“There are pockets in Oxnard where people are from lower incomes, and that is where companies try to take advantage and put polluting projects,” said Noemi Tungui of Oxnard. She has lived in Oxnard since her family came from Mexico 21 years ago, when she was 3 years old. Tungui, a 2017 graduate of California State University, Northridge, is now working in her hometown as an intern with Food and Water Watch (FWW). She describes the problems of homelessness, lack of access to healthy food and spraying of the strawberry fields next to the elementary schools she attended. “When I was young I didn’t know it was policy or politics that we were dealing with. We could smell it and see the signs about spraying, but they never really told us it was bad for us. Now that I’ve gotten involved, and am talking to more people, realize friends growing up had asthma — this was happening to us. Something could have been done to protect us, but it wasn’t.”
Finding solutions via legislation
Communities across the state are using a new mapping tool called CalEnviroScreen to understand where there is a need to reduce air emissions, limit projects that contribute pollution and create long-term planning policies to improve the conditions in disadvantaged communities. In Ventura County, 36,915 people live in disadvantaged communities as identified by the state of California’s CalEnviroScreen 3.0, developed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). The vast majority of those people are Latino. According to the OEHHA website, disadvantaged communities are those “most affected by many sources of pollution, and where people are often especially vulnerable to pollution’s effects.”
To identify disadvantaged communities, CalEnviroScreen examines every census tract in the state and calculates scores based on environmental, health and socioeconomic information. The tracts with the top 25 percent overall scores, and 22 other tracts with lower overall scores but scores in the top 5 percent for “pollution burden” are all identified as disadvantaged communities. Eight census tracts in Ventura County are identified as disadvantaged communities, which include La Colonia in Oxnard, McGrath State Beach, Mandalay Beach Park, Ormond Beach, downtown Ventura and the Westside, but not El Rio just outside of Oxnard.
“Poverty is just one of 20 factors [that are considered]. In El Rio, when you look at the data, health scores are actually better than average,” said Sam Delson, deputy director of External and Legislative Affairs for OEHHA said. “There are bad scores for pollution [in El Rio], but when you compare to the red tracts, which are in the 90th percentile or above [averaging all 20 factors] the red areas clearly have higher scores across all factors.” He pointed to the scores of the two coastal areas in the red tracts that include McGrath State Beach, Mandalay Beach Park and Ormond Beach, “those two coastal tracts, are pretty high scoring.”
This process was prompted by the passage of SB 535 and AB 1550 — both aimed at directing funds from California’s cap-and-trade programs to benefit disadvantaged communities, potentially giving priority to these communities over others when it comes to accessing grant money for programs to better serve those residents. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), disadvantaged communities can include: “Areas disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and other hazards that can lead to negative public health effects, exposure, or environmental degradation” and “areas with concentrations of people that are of low-income, high unemployment, low levels of home ownership, high-rent burden, sensitive populations, or low levels of educational attainment.”
CalEnviroScreen uses scientific methodology, including using “sensitivity factors” as “effect modifiers” that can make people more at risk to health impacts from pollution. The most recent version of CalEnviroScreen, released in April 2017, is tasked with looking beyond income statistics and also considering and scoring areas that are “disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and negative public health impacts.”
What is environmental justice?
In California, environmental justice is defined as “the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” It is the idea that there should be equity in governmental decisions, including land use planning, that people of all neighborhoods should have equal input and influence in the land use and planning process where they live and work. Seven of the eight tracts in the county identified as disadvantaged are overwhelmingly Latino.
Environmental justice in Oxnard would be “a more empowered community with environmentally friendly companies coming into our community, [bringing] renewable energy. There is more than what is written in the law; you see that people are sick, the low-income people. It doesn’t matter if the [project] is 500 feet or 1,000 feet [from people’s homes]. For humanity you just can’t approve the project,” said Tungui, who is working on a project in Oxnard to stop the expansion of four new oil wells on a one-acre operation on the Cabrillo Oil Field in South Oxnard. FWW and Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas (CFROG) have filed a joint appeal of the project because they say the county has approved the project without thoroughly assessing the potential health impacts to the nearby mobile home park — part of a disadvantaged community — and farmworkers in the area. The county has said that because it is an existing oil field, the new wells will not create any significant impact.
The project applicant, Renaissance Petroleum, has no authority or role under California Environmental Quality Act, nor under county regulations, to prepare the environmental documents, nor a role in making the environmental determination, wrote Maureen Traut Carson,
land use consultant speaking for Renaissance Petroleum. That is the authority and responsibility of the decision-maker for a project. As provided for in CEQA, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors has adopted “thresholds of significance” that provide clear direction and disclosure for evaluating a project and whether or not a project will or will not have a significant negative environmental impact.
Today, Oxnard has three gas-fired power plants on its beaches, and a fourth called the Puente Power Plant (P3) is being proposed. Should the Puente project pass, NRG Energy Inc., which proposed it, has agreed to demolish two of the existing plants. The California Energy Commission (CEC) is the decision-maker for the project. At every hearing since 2015 for the P3 project, Oxnard residents and their supporters have turned out and expressed objections regarding the plant being put in Oxnard. Many of the comments point to environmental racism and the need for environmental justice. There are some people who speak in favor of the project, citing jobs and economic vitality. At the recent public hearing on July 26 a representative from the Ventura County Taxpayers Association spoke in support of the project. That organization did not respond to requests for comment.
The CEC declined to comment specifically on the Puente project but submitted the following statement by email: “Environmental justice is a fundamental consideration of the Energy Commission as it pursues a slate of programs, policies and actions to help the state meet its energy and climate goals. Where required, staff conducts a thorough analysis to determine what impact — if any — an action or policy might have, and if it complies with all applicable laws, ordinances, regulations, and standards.”
“In Ventura County, environmental threats from power plants to oil drilling to toxic waste sites are almost entirely concentrated in predominantly low-income Latino communities like Oxnard, Santa Paula, Fillmore and the Westside of Ventura,” said Lucas Zucker with Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “These communities and the tens of thousands of agricultural workers who live in them are also exposed to some of the highest levels of dangerous pesticide use in the state of California, with Ventura County being ranked No. 1 for the number of schoolchildren attending school near the highest levels of harmful pesticides.”
When asked to respond to the statements made by Oxnard residents about the Puente project involving environmental racism, David Knox, senior director of external communications with NRG said, “We believe that reliable, affordable and increasingly cleaner power for local residents is a critical component of environmental justice and that Puente can help keep the lights on to support the needs of local residents. I would also point out that the Californian Energy Commission Staff Assessment assessed environmental justice in virtually all of its assessment areas and found no significant impacts on residents and workers in the area, including the environmental justice population within a 6-mile radius.”
Part of the staff assessment presented by NRG in the project docket states, “Asthma diagnosis rates in Ventura County for adults are below the state average, but slightly higher than average for children in Ventura County.” (Documents submitted by NRG for Puente Peaker Plant project. 4.9 Public Health, April 16 2015).” Ventura County Air Pollution Control District has stated that the Puente Plant would contribute over 30 tons of NOx into the air shed by 2021.
The NRG comments in the project docket go on to state, “As previously discussed, no minority or poverty populations occur that: 1) exceed the 50 percent threshold in the study area for environmental justice analysis; and 2) are considered meaningfully greater than the project region. Furthermore, the proposed project would not result in potential environmental impacts having the likelihood of impacting populations more susceptible to pollution, environmental degradation, and transportation. In summary, this analysis concludes that the proposed project would not result in environmental justice impacts.” The area surrounding the proposed power plant location, however, has the following rankings per CalEnviroScreen: pesticide exposure (100th percentile), groundwater threats (92nd percentile), hazardous waste exposure (78th percentile), impaired water bodies (91st percentile), solid waste (79th percentile), pollution burden (94th percentile), asthma rates (92nd percentile, including ranking that high in emergency room visits for asthma-related incidents), cardiovascular disease (92nd percentile). (CalEnviroScreen 3.0)
Taking on environmental racism
Various state laws recognize the existence of environmental racism and bring about justice for the communities that have been overburdened by pollution.
The CEQA is at the heart of environmental impact assessment for projects in the state, and while it does not specifically call out environmental racism or justice it lays the foundations for equity in land use by requiring cumulative impact assessments. The website for the California Attorney General’s office states that CEQA “requires government in permitting new projects, consider potentially significant environmental impacts on communities already burdened with pollution.” The Attorney General takes legal action across the state to combat environmental racism and protect disadvantaged communities. “The Attorney General is particularly concerned that land use planning and permitting decisions not place additional burdens on environmental justice communities.”
“Inappropriate land use remains a leading cause of environmental inequities, from the lack of basic infrastructure in rural areas to the exposure of residential and other sensitive land uses to toxins from industrial facilities. Consequently, residents in these communities often suffer higher rates of asthma, birth defects and cancer,” states the office of Sen. Connie Levya, D-Chino, in a press release regarding Senate Bill 1000, which she authored. The bill went into effect in January and requires all cities and counties to include an environmental justice element in their General Plan. A General Plan governs all land use decisions, and all ordinances must be consistent with the General Plan. “SB 1000 will ensure that local cities and counties specifically analyze potential environmental justice impacts on communities in California,” said Levya. “Oftentimes, communities are forced to address environmental justice issues, such as air pollution or drinking water contamination, after the fact. SB 1000 will statutorily require that local communities proactively evaluate and address these potential impacts in their General Plans.”
Zucker with CAUSE said that SB1000 “will reduce environmental health risks in the communities on the front lines of pollution, and how they will better engage those communities in their decision making processes.”
Until environmental justice is included in a General Plan, other factors such as the need for housing, or the economic interest of a land owner can influence whether a project is approved, even if it is likely to create an environmental justice issue in the future.
“A convenient but insufficient mitigation measure used to justify approving projects that are detrimental to people’s health is requiring disclosure requirements so residents are notified of a situation that could impact them,” said Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, District 2. She points to the recent approval of the Northbank housing project in Saticoy, which was approved by the Ventura Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), over staff recommendations to deny the project. 193 units were approved near two 10-foot-high open tanks of sewage. Parks was the sole no vote. The plan puts the low-income apartments closest to the sewage tanks, but will require the tenants be notified.
“Requirements to notify residents that they’re moving into an area where there are noxious odors does nothing to mitigate the problem, which shouldn’t be allowed to impact residents to begin with. Similarly, at our last board meeting SoCal Gas asked that we not approve putting higher density residential units next to the site where they add odor to gas, because they are concerned the residents won’t like the smell and will complain. The response was that there would be a disclosure agreement and it too was approved.”
Responding to questions about whether environmental justice as an issue in Ventura County, Supervisor Kelly Long, District 3, responded by email, “I support Ventura County’s mission of providing superior public service and support so that all residents have the opportunity to improve their quality of life while enjoying the benefits of a safe, healthy, and vibrant community. I also believe that economic inequality is best addressed by expanding opportunities for individuals to earn a decent living. It is a top priority of mine to identify ways to create higher paying jobs and deliver more economic and financial mobility for the residents of Ventura County.”
Public and private partnerships have helped engage residents of disadvantaged communities and non-government organizations (NGO) are already connected to this area and can conduct efficient outreach as needed.
For more information and to submit comments on the Puente Power Plant in Oxnard:
Link to county staff report on the Cabrillo Oil Field Expansion project:
To submit comments email: Bonnie.Luke@Ventura.org
Kimberly Rivers is Executive Director of CFROG, a nonprofit watchdog organization working in Ventura County to make sure oil and gas projects are only allowed when public health and the environment are protected. Contact at ED@CFROG.org