Opinion: Communities of Color Are Supposed to Be Getting State Money to Reduce Pollution. Where Is It?

Smog blankets downtown San Diego. Photo by whattheschnell/iStock.

California has long led the nation in environmental regulations. It was the first state to enact air pollution control policies in 1947. Then it advanced environmental regulations around emission controls, air toxins and water, paving the way for federal regulations that have protected our health for decades. Most recently, California reduced greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels, four years before the 2020 deadline.  

However, while California continues to be a leader in addressing climate change, the state has been less successful at helping local communities that are hit hardest by environmental disparities. 

When California passed Senate bill 535 in 2012, it mandated that 25 percent of the proceeds generated from the resulting cap-and-trade program go to projects that benefit communities most impacted by pollution and a lack of resources. These investments were intended to “improve public health, quality of life, and economic opportunity in California’s most burdened communities while at the same time reducing pollution that causes climate change”.

Unfortunately, the state has been slow to act on that promise.

After the bill passed, it took the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) five years to release the list of communities eligible to benefit from the investment. These communities were identified using CalEnviroScreen 3.0, an empirical tool that measured pollution levels in each census tract in California, and the socioeconomic vulnerability of the populations residing there. Because the state took so long to identify these communities, many have yet to receive any SB 535-related funding to directly combat their pollution burdens.

Take San Ysidro, a neighborhood in the city of San Diego.

This small community just north of the US-Mexico border has a population that is over 93 percent Latinx. Most San Ysidro residents face unemployment and housing insecurity. The neighborhood suffers severe air pollution, and the census tracts closest to the border crossing rank as the worst in the state for auto-trafficpollution.

There are local organizations in San Ysidro that strive to mitigate these environmental problems. And one, the nonprofit Casa Familiar, has received some cap-and-trade funding to monitor particulate matter in the neighborhood.

The problem is, measuring pollution isn’t enough. We already know these communities are severely polluted. What Casa Familiar and other area community groups want and need is funding to actually reduce the neighborhood’s pollution problems. So far, they have not received it.

Addressing disparities in exposure to environmental pollution also requires tackling racial inequities. Catherine Branson is the lead epidemiologist for Partnerships for Success, a project that partners with San Ysidro and community leaders to enhance the San Diego border region’s prevention infrastructure. Branson found that census tracts with a greater proportion of Latinx residents also tended to be more polluted, even after adjusting for factors such as education, linguistic isolation, poverty, unemployment and housing costs. In fact, approximately 20 percent of a census tract’s pollution burden can be predicted solely by the proportion of the population that is Latinx, Branson told me.

This is due to the ongoing underinvestment in Latinx neighborhoods and the underrepresentation of Latinx residents in government that may have compounded their exposure to pollution.

In recent years, CalEPA has more explicitly acknowledged how environmental pollution disproportionately impacts Californians of color. But we are still waiting for decisive action to fix it.

Although some state funds have supported a few enforcement measures for local clean air policies in Fresno, Oakland, Pomona and Los Angeles, there are many communities across the state that, like San Ysidro, have not received funds to curb pollution since the 2013 cap-and-trade policy was passed. Pollution in some of these communities, such as Richmond, has actually worsened since 2013. Of the money spent on hard-hit communities so far, most has gone to measuring pollution rather than enforcing policies. Until these funds can empower organizations like Casa Familiar who are ready to mitigate the pollution burden in communities like San Ysidro, the market-driven cap-and-trade program is not fulfilling its purpose.

Documenting the problem is only the first step. Our community members need action and investment to mitigate the environmental harms they experience every day — with every breath they take.

Breny O. Aceituno is the prevention specialist for Partnerships 4 Success, a project in San Diego’s South Bay to address health inequities among the Latinx population

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