For generations, public agencies have directed highways, landfills, meat processing plants, warehouses and other polluting facilities to South Fresno neighborhoods, an area of the San Joaquin Valley that is predominantly populated by lower income households and people of color.
This activity has turned South Fresno into one of the most environmentally burdened neighborhoods in the state. Every day, thousands of trucks rumble past homes and schools. Domestic wells have run dry as warehouse landscaping springs up around them.
2020’s devastating hardships brought important truths about the enduring legacy of structural racism and inequity in California to the forefront of public awareness. Some recognized for the first time that many communities suffer from a lack of access to clean air, reliable drinking water, quality housing, safe parks and other basic amenities due to this legacy.
It does not need to be this way.
The California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, is a powerful tool that shifts a legacy of environmental and social injustice and holds elected officials accountable for the health and safety of communities. Environmental justice advocates and grassroots leaders have relied on CEQA to protect public health for 50 years, and CEQA has become our state’s premier civil rights and environmental justice law.
Under CEQA, agencies must respond to public comments, study the environmental and health impacts of development, and reduce impacts to the greatest extent possible. If agencies fail to meet these requirements, communities can leverage the courts to secure protections they are rightfully owed.
Unfortunately, we continue to see decision-making practices that shut residents out of decisions that shape their communities, including in the debate over California’s affordable housing crisis. To truly solve this crisis, we must prioritize the needs of communities impacted by discriminatory housing and land use policies. This would ensure the solutions we advance help people rather than put them further at risk.
That is what CEQA can do and is already doing, despite how developers have mischaracterized the law as a cause of California’s affordable housing crisis. Less than 1% of projects subject to environmental review have led to litigation.
Decisions by local governments play a much more significant role in limiting the housing development needed by our communities than CEQA ever has. Targeting CEQA only obscures true solutions to the housing crisis, like the need for deep investments in affordable housing, housing preservation strategies and legal protections for tenants.
South Fresno residents have often used CEQA to protect their rights. The city approved a sprawling warehouse project in 2017 without meaningful environmental review and without public input. The project would have brought more than 2 million truck and car trips into the neighborhood each year, with no meaningful mitigation to reduce vulnerable populations’ exposure to hazardous air pollution.
When the city and the developer failed to respond to residents’ concerns, residents leveraged CEQA to stop the project. Earlier this year, this same community used CEQA to negotiate a settlement to mitigate the impacts of an Amazon warehouse expansion in the community. This time, the developer will complete the project, but they and the city have agreed to significant commitments to reduce impacts on local residents.
These commitments include extending sewer and water connections into the unincorporated community; making safety upgrades for pedestrians and bicyclists; and establishing a community benefits fund to provide home improvements, like dual-paned windows and air filtration, to reduce pollution exposure.
We know too well how environmental injustice impacts Californians. We must not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. To achieve fair outcomes for all residents, we must create inclusive processes, not suppress public engagement.
In California, at this critical moment of opportunity to move beyond our legacy of environmental injustice and to achieve housing justice for all, it is incumbent on us — agencies, the public and developers — to give all residents a chance at dignity and security. Doing that means keeping CEQA strong.
Ashley Werner is a directing attorney at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.