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Guest column – Activists want environmental justice

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[This opinion column originally was published in The Los Angeles Daily News. Torie Osborn is executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation; Carlos Porras is executive director of Communities for a Better Environment.]

By Torie Osborn and Carlos Porras

Working-class homeowners living with DDT in their backyards.

Moms and dads whose children developed asthmas and chronic nosebleeds.

Residents who woke up one morning with a notice tacked to their front door announcing a new power plant to be built down the street.

These men and women represent a new breed of grassroots leader.

They’ve fused civil rights and environmentalism, called it “environmental justice” and are demanding a seat at the government decision-making table for predominantly low-income communities of color that are most immediately and profoundly impacted by pollution.

Los Angeles County is at the cutting edge of environmental justice organizing, not only for the rest of California, but for the U.S.

Given L.A.’s distinction as the most densely industrial region in the U.S., there is no more logical place for this movement to have gained traction. Between 1970 and 1990, the risk of living next to a toxic waste facility increased slightly for everyone in Los Angeles, but for people of color it increased three-fold.

Local groups are fighting back, taking on incinerators, toxic dumps, polluting factories and more.

Fighting in the courts and the streets, the Bus Riders Union won not only more, but cleaner buses. L.A. now has the largest clean-fuel bus fleet in the country.

Residents in Pacoima, sandwiched between five SuperFund sites and three freeways, learned to flex their civic muscle, taking on zoning, street lighting and illegal dumping problems. They are currently laying the groundwork to address neighborhood toxics. Proposed power plants in Baldwin Hills, Santa Fe Springs and South Gate have been shelved.

Environmental-justice advocates, led by Communities for a Better Environment, also won a 75 percent reduction in the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s allowable cancer risk.

This landmark decision represented the first time any community in the country successfully forced a regulatory agency to review and strengthen its cancer risk standard.

That decision catalyzed other legislation and government policy. Then-state Sen. Hilda Solis sponsored groundbreaking legislation requiring all California EPA agencies to incorporate environmental-justice principles into its programs, policies and standards.

Last December, the California Air Resources Board adopted its own set of environmental justice guidelines.

What makes these developments all the more remarkable is how little support they have received from established environmental organizations and philanthropy.

Mainstream environmental organizations have only recently begun to incorporate environmental justice into their concerns, often without making a long-term institutional commitment to it.

Environmental justice poses a challenge for these established environmental organizations, because environmental justice isn’t simply about cleaning up the environment. It’s about people as well as pollution.

Too often, decisions continue to be made about cancer risk thresholds, control technology to be used at a refinery or power plant, or the siting of a polluting facility without input from the men and women who will be most immediately exposed.

As for foundation support, a recent study revealed that only two-tenths of 1 percent of all charitable grants made by foundations go to environmental justice projects.

Even within the world of environmental funding, only a tiny fraction goes to environmental justice.

Certainly, greater funding is called for, but what’s needed goes beyond grants-making.< /span>

Most environmental justice advocates aren’t trained as environmental scientists or lawyers. Few of them start out with the scientific expertise or the know-how needed to accomplish their goals.

In fact, more than 70 percent of the people active in local environmental justice groups have never been involved in the community before.

Foundations can offer credibility and confidence by offering more than funding, by “active partnering” that helps grassroots groups develop the skills they need.

Although the science and the bureaucracy can be daunting, the county’s street-smart environmental justice leaders have learned to throw around acronyms with all the fluency of a government bureaucrat because, in the end, environmental justice isn’t rocket science.

It’s about a commitment to democracy, fairness, and clean and healthy neighborhoods for everyone.

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