anthony asadullah samad

Anthony Asadullah Samad

*As California pushes the button to speed up its aging transit systems statewide, first—as a form of economic development to drive the state’s sagging economy, and secondly, to efficiently manage a projected population boon of 50 million residents by 2025, there has been an increasing concern about the realities of environmental hazards that urban (and even suburban) communities face. The politics of urban planning are dicey as city planning growth objectives intersect with county and regional growth plans with little consideration for the practical residential or commercial realities that exist.

The opening of the Expo Line in South Los Angeles is a lightweight example of how a desire to have light rail transit has complicated the lives of residents on Exposition Blvd. beyond reason. The critical commercial interests, the University of Southern California and businesses west of La Brea Ave. received prime consideration with below grade and above grade enhancements that has minimalized long term inconveniences, but those who live on Exposition endure nightmare-ish inconveniences every 10 to 15 minutes. What’s that going to look like 20 years from now? Or 50 years from now? Southern L.A. is not the only city, or part of a city, dealing with these environmental complications. They are so much of a concern regionally and statewide that California’s Attorney General has now appointed staff to review city, county and regional planning schemes to insure that the burdens of pollution not be focused primarily on sensitive populations (that means children) and on communities already experiencing its adverse effects.

Guess who that is??

There is hardly any conversation about the environmental impact hazards of cumulative (multiple) development projects taking place or being proposed over the next few decades. The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is due out on the county’s plan very soon. Some simply call pollution hazards the “price of progress?” Well, does the price of progress include putting high density housing at freeway on ramps, like at Crenshaw and the 10 freeway east onramp? Does the price of progress include having disproportionate environmental impacts on the health of our children, much less our homes and our health as we’ve witnessed in converting oil drilling waste land to public parks (Kenny Hahn Park) and the damage the proximity of fifty years of oil drilling has caused to homes in Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights? The conservation can’t always be an “aftermath” conversation. While it might seems to be a conversation of competing interests on its face, the environmental impact on our health conversation is a real conversation. A conversation nobody seems to want to have—save a few.

How do I know? I’ve spent the last half year trying to have it. Probably because we tried to have it in the context of the Los Angeles County Plan 2035, and the competing profit interests (namely the developers) are up in the mix, that some stonewalling has occurred. The fact that mass rail transportation is the driver for the state’s (and community’s) economic development and nobody wants to risk poo-pooing on pending projects is another—but that seems to me more of a reason to have the conversation. The conversation about environmental impact has to continue…or environmental racism and classism will occur. And it will.

There is something about discussing that proposed general plan that makes a lot of people nervous. I don’t know why, if the community is supposed to have input on some level. I guess they thought this would be just a consent calendar item like its always been, and that staff would drive processes harmful to community while the policymakers rely on the expert recommendations while voting blind. Not this time. There is too much at stake and the plan points to the fact that those who have been historically impacted are about to be disproportionately impacted again. Lost in the conversation about mixed use versus residential development is the reality that some communities will be more adversely impacted than others and some planners wanna “play blind” to who that will be. Well, environmental justice just became the fight, and we gonna flush it out. Hopefully, we can flush it out with the help of the policymakers charged to protect the interests of all communities fairly.

“Environmental Justice,” according to state law, means 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. There are a number of state laws on the books that require local agencies to “undertake” efforts to insure fairness in the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens whereby, 1) its fosters equal access to a clean environment and public health benefits (such as parks, sidewalks, and public transportation) and 2) it does not result in concentration of polluting activities near communities already disproportionately affected environmental injustices. That would be us…. Can somebody tell us that environmental “fairness” agency is in Los Angeles? Who is monitoring development pollution effects and identifying when development pollution has reached its threshold?

The state of California, under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), prohibits public agencies from approving projects, as proposed, if there are feasible alternatives or feasible mitigation measures available that would substantially lessen environmental pollution. When the California legislature passed the California Environmental Quality Act in 1970, it was on the cusp of a population and development boon similar to what the state is experiencing now. However, the scrutiny has been absent until the state Attorney General posted her updated Environment Justice position in May of this year. So it must be a problem. The update statement is on the website of the Office of the California Attorney General at http://oag.ca.gov/environment. Now parts of Los Angeles are being impacted by transit pollution, combined with high density development pollution. Some high density development proposals are three, in some instances, five times what the county permits and what the county permits may exceed CEQA thresholds. The problem is the community doesn’t know if they do or not. Nobody’s talking and the experts have been known to manipulate data for the benefit of the profit interests. This is where an environmental “watchdog” would come in. Only there is none.

The critical point is that most communities are totally unaware of what the pollution threshold are, and what violations they are experiencing until after they have experienced them. That’s been the practice in urban communities the last 40 years. It will be the practice the next 25 years with the preponderance of transit oriented districts proposed to be on the southern and eastern parts of the county. The demand should be for Los Angeles County to appoint an environmental watchdog to review high density development proposals to see if they exceed CEQA thresholds and to see if the cumulative effects of transportation and commercial development pollution violate the environmental justice rights of low income residents and under-developed communities, as well as vulnerable populations, like children and senior citizens, who are especially vulnerable to environmental injustice and who also need their rights defended. None of these populations are so unsophisticated to understand how that they health is being jeopardized in ways they know nothing about, under the guise of progress.

We want the progress, but not at any price. And somebody needs to tell us what the price is, and who’s watching to make sure the cost of development is spread proportionately around to all who will share the benefits of future development…and not just its burdens.

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st  Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.