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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Justice

Air Date: Week of

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The Air Quality Management District in the Los Angeles Basin enhanced its Environmental Justice program this month, with new regulations and programs aimed at easing the pollution burden in some of southern California's poorest and smoggiest areas. Host Steve Curwood talks with Joe Lyou of the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and environmental lawyer Mike Carroll of Latham and Watkins about the program's expansion.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Environmental justice is the notion that people in poor neighborhoods and people of color tend to bear the lion’s share of industrial pollution. They live in neighborhoods surrounded by landfills, trucking corridors and refineries. So far, environmental justice hasn’t advanced much beyond the concept stage. But now in California, the agency charged with air quality enforcement in the Los Angeles Basin has adopted 23 unprecedented measures after listening to complaints from people in its poorest and smoggiest neighborhoods.

MALE: And I would say that you have come to the exact right place to hold a town meeting on the issue of environmental justice, because if there is a Ground Zero in the environmental justice arena in southern California, I think we’re there.


VOICEOVER: So, that is a problem that we’re having, these odors, these bad odors, they everyday are there. I had a son that unfortunately he passed away already. He was 20 years old. And he died due to the asthma.

MALE 2: Students were playing right on top of the toxic dumpsite with huge bubbles, you could say, coming out of the ground. And kids were just popping them as if they were balloons. This is why I am strongly in favor of all the proposed action items.

CURWOOD: I’m joined now by two men who attended these town meetings held by the Air Quality Management District. Joe Lyou is from the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. And Mike Carroll is an environmental lawyer in southern California.

Dr. Lyou, let’s start with you. Tell me, what are some of the actions that people in these communities are most excited about?

LYOU: Well, there were two areas that were particularly based on community initiatives. One was to address the need to eliminate the use of a very hazardous chemical called "hydrogen fluoride" at a refinery in Wilmington, California. And the other was the idea of addressing the problem of regulating private off-road vehicles, sometimes referred to as yard hostlers or haulers, that move equipment around in the areas like the ports and the rail yards.

CURWOOD: There were also discussions about portable or outdoor residential monitoring devices. What was the response there?

LYOU: Well, there were some concerns among industry about problems with false reports from communities with regard monitoring devices set up in neighborhoods. But I see it as a great opportunity to get to the problem of trying to cover 12,000 square miles and 16 million residents in the AQMD District with screening devices that can verify community complaints.

CURWOOD: Mr. Carroll, now you represent companies that are, what, in the petroleum business, aerospace, automaking. How is the industry feeling in response to these new regulations?

CARROLL: For the most part, industry was supportive of the new initiatives. There were 23 initiatives in total that were approved by the Board. There were a handful of them, however, in the case of the companies that I represent, there were three that we were particularly concerned about.

CURWOOD: What are these issues that you think need more attention before they become rules?

CURWOOD: The measures that we were particularly concerned about used the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which is the law under which agencies review new or modified facilities to carve out specific areas within the southern California region, impose more rigorous standards to make it more difficult to either modernize an existing facility or cite a new facility in those geographic areas.

And our primary concern about that is that those are likely to be the very geographic areas that are most in need of investment in new facilities and jobs. And the primary problem that we saw with those measures is that they essentially redline these areas and discourage further investment that’s very much needed.

CURWOOD: Many environmental justice advocates argue that when a polluting business is looking for a new location, the pollution burden already carried by a particular neighborhood should be considered before permits are decided. Dr. Lyou, how do these new regulations in southern California address this idea of cumulative impact?

LYOU: When you’re dealing with 12,000 square miles of Air Quality Management District, you can have a general master plan for how to approach air pollution problems, but you’re going to have specific regional problems in area like the Port of Los Angeles, what’s known as the Almeida Corridor in southeast Los Angeles, that needs special rules and special attention in terms of the unique problems with air toxics. You will have an opportunity to use particular rules and regulations to address the unique problems in those areas.

CURWOOD: Now the Southern California Air Quality Management District has adopted these rules designed to improve air quality enforcement in some of the poorest and smoggiest neighborhoods. What’s this going to mean on a day-to-day basis in the future? How will things change for business and for people in the neighborhoods? Let me start with you, Mr. Carroll.

CARROLL: The effects of measures such as those that we objected to are difficult to identify on a day-to-day basis. It is difficult to isolate the specific reasons that a business decides not to site in southern California or decides not to expand. Those decisions are usually based on a number of factors. But, we think that environmental regulation and environmental policy play a role in that. We think that over the long run what we will see is a continued decline in the manufacturing and industry base in southern California.

CURWOOD: Dr. Lyou, let me turn to you. What will change in the future on a day-to-day basis?

LYOU: Well, I see the actions of last Friday as being a first step in a change in the dynamic of the relationship of the communities with the regulatory authorities and with industry. One of the things that was most telling was one of the early community outreach meetings, 122 community members showed up. They did a little protest outside. They went into a small, crowded room and met face-to-face and discussed with the AQMD staff what the problems were in their neighborhood. And, fortunately for AQMD, they had a native speaking Spanish language senior staffer able to speak directly with residents in their native language which made a big difference. You could see it on the community members’ faces that they were so appreciative that there was someone who spoke their language and was being responsive.

I think communities are finally getting a more equal basis or more equal voice in the decision-making processes. And I’m hopeful that we can work together with industry to come up with cost-effective ways of investing in these communities.

CURWOOD: Joe Lyou is the interim executive director at the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and Mike Carroll is an environmental attorney with Latham and Watkins, based in Orange County. Thank you both for your time.

LYOU: Thank you, Steve.

CARROLL: Thank you.



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