Environmental justice is at the core of the work of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). Central to the strategy is bringing communities and their voices from across the country, into the policymaking process.
When U.S. EPA officials and other policymakers set about this task, they are no doubt looking closely to California, which has been groundbreaking in addressing environmental justice concerns at the community level.
“Our recent report, Actions on Air Quality in North America , shows how important it is to engage with frontline communities, who face the greatest challenges and often have some of the most practical solutions, on issues like air quality management. Communities in California, among others, are showing us the way forward here,” said Barbara Hendrie, Director of UN Environment Programme’s North America Office.
In 2017, California passed Assembly Bill 617, or AB617, to employ community-based action to reduce air pollution that has historically done disproportionate harm to communities of color. The law works by requiring “Air Districts,” regional policy-making bodies responsible for air quality in their jurisdictions, to collaborate with committees from heavily polluted communities to produce legally binding plans to mitigate environmental health impacts.
To carry out this work, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) established the Community Air Protection Program to encourage local communities heavily impacted by air pollution to reduce exposures by developing and implementing new strategies for community air monitoring and emissions reductions programs to reduce health impacts. The California legislature also provided funding to address localized air pollution through targeted incentive funding to deploy cleaner technologies as well as for grants to support community participation.
“Before AB617, there was no American law that required partnership in air quality planning with communities,” said Deldi Reyes, Director of the Office of Community Air Protection for CARB, which oversees implementation of the law. “It has changed the playing field by calling on our organization and Air Districts to consult communities. This is democracy in action.”
It is also a novel way of addressing climate change. Instead of explicitly pursuing either mitigation or adaptation measures for climate change, this law focuses on the health impacts from air pollution that communities have long suffered. Because many air pollutants are also short-lived climate pollutants, this approach addresses both climate change and conventional air pollution at the same time.
“We have a climate emergency that is much more urgent than it was a decade ago,” says Jorge Daniel Taillant of the Institute of Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD), which has advised California communities in the process. “At some point we have to admit that we have pathways to make very rapid gains on climate. It just so happens that quick-acting climate pollutants also have huge social impacts, namely on people’s health. Taking on air pollution and short-lived climate pollutants with cities in California allows us to localize a global problem.”
The city of Stockton in California’s Central Valley has a large inland port situated at a bend in the San Joaquin River. The idling ships and intense truck traffic of the port combine with agricultural burning, intensifying wildfires, and a spaghetti-bowl of overlapping freeways to make Stockton one of the most polluted cities in America. It is in the 100th percentile for asthma.
Stockton also happens to be one of the most diverse small cities in the country, making the city’s experience of environmental harm equally a story about inequities in air pollution exposure. That’s why Stockton was chosen as one of the early recipients of the Community Air Protection Program resources.
“If it can work in Stockton, it can work anywhere,” said Matt Holmes, Environmental Justice Director of Little Manila Rising, a small organization initially founded to preserve the culture of the city’s Filipino-American community. The danger of air pollutants to the health of his fellow Stockton residents is not abstract to Holmes. His friend, and Little Manila Rising’s founder Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, died suddenly in an asthma attack in 2018. She was only 46. “You can’t protect buildings and culture if your people are dying of asthma,” Holmes said of the organization’s choice to fully engage in the process.
Along with other groups and members of the community, Little Manila Rising was instrumental in forming Stockton’s Community Steering Committee (CSC), to interface with the Air District. But like the San Joaquin River, the process has had its twists and turns. Air Districts, for instance, are not accustomed to sharing decision-making authority with community members. Meanwhile, members of frontline communities might be skeptical of policymakers they perceive to have ignored them for decades. “They didn’t know how to incorporate our feedback at first,” said Holmes. “So we had to become our own experts.”
Stockton’s Community Steering Committee sought partners to help them develop the technical capacity to advocate for themselves. IGSD helped convene a scientific panel that included representatives from the UN Environment Programme, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition secretariat, the World Resources Institute, and the City of San Francisco as well as students from the University of California at Berkeley’s Engineering Department to provide technical support to the CSC.
“Throughout the process,” said Holmes, “what has been important for us is that we have built power as a community. We have learned to see when we are being patted on the head and when we are being taken seriously. And because of our work, we are beginning to see real resources for reducing exposures for ourselves and our neighbors.”
IGSD’s Taillant declared, “If we can’t validate communities, if we expect them to have all the answers and fend for themselves, then we are abandoning them.”
“The Process Is a Work in Progress”
The emerging community expertise of Stockton and other California cities is feeding back into CARB’s next phase in administering A.B. 617. “The whole premise of the early phase was to learn how best to engage the community in the process,” said CARB’s Reyes. “A.B. 617 is about starting from the ground up and hearing community priorities. We have all had to learn how to do it better. Communities have had to teach us. They have had to stop us and tell us, ‘Hey, this is not working. You need to do it this way.’”
CARB is considering revising the guidance for steering committees to conform to critiques from local groups. It is also beginning to compensate members of CSCs for the significant time spent learning and engaging in the policy process. California is drawing a roadmap for developing a program combining community-based action in partnership with government, academic, and civil society organizations to make air quality and climate policy at the state/provincial level and even on a national scale. Other states are poised to follow this model. In fact, the U.S. EPA recently announced a $20 million competitive funding window to support community and local efforts to monitor air quality and to promote air quality monitoring partnerships between communities and tribal, state, and local governments.
Stockton has benefited in unexpected ways from engaging with the process. Building a robust community network in a city with high rates of asthma and pollution exposure paid dividends during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance. “At the end of the day, it’s the unintended consequences of this that I’m really excited about,” says Holmes. “The community is bringing life to A.B. 617, bringing the healthcare industry into the process. We have increased our literacy on not just air quality but also how to provide care to our community.”
As for the intended consequences, “The process is still a work in progress,” says Holmes. “But we have the law on the books in plain English. We believe AB617 can work because of the actual language of the bill. There is a stated initiative to share power, and that’s what is needed for things like this to be effective.”
Hero image © Adobe Stock, Forest Fire © Sam Larussa/Unsplash, Power Plant © Marcus Kauff/Unsplash