The thin green line

Environmental groups accused of hurting Latinos

Brownfield of dreams: The Greenlining Institute says regulations on cleanup of contaminated property are too stringent.

Brownfield of dreams: The Greenlining Institute says regulations on cleanup of contaminated property are too stringent.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Environmentalists get blamed for a lot of things. Usually it is about economics; industries and property owners are constantly doing battle with environmental activists and regulators in fights that pit environmental values against the equally compelling values of jobs, tax revenue and property rights.

Lately, environmental regulations and activism have been blamed for California’s worsening energy crisis.

Now, some are saying that environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club are responsible for a host of social ills as well, especially among Latinos and other people of color.

Consider this: “Many aggressive environmental policies, such as urban growth boundaries, environmental protection, etc., have actually diminished the opportunity for Latinos to become homeowners, get a decent education, and have actually increased incarceration rates among Latinos.”

That’s from the Greenlining Institute, in a March 6 letter to members of the California Assembly’s Latino Caucus. Greenlining is a San Francisco-based “environmental justice” nonprofit organization that has made a cause of doing battle with mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club—criticizing them as elitist, possibly even racist, organizations.

The group launched a high-profile attack on the Sierra Club last year, taking out ads in the New York Times that blasted the Sierra Club for opposing the construction of a new University of California campus in an environmentally sensitive area in the foothills outside Merced. The ads criticized the club for overlooking “the state’s most endangered species, San Joaquin Valley students.”

“These [environmental] people seem to hold the fairy shrimp in higher regard than Latino youth,” said Greenlining spokesman Orson Aguilar.

Now the two groups are heating up the war of words over the issue of “brownfields” redevelopment.

Right now, the Greenlining Institute is lobbying heavily for Senate Bill 32, the so-called California Land Environmental Restoration and Reuse Act, authored by California state Senator Martha Escutia. The act seeks to make it easier to redevelop “brownfields”—those parcels in urban areas such as abandoned gas stations, industrial sites or railroad properties that are often contaminated and must be cleaned up before they can be used again.

One provision of the bill would give local governments the power to require landowners to investigate contamination and, if necessary, clean up the property.

This would be a boon to cities saddled with urban blight. Some 90,000 abandoned brownfield sites are concentrated mostly in older, inner areas of California cities, and represent a huge opportunity for much needed new housing and economic revitalization.

But SB 32 contains another, more controversial, provision that would allow stakeholders—interested parties such as developers, community representatives and local officials, rather than state environmental regulators—to determine how much a piece of property must be cleaned up.

Greenlining says streamlining the clean-up process would stimulate economic growth in inner cities, provide new locations for affordable housing and schools and would flow tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue into local governments.

But environmental groups like the Sierra Club have balked at the provision, saying that it turns what should be a scientific process into a political one.

“It would be a special-interest festival,” said Bill Magavern, a legislative expert with the Sierra Club. “You would end up with a site being pronounced ‘clean’ when it really wasn’t.”

The bill has had difficulty in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, in part because of criticism by the Sierra Club as well as the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Greenlining’s Orson Aguilar characterized the opposition to SB 32 as another example of environmental activists and regulators banding together to protect their turf, at the expense of minority communities.

“We’ve gotten nothing but disrespect … None of the people in the top positions of these environmental groups are people of color.”

Aguilar went further to say that a sort of elitism was at work.

“These organizations all hang out and have their book clubs together. They live together,” he added.

But Magavern said the Sierra Club supports the idea of making it easier to redevelop brownfields, and is hoping to work out a compromise on this bill. And, while he admits that the environmental movement has historically not done a very good job of working in the interests of the poor and people of color, he said that’s beginning to change. The club has begun its own environmental justice program now based in Los Angeles.

But he said that Greenlining’s attacks are largely distortions aimed at building their own organization. He noted that the group gets money from the University of California and from corporations, particularly banks and utilities. The group sided with the state’s utilities in their successful campaign against Prop. 9 in 1998. That ballot measure would have rolled back much of the utility deregulation law passed in 1996.

Greenlining is also supporting legislation that would amend the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), to make it easier to approve new development.

Senate Bill 439, by Modesto Republican Richard Montieth, would add a “human impact” section to the CEQA process, requiring local governments to consider the potential benefits to housing, employment and schools on an equal footing with environmental considerations such as traffic congestion, air and water quality and impacts on area wildlife. The bill was withdrawn this year but Aguilar said it would be back during the next session.

“CEQA is the main tool being used to stop affordable housing” said Aguilar.

Magavern acknowledged the severe affordable housing crunch facing the state, but said the crisis is the result of a complicated web of conflicting policies. Scapegoating environmental protections is the easy way out, he said. Further, he added, the act does look at “human impacts” because people are affected by increased pollution.