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Can Environmental Justice Be Baked Into City Planning?

Old Santa Ana City Hall
On Wednesday, the Santa Ana City Council voted on an update to the city's 39-year-old General Plan. | Chris Jepsen, Creative Commons
On Wednesday, the Santa Ana City Council approved a General Plan Update that addresses lead contamination and other land use issues that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. A law called SB1000 has been key in helping community advocates lobby city officials to incorporate environmental justice into land use planning in order to reduce health risks.
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This article was updated on April 20, 2022 to reflect the outcome of the Santa Ana City Council's vote on the General Plan Update.

Five years ago, a study revealed that a high percentage of children in Santa Ana, California were exposed to soil tainted with hazardous levels of lead.
Early on Wednesday, the Santa Ana City Council voted 7-0 to approve a General Plan Update that would address this public health hazard, following a second study, a new state law, a legal opinion on the matter by the state Attorney General, more than 150 resident comments to city officials and countless community meetings.

The blueprint, which updates the city’s 39-year-old General Plan, incorporates environmental justice elements addressing the lead-tainted soil and other land use features that have had a detrimental effect on public health in the city’s most disadvantaged communities.

A relatively new law, known as SB1000, has been key in helping Santa Ana community advocates successfully lobby city officials. Signed by the governor in 2016 and implemented in 2018, the law mandates that cities and counties identify disadvantaged communities and incorporate environmental justice into land use planning in order to reduce health risks. The state Attorney General’s office, in an October 2020 letter to Santa Ana city officials, critiqued the city’s draft of its General Plan Update for not meeting SB1000 requirements and recommended they consult "impacted communities" for ideas on remediating lead pollution.

"We started this process of negotiation probably in 2019. It was an uphill battle for most of that," said Patricia Flores Yrarrázaval, project director of Orange County Environmental Justice and a Santa Ana resident.

The law is the first of its kind in the nation to incorporate environmental justice into urban planning documents, according to Michael Méndez, who wrote "Climate Change from the Streets: How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement."

House Santa Ana
In Santa Ana, and in many parts of L.A., the most disadvantaged communities live near freeways, in industrial zones or in pre-1978 housing contaminated by lead. | still image from "We Are Where We Live"

"Urban planning generally has an uneasy relationship with environmental justice," said Méndez, assistant professor of urban planning and public policy at University of California, Irvine. "Poor planning decisions have historically heightened the environmental contamination in low-income communities and communities of color, specifically here in California."

About 9.4 million California residents live in communities burdened with high pollution from various sources, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency. Those residents tend to be lower-income and live in predominantly Latino and Black communities.

Residents in these disadvantaged communities have endured decades of neglect and policies that left them suffering in environmentally polluted areas without much recourse. Though the environmental justice movement has existed for decades, only recently have new laws forced policymakers to reckon with the fact that placing Black and Latino communities in harm’s way has been the result of racism – policies and laws that prioritized white communities over others.

Environmental justice was always an optional chapter, but this law now makes it a required chapter or element in the General Plan.
Michael Méndez, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at University of California, Irvine.

Santa Ana is a city of about 330,000 people whose demographics have changed dramatically the past 50 years, as a minority Latino population has become the majority. The most disadvantaged communities live near freeways, in industrial zones (or formerly industrial) or in pre-1978 housing contaminated by lead. A study directed by researchers at the University of California, Irvine found that census tracts with a median household income below $50,000 had lead soil concentration more than five times the lead concentration of soil in high-income census tracts. Further, nearly half of soil samples collected from 500 locations had lead levels that exceeded 80 parts per million (ppm), the safe level recommended by CalEPA.

The General Plan Update approved by the Santa Ana City Council on Tuesday now contains many provisions recommended by community advocates to help correct and prevent further environmental hazards in the city’s most disadvantaged communities, as required by SB1000. Among those that advocates say are key:

  • The opportunity for residents to have their blood tested for elevated lead levels at community events in partnership with local organizations such as Latino Health Access and Santa Ana Unified School District.
  • The possibility of training Santa Ana residents to earn certification in conducting renovations to remove lead-based paint hazards, ensuring those jobs aren’t outsourced to workers from elsewhere.
  • Tenant protections to guard against evictions of residents who seek repairs of substandard housing and hazardous conditions.
  • Hiring an environmental justice coordinator to conduct outreach to residents, apply for grants and coordinate with other government agencies.

Each provision stipulates a certain time frame to ensure accountability.

The process of updating a general plan is complex, made even more so by SB1000 requirements.

"It’s a slow-moving process," said Ashley Werner, directing attorney at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno. Her organization is currently working on environmental justice issues with about 30 different communities, including Tulare and the county of Fresno. It’s one of a handful of organizations throughout the state that help ensure cities and counties are adhering to SB1000.

The purpose of SB1000 is to "ensure that communities in California take into account the environmental and pollution impacts on local residents living in areas that may be disproportionately exposed to toxins or other contaminants that can hurt them or their families. Residents in poorer communities oftentimes suffer from higher rates of asthma, cancer and birth defects, so we must do all we can to eliminate environmental factors that may be contributing to those serious health problems," wrote state Sen. Connie Leyva in 2016 in support of her bill.

Cities and counties are required to address seven elements in their general plans: land use, circulation (transportation), housing, conservation, open space, noise and safety. SB1000 requires that municipalities either add an environmental justice element or incorporate environmental justice policies within the other required elements. Municipalities can identify disadvantaged communities in their region by using CalEnviroScreen, an online tool that compiles data from environmental factors, population characteristics and socioeconomic factors.

"Environmental justice was always an optional chapter, but this law now makes it a required chapter or element in the General Plan," Méndez said.

However, community advocates are finding that the lack of specifics in the law is allowing public officials in some municipalities to avoid complying with some key provisions.

Jennifer Ganata, senior staff attorney at Communities for a Better Environment, said her organization partnered with other community organizations to sue the city of Huntington Park after city officials failed to address the housing and environmental justice elements in their General Plan Update. The lawsuit followed several attempts to encourage Huntington Park city officials to comply with SB1000, including letters from the state Attorney General’s office.

"Huntington Park residents face additional vulnerabilities from asthma, cardiovascular disease, low levels of educational attainment, linguistic isolation, poverty, and high housing cost burdens. Huntington Park is exactly the type of community that SB 1000 seeks to protect by requiring cities and counties to adopt EJ policies in general plan revisions," stated a March 4, 2021 letter.

Often, the vague wording in SB1000 means that municipalities and community advocates are interpreting the law differently.

"It’s really challenging because, I think in a lot of ways, the city of Los Angeles is saying that they’ve done a lot of stuff, but I think our office would argue that they haven’t complied with SB1000," said Ganata, about her organization’s advocacy work in the city of Los Angeles.

Many cities also aren’t conducting "meaningful community engagement," attorneys said, which means gathering input from residents in disadvantaged communities. Many public officials believe that holding public meetings is enough, not realizing that residents in disadvantaged communities may need different forms of outreach and communication.

In Santa Ana, Flores said community volunteers trained "elders how to use Zoom and do public comment" to help gather input. Even so, the General Plan Update still didn’t meet the approval of environmental justice advocates at the February 15 city council meeting. It took an invitation from Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento at that meeting for environmental justice advocates to recommend specific "bullet points" and "language." Many of these have now been added into the plan that was approved on Wednesday.

"This is a historic moment," said Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who noted the work of environmental justice advocates whose input the past few weeks was key in addressing residents' concerns about pollution.

"This is our job. It's not theirs," Sarmiento said. "Yet they took it on."

"I believe there is a clean future for the city of Santa Ana and it necessarily involves the concerned residents who want to work with the city," said Jabari Brown, attorney at UC Irvine Environmental Law Clinic.

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