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Communities all over California are facing tough challenges nowadays, some more than others. Clearly, the economy tops the list for most cities. But in disadvantaged communities and communities of color, environmental justice is also high on the radar screen.
But in advocating for environmental justice, government policies and programs should be scrutinized to make sure they are carefully balanced with the other needs of our communities so they can be effective without triggering unintended consequences that might prove harmful.
An example of such a program is “CalEnviroScreen,” also known as the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool. Currently under development by the California Environmental Protection Agency, CalEnviroScreen will classify cities according to their level of environmental risk.
Sounds good so far, right? The problem is not with identifying communities with high environmental vulnerability, but in how that designation is used. If the data is used to help public agencies and the legislature determines which communities are eligible for state funds intended to alleviate the impacts of environmental inequities, it could be very useful.
But if that ranking is factored into decisions about business improvements or expansion, or about whether or not to allow new stores, homes, offices or industrial facilities to be built, it could deprive our communities of precisely the kind of investments they need to create jobs, fund essential public services and improve our downtowns and our neighborhoods.
How many times have you heard stories about projects that could bring jobs and services to our communities being delayed or even abandoned because of environmental challenges? It’s one of the main reasons companies give when asked why they hesitate to locate in California.
I’m not saying we don’t need rules to ensure developments in our communities are built in accordance with the highest standards to protect the environment and public health. We do. The point is we already have some of the strictest environmental laws in the country, and they apply as equally in disadvantaged communities and communities of color as they do in more affluent cities. And those rules are being continually improved and expanded.
CalEnviroScreen, while a potentially powerful tool in addressing environmental justice concerns, could also be the straw that breaks the camel’s back if it becomes a tool to unreasonably thwart economic development.
That’s why mayors and city councilmembers from all around the state are asking the California Environmental Protection Agency to make some important changes to the proposed CalEnviroScreen. They understand that if a ranking of high environmental vulnerability is used to block jobs and economic development, our communities will lose much more than they will gain.
There’s a lot of room for improvement in this tool, starting with specifically prohibiting its use for regulatory or permitting purposes. What many of our community leaders would like to see is a more clearly defined focus on how the available data is analyzed and interpreted, to provide the most accurate assessment of where environmental justice resources should be directed.
Let’s deploy CalEnviroScreen where it can do the most good, while keeping the door open for new, environmentally responsible economic development.
Luis Marquez is a member of the Downey City Council.
Published: March 21, 2013 – Volume 11 – Issue 49