The day to day regulatory work of California’s state agencies has life-threatening consequences for frontline communities. When the pandemic struck last year, working class people of color were already fighting a statewide pollution and climate crisis. Many service industry workers, farmworkers and care workers — the majority of them Latinx, Black, Asian and Asian Pacific Islanders — worked full days on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis before coming home to the frontline of our state’s toxic pollution crisis.
Confronted with the burdens of refineries and oil wells next to our homes and workplaces, freeways and warehouses enclosing our schools and heavy chemicals in our drinking water and homes, working class communities of color suffered the greatest losses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While all eyes were trained on Governor Newsom to “stop the spread” of the pandemic, frontline residents and advocates know the best way to avert a crisis is to prevent it from starting in the first place. When it comes to the crises of toxic pollution, the regulatory work developed by state agencies can make the difference between years of chronic asthma and cancer, or a blue sky above our families’ heads.
So as California starts a slow recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s time to ask: how did state agencies perform on environmental justice in 2020?
CEJA’s 2020 Environmental Justice Agency Assessment analyzes ten state agencies’ actions and their success at protecting the health of California residents and advancing environmental and climate justice goals. The reporting in our assessment reflects a year of advocacy at state agencies by CEJA members and partners, and includes recommendations for action into 2021 and beyond.
Falling Short During a Crisis
This year, our report assessed five state agencies and delivered issue-based evaluations to another five agencies. Those last five agencies make up our “To Watch” list: the agencies that CEJA members engaged on an issue by issue basis in 2020.
Across the board, the state agencies in this report were graded based on their track record of both regulatory and procedural justice. Regulatory justice refers to the extent to which state agencies delivered rules and regulations that advance the environmental health and wellbeing of the state’s frontline communities. Procedural justice refers to the meaningful engagement of frontline communities in the regulatory process. Due to long-standing economic, racial, and regional disparities of access in statewide decision making processes, frontline residents’ experiences and testimony have historically been excluded from processes that impact their wellbeing.
In our annual assessment, meaningful engagement with communities and community organizations was factored into the environmental justice scores, in addition to the strength or absence of regulatory decisions made in the past year.
The grades earned by state agencies in the 2020 Agency Assessment are:
Making Environmental Justice a Priority
Now, more than ever, we need state officials to double down on the moral and legal mandate to environmental justice, and to advance intersectional solutions that recognize connections among environmental, climate, racial and economic justice.
There were some important advances in the past year. For example, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) enacted a historic rule to require the sale of zero-emissions trucks, which will start to curb diesel emissions that lead to lifelong respiratory problems for California communities. The DWR introduced the term “underrepresented community” to its grant proposal framework, expanding the range of communities eligible to receive funding.
Other agencies fell short. The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) issued nearly 2,000 permits for polluting oil and gas wells in 2020, bypassing the legal environmental review process with few, if any, actions taken to provide relief to overburdened communities. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) continued its Dairy Digester program, providing millions of dollars in subsidies to the large-scale, polluting dairies that perpetuate a manure lagoon status quo for the dairy industry in California. Both of these actions were challenged by residents and environmental justice advocates. Both sets of regulatory decisions jeopardize the health of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and AAPI communities across the state.
These decisions — and others like them — fly in the face of what we know to be true: state regulatory policy must prioritize environmental justice communities in order to support the health and well-being of all Californians.
Recommendations for Environmental Justice in 2021
CEJA’s Environmental Justice Agency Assessment includes the following recommendations for state agencies to advance the principles of environmental justice to work toward a safe, healthy and equitable future for every Californian.
California Air Resources Board (CARB) — Work in deeper collaboration with community based organizations (CBOs) and meaningfully engage with the AB 32 Environmental Justice Advisory Committee and AB 617 Community Steering Committees. Ensure that community engagement is at the center of program design, development and implementation.
California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) — Set a visionary goal for California agriculture, with measurable reduction targets and timelines for the most problematic classes of pesticides, including organophosphates, fumigants and neonicotinoids. Prioritize incentives for farmers to transition away from hazardous pesticide use within 10-15 years for the health and wellbeing of farmworkers and rural communities.
California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) — Protect residents from impacts associated with hazardous waste facilities and work deeply with residents and community-based organizations to ensure the expedited and full cleanup of toxic sites across the state. Collaborate with the Legislature to develop short- and long-term plans to address the up to 200,000 brownfield sites in California. Nothing short of a transformative cultural shift that centers environmental justice community voices and needs in decision-making will enable the agency to truly live up to its mission.
California Department of Water Resources (DWR) — Provide a clear description of how its Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) review process prioritizes drinking water protection, and take corrective action on all GSPs that don’t adequately consider and protect community drinking water needs. Issue guidance to Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to ensure that GSPs are protecting drinking water, and continue enhanced funding incentives for policies and projects that protect drinking water.
California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) — Implement recommendations in our October 2020 “Roadmap for Environmental Justice at CalGEM” memo, such as improving staffing and governance to be more responsive to environmental justice communities. This will create safer and more equitable permitting and enforcement practices for community health, while moving our state toward an inevitable managed decline and just transition from fossil fuels, in tandem with the state’s climate, health, and equity goals.
California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) — Prevent methane generation by supporting pasture-based animal agriculture, and transition the dairy industry towards a more just agroecological and diversified system. Advance equity and environmental justice in its programs, policies, and investments.
California Energy Commission (CEC) — Center equity in all of its work, and develop creative ways to work more closely with communities by engaging them in the earliest stages of processes that affect them. On Title 24 specifically, we recommend that the CEC act boldly to decarbonize new buildings as quickly and equitably as possible. Seek deep engagement from environmental justice communities in order to gain support, insight, and strategic thinking.
California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) — Create more pathways for environmental justice communities’ participation in critical proceedings, including ways of providing resources and compensation for participants. Above all, ensure equity principles lead its policy implementation, especially in transitioning away from the demand and supply of fossil fuels.
California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) — Ensure that the Regional Water Quality Control Boards adopt effective regulations applicable to dischargers of contaminants like nitrate. In particular, strengthen dairy and irrigated agriculture regulations so that communities and households are no longer impacted by unsafe drinking water.
California Strategic Growth Council (SGC) — Make a more concerted effort to advance racial equity, by committing to hire BIPOC and LGBTQ+ led organizations, consultants, and other entities with direct ties to frontline communities. Lead the way for other agencies to follow to ensure our state makes amends for past discriminatory practices while advancing a more equitable, inclusive, and transparent system.