Letter from the Director

Photo: John R. Balmes
John R. Balmes

Environmental justice is a key concept for public health practitioners who are working to redress health disparities among low-income communities of color. Not only do these communities often have high-level exposures to pollutants, they also often have poor housing, lack of access to nutritious food, little green space, high crime rates, and poor access to health care. Thus, residents of such communities suffer from a “double whammy,” an unfair burden of hazardous exposures coupled with increased vulnerability to their toxic effects based on neighborhood characteristics. Directing the attention of policy makers to the problem of cumulative exposures in the context of environmental justice is an important contribution of COEH faculty members—Rachel Morello-Frosch, Michael Jerrett, and Amy Kyle—whose work is highlighted in this issue of Bridges. These investigators do not stop at documenting the environmental health disparities faced by vulnerable communities. They also try to develop strategies to help change the built environment of these communities. For example, Dr. Morello-Frosch has been empowering residents of Richmond to recognize and measure exposures to hazardous substances in their community, and together with Drs. Jerrett, Kyle, and others, she has created a new summary metric for the degree of environmental inequity characterizing neighborhoods. Hopefully, more empowered community residents and better-characterized neighborhoods will help spur policy makers into action.

In addition to the will to act, policy makers need resources to implement effective programs. One new source of revenue to address community environmental health issues in California is a community benefits fund that will come from the auction of CO2 emission allowances under the California Air Resources Board (CARB) cap -and-trade program. This program is a key component of the state’s overall approach to mitigate climate change as mandated by AB 32 (the California Global Warming Solutions Act). Many of the community-based organizations (CBOs) that advocate for environmental justice fought CARB’s decision to implement a market mechanism to put a price on carbon, cap-and-trade, instead of a carbon tax. These groups feared that heavy CO2 emitters would simply buy allowances rather than clean up their facilities. This is a reasonable concern because facilities that emit high levels of CO2 tend to emit high levels of toxic pollutants as well.

As the cap-and-trade program moved closer to the start of allowance auctions, many of the same CBOs that fought against the decision to go with cap-and-trade on environmental justice grounds formed a coalition to try a different tact. They supported legislative efforts to create a fund from auction revenues to be used for projects to benefit disadvantaged communities impacted by high pollution levels. Two bills that were recently passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Brown ensure that such a community benefits fund will be realized.

AB 1532 (Perez) established a public process and framework for the allocation of auction revenues. An already existing law created the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) in which revenues generated through the cap-and-trade program must be deposited. AB 1532 requires that the money in the GGRF be used to achieve feasible, cost-effective reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in California through investments that also maximize economic, environmental, and public health co-benefits.

SB 535 (de Leon) requires that 25 percent of the GGRF be allocated for projects that would benefit areas disproportionately affected by pollution and suffering from high concentrations of unemployment, low levels of homeownership, high rent burden, and low levels of educational attainment. In addition, at least 10 percent of the GGRF must be allocated to projects in disadvantaged communities for programs to reduce pollution and develop clean energy.

Multiple organizations co-sponsored AB 1532 and SB 535, including the Greenlining Institute, Coalition for Clean Air, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, to name but a few.

Now that the bills have been passed and signed the task is to see that they are implemented effectively and fairly. Cal/EPA has been working to draw maps that capture where disadvantaged communities are located throughout the state. As the cap-and-trade auctions continue to generate revenues, policy decisions regarding the allocation of these funds to community programs will be a critical focal point for public discussion about environmental health and justice.

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