Environmental Justice Bill Fails to Pass in California

A proposal to add three members to the South Coast Air Quality District to represent those impacted by pollution is stopped by the state Assembly.

The view of Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory clogged by pollution
A bill aimed to give voice to minority communities disproportionately affected by Southern California's air pollution. Credit: Getty Images

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Editor’s note: This story is an update of our August 5, 2016, story, “In California Clean Air Fight, Environmental Justice Takes a Leading Role.”

California lawmakers failed to approve Democratic legislation seeking to make the state’s largest air quality agency more sympathetic to the poor and minority communities disproportionately affected by air pollution. The vote last month avoids a power shake-up at the powerful South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The bill would have added three board members from environmental justice organizations to the district’s 13-member board, ensuring representation from lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. That would have shifted the power balance toward advocates of stricter clean-air regulation.

After passing the Democratic-controlled state Senate in May, the measure lost in the Democratic Assembly on the final day of the legislative session in August, in a 36-30 vote. Lawmakers from both parties were opposed.

Republican appointees gained a majority of the district in January, vowing to ease the burden of regulation on industry. The new majority promptly finalized a controversial rule allowing oil refiners, power plants and other major polluters to release more smog-producing emissions. It also ousted its long-running executive director, and proposed a voluntary compliance plan that would essentially pay companies to reduce air emissions.

The moves prompted concern from clean-air advocates that the board would continue to erode pollution controls. The measure, introduced by State Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), followed.

If the bill had passed, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and state legislative leaders would have gained influence over an agency charged with reducing air pollution for 17 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Environmental justice advocates expressed dismay at the outcome.

“It’s sad that they don’t understand the hardships people face,” said Carol Hernandez, 32, a social worker for San Bernardino County. She said in the three weeks since the bill failed, she has twice had to rush her 5-year-old asthmatic daughter Alina to the doctor for breathing problems.

“I wish they could see my daughter; spend a day with her running, climbing and being a kid,” she said. “It’s important that people understand how lives are affected and things need to be done to change things.”

Board member Shawn Nelson, a Republican on the board, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party in Orange County. (Republicans gained control of the district when the Orange County City Selection Committee selected its representative on the board.)

Nelson previously called the bill a power grab by state Democratic lawmakers. He and other opponents said it would stifle business and argued existing rules were enough to safeguard the region’s air quality. “We are committed to protecting the health of residents, while remaining sensitive to businesses,” the board majority’s website says.

The district is responsible for enforcing federal air quality standards and has been credited with helping to make Southern California’s notoriously polluted air more breathable over the past 19 years through its innovative and strict policies. Traditionally, the board has operated in a non-partisan manner.

A 2014 national study of the demographics of air pollution exposures by researchers at the University of Minnesota included parts of the South Coast district. Researchers found that there, on average, people of color are exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide in outdoor air pollution 38 percent higher than those of white people.

ICN reporter Zahra Hirji contributed to this story.