responsibility; more funding; more public health protections; and less state, community and taxpayer liability.

This is not an environmentalist pipe dream, either. It was developed by the Legislature working with industry, environmental groups and representatives of our environmental justice communities. 

A well-functioning Department of Toxic Substances Control is good for businesses. Responsible companies don’t want to be outcompeted by ones that cut costs by jeopardizing the environment and public health.

These facilities aren’t in Beverly Hills, Playa Vista and Encino. It’s environmental justice communities like Compton, East Los Angeles, Commerce and Vernon that suffer from poorly operated facilities.

We know there’s more to be done – we still have to improve the financing of cleanups for past problems. But we can improve things going forward.

We’re committed to working on that once Gov. Gavin Newsom signs AB 995. The ball is in his court. He can make sure we move forward on toxics, or he can let our communities continue to suffer from mismanagement of toxics.

This isn’t policy wonkiness. It’s basic. It’s about protecting California’s health – physical and economic. We need to do both.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.