Weakening California’s landmark environmental law might increase profits for a few industries, but it could prove costly for communities.
Aruna Prabhala, Special to CalMatters
Aruna Prabhala is the director of the Urban Wildlands program for the Center for Biological Diversity.
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Imagine if a new development proposed in your city would cause the sewage system to overflow after it rains.
Imagine a new warehouse coming in to occupy 3,800 acres in your community, bringing truck exhaust and around-the-clock lighting to your neighborhood.
Now imagine there’s nothing you can do about it.
That’s what might happen if public agencies across California weren’t required by law to consider and mitigate the significant environmental harms of a project. Concerned neighbors, including those from low-income and disadvantaged communities, would not be able to speak out and participate in local land-use decisions.
Since 1970, the California Environmental Quality Act has been advancing environmental justice and protecting vulnerable communities by holding government officials accountable for the health and welfare of the residents they represent.
The state’s premier environmental law requires that when housing, warehouses or oil refineries are built, environmental harms have to be carefully studied and reduced. CEQA is an extremely important tool for advancing environmental justice because its review process requires that local communities – including those with fewer resources and more barriers – be notified when toxic and polluting projects are coming to their neighborhoods.
Yet the more CEQA helps communities, the more critics cry foul. These critics, who are mostly linked to powerful and polluting industries, blame CEQA for a plethora of state ills, from the housing and affordability crisis to a stalled economy.
But those allegations just don’t stand up under scrutiny.
In October, for example, The Housing Workshop published a report that found local zoning laws and rising development costs, not CEQA, are to blame for the state’s housing crunch. The study also found that the number of lawsuits and rate of litigation continue to be low despite population growth. Since 2002, CEQA lawsuits have averaged fewer than 200 a year.
Thanks to CEQA, many projects are improved, reducing pollution and other harms to local communities – all without anyone stepping in a courtroom.
Take the Mission Bay Project. When environmentalists raised concerns over this University of California campus expansion, which was expected to increase overflows in San Francisco’s sewage system, developers agreed to several mitigation measures without going to court.
Developers agreed to separate the development’s stormwater from the city’s system and take other measures to reduce stormwater pollutants. It’s hard to fathom what might have happened if those concerns couldn’t have been raised through the environmental review process brought on by CEQA.
In southeast Los Angeles, a judge ruled last month that the city of Cudahy had violated state law by approving a school on a hazardous waste site. CEQA gave this low-income and predominantly Latinx community an avenue to contest a project that could have exposed children to arsenic, lead and other contaminants.
So why does an effective environmental justice law get so much hate?
When it comes to bringing a development project to fruition, time is money. No developer wants land to sit idle. But studying environmental impacts and addressing neighbors’ concerns take time, and that scrutiny can put a project on pause.
Close scrutiny of a massive warehouse project was how one community in Riverside County got a host of greenhouse gas and air pollution reduction measures.
After a years-long legal battle, developers of the World Logistics Center agreed to an electric vehicle fleet, rooftop solar and other mitigation measures worth $47 million. Without CEQA, the project on 3,800 acres in Moreno Valley would have brought 14,000 daily truck trips to a working-class community already overburdened by pollution.
There are many other examples that prove CEQA should not only be preserved but strengthened. We must resist efforts to water down the law through a streamlining process that bypasses key provisions of CEQA. The law has already been modified to expedite some high priority development and infrastructure projects. Communities that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution and poverty will suffer the most if lawmakers continue to weaken CEQA.
Weakening California’s landmark environmental law might increase profits for a few powerful industries. But it would wreak havoc on communities that would endure the consequences for years to come.