March 29, 2013

By Sam Tepperman-Gelfant

Reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a hot topic right now in Sacramento and across the state. Multiple proposals are on the table to modify the 43-year old law. To achieve reforms that reinforce – rather than weaken – the act’s central goals, the voices of low-income communities must be included in this debate.

At a basic level, CEQA mandates that environmental impacts of new development projects and government plans be studied, disclosed and mitigated. The process is intended to provide transparency, public accountability and environmental protection.

But some argue this regulatory process slows economic growth and sometimes hinders projects – even socially or environmentally beneficial ones – for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment.

Lost in the clamor of the CEQA reform conversation is a crucial point: While far from perfect, CEQA is an important tool for low-income communities of color seeking to ensure that new developments make their communities healthier and safer.

These communities already bear the brunt of disproportionately high environmental burdens. One 2008 study by the Alameda County Public Health Department, for example, showed that lower income equates to lower life expectancy, with each additional $12,500 in household income buying an additional year of life. In large part, this is because lower-income people often live in areas with polluted air, unsafe traffic conditions and environmental stressors like noise. Plus they lack access to recreation opportunities, healthy food options and safe homes.

These same communities face equally daunting barriers to participating in decision making about investment and development in their communities. Decision makers generally don’t reach out to ask for their input. And even if they do, public hearings often aren’t accessible in the language the community speaks or held at a time and place that working families can attend.

This is not just about abstract progressive ideals. It’s about real people having real opportunities for real control over what happens in their neighborhoods. From a proposal to site an incinerator in a pre-dominantly Latino community in the San Joaquin Valley, to a luxury condo complex planned in an urban African-American neighborhood, to the expansion of a refinery in a low-income community along the San Francisco Bay, CEQA can help inform and protect the most vulnerable communities in both urban and rural parts of California.

Moreover, because CEQA establishes legally enforceable guidelines, it is among the most powerful legal tools that low-income communities of color have for getting accurate information about and influencing local projects.

Which brings us back to Sacramento. We’re all for economic growth and efficient government. But we fear the push to “streamline” CEQA, one of the clarion calls of the current reform effort, may mean limiting transparency, public input or enforceability. And that, in turn, may make it easier to build harmful projects in low-income neighborhoods.

This is not to say that CEQA should be left untouched. It needs to be strengthened to better serve the needs of vulnerable communities. That includes stronger requirements to study and mitigate health disparities, environmental justice impacts and displacement risks. At the same time, zoning and development approvals for affordable housing near transit and jobs should be streamlined so high-opportunity suburbs can’t keep hiding behind phony environmental excuses to exclude lower-income families of color.

How best to accomplish positive reforms while preserving CEQA’s essential core? Put low-income communities and communities of color front and center in the debate. Policymakers, business leaders and environmentalists shouldn’t just talk about the needs of low-income communities of color. They should invite them to the table to join the conversation. That’s the only way to ensure that the next generation of CEQA takes into account the needs and perspectives of the people who need it most.

Read our February 2012 comment letter about the proposed SB 226 CEQA streamlining guidelines.

Read our June 1, 2012 comment letter on the revised proposed SB 226 CEQA streamlining guidelines.

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