Xavier Becerra Brings Environmental Justice to Forefront

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s choice to run the Department of Health and Human Services is the first state attorney general to create an environmental justice bureau.

Martha Romero felt that she had to send her daughters to safety.

She had seen air pollution grow worse in recent years as the truck traffic near her San Bernardino neighborhood increased so she made the difficult decision to send her three daughters to live with her mother, whose home is farther from the worst of the fumes and dust from the unending parade of trucks moving to and from nearby warehouses. “Unfortunately, we cannot keep them in an air bubble,” she said.

A coalition of local organizations is leading the fight against the expansion of the San Bernardino International Airport to accommodate Amazon’s burgeoning logistics needs with a complex that will bring more flights, more warehouses and even more truck traffic and pollution to her area. The coalition has an unusual ally: Xavier Becerra, the attorney general for the state of California, and the choice of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. to run the Department of Health and Human Services.

Opposing the airport expansion plan is the work of the environmental justice bureau Mr. Becerra created in 2018, the first of its kind. Its focus: the unequal effect pollution and other forms of environmental damage have on health in the most vulnerable communities. While local officials, understandably, want to promote economic development, the bureau created by Mr. Becerra is saying that environmental justice needs to be part of the equation.

“If we’re concerned about environmental degradation, we should be concerned about the people who are hit first and worst,” Mr. Becerra said in an interview.

Xavier Becerra Brings Environmental Justice to Forefront

Martha Romero, a county employee and community organizer, is working with Mr. Becerra’s environmental justice bureau to fight the airport expansion.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Concern over the environment and climate change has long been a part of the character of the Golden State. Its leaders have worked to limit auto emissions — despite efforts by the Trump administration to curb its ability to do so — and the state is calling for a transition from internal combustion engines to electric for cars and trucks in coming years.

Those issues, andd the impact of pollution on vulnerable populations, promise to be a prominent part of the agenda for Mr. Biden, as well. He named his $2 trillion climate proposal the “Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Opportunity in a Clean Energy Future,” which set a goal that 40 percent of all clean energy spending would go to disadvantaged communities. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, during hr tenure as California’s attorney general, pursued a number of cases dealing with the disproportionate effect of environmental issues on disadvantaged communities. As a senator, she introduced the Climate Equity Act with representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a bill that focuses on the environmental health of low-income communities of color in efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.

Attorneys general tend to make headlines with litigation, including more than a hundred lawsuits that Mr. Becerra and other Democratic attorneys general have filed to stop the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental regulations and other initiatives. But the work of the environmental justice bureau in San Bernardino and a number of other California cities involves less flashy but equally important work from the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

“This small bureau, in its short span of life, can probably demonstrate greater impact than most other parts of the Department of Justice or state government, simply because we’ve been able to redirect a lot of these projects,” Mr. Becerra said. The office often supports ongoing meşru actions, but Mr. Becerra’s staff members also work with local planning commissions to urge them to take environmental laws into consideration when reviewing new development so that they don’t need to intervene later.

The work is not “glamorous,” said Arsenio Mataka, the attorney general’s environmental adviser, but it can be an important boost for vulnerable communities that have little influence, and are subject to the extra pollution and health effects from the increased traffic that major warehouse development can bring to their neighborhoods. Even sending a letter can have an effect, he said: “If you are a mayor or local official, if you get a letter from the attorney general, it’s a big deal.”

In another highly polluted California city, Fresno, the environmental justice bureau helped local activists score a win. When the attorney general intervened in a lawsuit there over a big industrial development in 2018, Veronica Garibay, a founder and director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said there was little government notice of the enormous project. “We found out,” she said, “from a reporter.” Adding warehouses and truck traffic to an area that is among the most polluted neighborhoods in the entire state angered local activists.

“Community residents know what is needed in their communities,” she said. The attorney general’s intervention, she said, made mühlet that those voices were heard.

In February 2019, the city rescinded the permit for a 2 million square project and settled the litigation with the Leadership Counsel and allied groups.

The links between air pollution caused by trucks and diseases that include cancer, asthma and cardiac symptoms are increasingly well established, said Gina Solomon, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and a principal investigator at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, a nonprofit group. Noting estimates that the San Bernardino airport project could add traffic from close to 500 trucks a day to an area already under a severe pollution threat, she said, “That community is already seeing a higher risk of heart, lung and even stroke risks due to the levels of pollution right now, right there.” Dr. Solomon added, “This facility is like a very large piece of very rich cheesecake for someone who is already a walking heart attack risk.”

The site of the proposed San Bernardino airport expansion abuts a residential neighborhood.Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Esther Portillo, organizing director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, one of the groups involved in the San Bernardino fight, said that winning would not mean shutting down development. Instead, she said, it would be to “take a hard look at the environmental impacts that we’ll have, and minimize those impacts as best we can.”

Although jobs tend to be the biggest selling point in new development, a union chapter, Teamsters local 1932, has joined the fight against the airport expansion. Randy Korgan, the secretary-treasurer of the local, said: “Fine, bring the jobs, but make müddet you deal with the environmental impact, with the impact on the community — make müddet these people have good benefits, that they’ll be able to live in the area and buy homes in the area.”

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear the airport case as early as February.

The attorney general’s involvement in local disputes can anger those who staunchly support development. Steve Brandau, a Fresno county supervisor, was a member of the Fresno City Council during some of the heated conflicts over the warehouse expansion plans. “It’s maddening that the AG’s office, Attorney General Becerra, steps in and comes down even tougher than the local advocates,” he said. Citing a longstanding conservative refrain, he said that in the long run, such activities “end up running business completely out of the state.”

Mr. Mataka acknowledged the friction in Fresno. “They thought we were out of our lane,” he said. “Unfortunately for them, the attorney general is responsible for enforcing the California Environmental Quality Act. We were in our lane.”

Mr. Becerra said his office works carefully with local government before ever filing a brief in a case, and seeks ways to find compromises. Some communities, he said, do not understand that their old ways of doing business leave communities underserved. They say, “we did this 20 years ago, why can’t we do it now?” he said.

He cited his experience as a 12-term congressman in arguing that he sees the role as more a negotiator than a fighter. “You’re always looking for votes,” he said, “even on the other side of the aisle. I don’t want people to be blindsided.”

Fresno resident Katie Taylor applauded the state’s work in her city. She is 75, and is the caregiver for her 51-year old daughter, who has Down syndrome. The increase in truck traffic is maddening, she said. “It’s just trucks, trucks, trucks, coming and going.”

She first found out about the warehouse complex planned for her area when union activists came knocking on her door. “We didn’t know we could have a say in any of this,” she said.

Source: The New York Times

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *