As the quieter ‘companion bill’ to Monday’s cap-and-trade extension legislation, Assembly Bill 617 sought to placate environmental justice advocates who have increasingly complained that the state’s globally ambitious climate policy overlooks a local problem: poor California communities living in the shadow of polluters.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens, was touted as the less-grandiose partner to cap and trade, whose expansive reach allows California polluters to offset their emissions by reducing them in another state.

Her measure is aimed closer to home, attempting to, as she put it, “address air pollution in the most burdened communities.” That would include Garcia’s district, where residents are hard-hit by environmental degradation.

The rigorous negotiating that accompanied the cap-and-trade bill also claimed aspects of Garcia’s air bill. She characterized it as a much-needed first step—even going so far as to give her legislation the modest hashtag #downpayment.

Most environmental justice groups saved their fiercest criticism for the cap-and-trade bill, which some termed a “deal with the devil,” a reference to the measure’s many compromises with the state’s powerful oil and gas industry. But the pollution bill had its critics, too, who said it pulled too many punches.

“The way Ms. Garcia framed it is absolutely correct; it’s a down payment,” said Amy Vanderwarker, co-director of California Environmental Justice Alliance. “It has some good provisions, however there’s a lot of things that have to be fixed.”

The most debated portion of the Garcia bill attempts to close an existing loophole under the current cap-and-trade law that allows industrial facilities to get around retrofitting old, less-efficient equipment by purchasing pollution offsets and continuing to emit.

Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens on the Assembly floor. Photo by Max Whittaker for CALmatters
Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens on the Assembly floor. Photo by Max Whittaker for CALmatters

But in addressing one cap-and-trade loophole, Garcia’s bill appears to open another: While it requires local air boards to establish equipment retrofitting programs, because the original law’s language was not stricken, facilities could continue to trade pollution credits in lieu of replacing older equipment. Such a program, known as RECLAIM, is operated by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

During floor debate, Garcia made it clear that her bill did not intend to create that loophole, but the language remained in the version that passed. To Vanderwarker, that aspect of the bill and others will have to be revisited. “We hope to work with Ms. Garcia and clean up that provision,” she said.

The bill also requires expanded monitoring of local polluters, and that the state’s Air Resources Board mandate more expansive emissions reporting and publish that data on the its website.

Without outlining specific guidelines or standards, the bill requires the air board to devise a statewide plan to reduce pollution in heavily affected communities. The board has until October of 2018 to create the plan, which must be updated at least every five years.

And the bill also increases the maximum fine for air pollution violations from non-vehicular sources to $5,000 from $1,000.

“Those are very positive things,” said Brent Newell, legal director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. “Cristina Garcia deserves a ton of credit for pushing this issue and pushing hard to get what it in this bill.”

Newell said that the air board, the governor and the state’s political leaders will have to be held accountable for the bill to retain any teeth. The way the bill is implemented, he said, “will determine its benefit for communities of color. A lot of Californians depend on this bill.”

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Julie Cart joined CalMatters as a projects and environment reporter in 2016 after a long career at the Los Angeles Times, where she held many positions: sportswriter, national correspondent and environment...