Barrio Logan with downtown San Diego in the distance. Photo by Chris Jennewein

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors Wednesday unanimously approved the creation of an Office of Environmental and Climate Justice to help communities harmed by pollution and environmental racism.

The state of California defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of all races, cultures incomes and national origins with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

Supervisor Nora Vargas, who proposed creating the office, said it’s time to make local government work for all residents.

“We are at a crisis point that will only continue to escalate,” she said. “We’re looking for systemic change, so this will be a countywide process.”

Vargas said that according to the American Lung Association, San Diego neighborhoods such as Barrio Logan and National City rank third in the nation for lung conditions such as asthma.

Vargas credited community and environmental groups such as Casa Familiar, which also conducted air-monitoring studies, for their input in creating the new office. Those organizations “lead the work that government should handle,” she said, adding an environmental justice office will result in stronger communities.

The office will function within the county’s Land Use and Environment Group and have a director, along with additional staff support.  According to the county, costs for the new office and its staff are estimated to be $1.3 million, which would be covered under the fiscal year 2021-22 budget.

The board directed Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer to report back in the next 120 days on the scope, roles and responsibilities of the Office of Environmental Justice, including:

  • engaging environmental justice communities to establish programs and services, and creating steering committees for North El Cajon, North Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and Sweetwater
  • working with other county departments, the San Diego Air Pollution Control District and other partners on efforts to reduce pollution, improve air quality, and ensure robust environmental and climate justice practices throughout the region
  • identifying state and federal grant or funding opportunities to support programs, activities and investments
  • creating an outreach and engagement strategy for environmental justice communities throughout the region

Supervisor Jim Desmond said the new office would further ensure that every resident has clean air and water.

During the public comment period, environmental and social justice activists praised the board’s decision.

Rick Bates, a research analyst with Unite Here Local 30 — which represents 6,000 hotel, food service, airport and gaming workers — said many of its members are immigrants living in communities affected by climate change.

“All San Diegans have a right to health, happiness and prosperity,” he said.

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