When “Caring for Kids” Becomes Convenient: Assuming Ignorance After Inaction

image2Exide Picture

The Issue:
For years we have worked to resolve the Exide issue, from closure to cleanup, and while we are encouraged by the Governor’s plan to allocate $176.6 million to go towards the cleanup effort, our members have concerns that a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exemption, pushed by the Governor and Assemblymember Santiago, will present more problems than solutions. CEQA ensures that environmental and health impacts of projects, in this case testing and cleaning up lead contamination at thousands of homes, are studied and impacts are properly mitigated (adequately dealt with so we are not forced to shoulder the burden, in this case further lead poisoning and other impacts). With informal processes outside of CEQA, responsible parties, in this case the state, can make promises through “parallel processes” (conversations with interested parties, in this case the community) and fall through without any accountability. This has already been the case as we have recommended how to better protect our communities with the residential lead cleanup that has already happened, and for months have been largely ignored despite the fact that it has been discussed and documented in an Advisory Group hosted by state and regional agencies.

Our community leaders have been involved in this fight since we were speculating the extent of contamination from Exide, to the point where many of them have now found that they are Priority 1 or Priority 2 properties (levels of lead in soil that classifies their property as toxic waste or near toxic waste), mostly families with children and infants in the household. It is these leaders who have provided vision and energy throughout the fight to shut down Exide and clean up contamination. It is also these leaders who have taken the position that CEQA exemption is unacceptable because of the danger irresponsible cleanup efforts pose.

The Response:
To come to our position opposing CEQA exemption, we held dialogues with our youth and adult core members and came to consensus. We discussed the benefit CEQA exemption would provide, quicker start of cleanup, but our members deemed this short sighted and irresponsible. CEQA is designed to protect our communities. It requires that impacts are understood and addressed. It requires a public process and provides for accountability. In their assessment, our youth and adult community leaders found the following: 1) The whole reason we are in this mess is because DTSC acted irresponsibly, and did not understand the full impacts of the Exide facility on our communities. 2) There has been much work put in to turning the state agency (DTSC, Department of Toxic Substances Control) around, but if we allow for this CEQA exemption to move forward, it will be in the vein of the old DTSC. 3) Not understanding the full impacts of this cleanup is dangerous and would be seen by our community leaders as a disservice, and a step backward for the state. 4) While we understand the benefits of expediting this process, the amount of time that we would gain is not worth the danger and fear we would face. 5) It is time for the state to set its principles and do right by our communities.

On March 15, we sent a letter (link below) to the Governor expressing the concerns of our members and opposition to CEQA exemption. We also sent the letter to Assemblymembers Anthony Rendon, Cristina Garcia, Jimmy Gomez, and Miguel Santiago, California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) Director Matt Rodriguez, DTSC Director Barbara Lee, Senators Kevin de León and Ricardo Lara, and Supervisor Hilda Solis. The Governor’s Office reached out later that day and admitted it was a mistake to not consult with the impacted communities in this process. We scheduled a meeting with the Governor’s Office to discuss how to appropriately move forward for the following week.

On March 22, representatives from East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Communities for a Better Environment, California Communities Against Toxics and Resurrection Church met with representatives from the Governor’s Office, DTSC, Senator de León’s Office, Assemblymember Santiago’s Office and the technical advisor for the Exide Advisory Group (contracted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and DTSC). The state came in with an agenda, but we immediately asserted that it was inappropriate for the Governor or the legislature to hold up Senator de León’s $176.6 million appropriation bill because there is disagreement about Assemblymember Santiago’s CEQA exemption bill. After an hour long conversation, the Governor’s Office agreed that the Governor would do what we wanted because he wants what we want. This was significant and was a primary goal of our meeting because we did not want the funds to be tied up in political games (more on that in the “Political Baggage” section of this piece). Conversations on environmental review should not hold up the appropriation.

The next half hour was spent reiterating that CEQA exemption is unacceptable and is off the table. The Governor’s Office agreed that this was a clear demand and our conversations moving forward would be focused on figuring out how to do option 2 (expedite CEQA) or option 3 (full CEQA).

The last 15 minutes were spent by DTSC introducing documents they brought to the meeting that we hadn’t seen in advance and discussing next steps. Towards the end of this last section of the meeting, the technical advisor was asked for his opinion on the matter and he shared that he was interested in seeing what the CEQA exemption process would look like. Despite the fact that we had spent an hour and a half getting the Governor’s Office to agree to not hold up the appropriation and take CEQA exemption off the table, and the fact that the technical advisor serves as an advisor and does not represent our communities, somehow the Governor’s Office, and perhaps DTSC and the Office of Assemblymember Santiago, left the meeting thinking that CEQA exemption was back on the table. I left the meeting agreeing to learn about what an expedited CEQA would look like, and the Governor’s Office was going to speak to the Governor and get back to me to confirm he would not veto the $176.6 million appropriation.

We spent the following two days communicating with the Governor’s Office, DTSC and the offices of several members of the legislature, consistently reexplaining our positions that the appropriation should not be held up and that CEQA exemption is unacceptable. In our last conversation we learned that we would not find out what an expedited CEQA is, because it was effectively a CEQA exemption as well, meaning two of the three options on the table were CEQA exemptions. This was very misleading and should have been off the table when we met. This was clearly the source of all of the confusion and has begun to feel like causing this confusion has been strategic for the state in an attempt to discredit community positions.

We stil have not heard directly from the Governor on this, though several elected officials (Supervisor Solis and Assemblymember Cristina Garcia) have spoken to the media supporting CEQA exemption, but have not spoken to us on the matter.

The Title:
When “Caring for Kids” Becomes Convenient: Assuming Ignorance After Inaction
There are claims that the CEQA exemption is being pushed because the communities have cried for action, despite the fact we were ignored for decades and are now being ignored when we oppose a CEQA exemption. There are those who are claiming they are pushing for CEQA exemption because they are all of a sudden “caring for kids” in our communities, not understanding that we need the protections of CEQA because the state has/continues to act irresponsibly. After inaction from those who will step up now to speak for our communities, their deficit perspective on our communities leads them to believe we are ignorant and our actions are “mindless” (literally what someone said). Our work speaks for itself, but for those that don’t know, please let me give you a small peek into how East Yard gets down.

We work to build community experts, well informed and well equipped self-advocates to engage in public processes to ensure self-determination when it comes to decisions that will impact our communities. This includes understanding and engaging in the CEQA process, a process that time and time again has served to protect our communities.

Regarding Exide specifically, we have informed the outreach efforts, knocking door to door to find that residents were initially being discouraged from requesting soil sampling over a year ago, and continually offering support to government agencies and jurisdictions on how to conduct proper outreach in our communities. We have informed the extent of the contamination, consistently pushing for wider sampling, introducing a California Air Resources Board air model to show wind patterns are also prevalent in the Northeast and Southwest direction, not just North and South, and uncovering a soil sampling study that showed high levels of lead in the City of Commerce a year before the state admitted Commerce residents are impacted. We are working to inform the Exide site cleanup effort, working with our expert allies to expose the risks to health and propose solutions, which has included visiting the Exide site with an environmental disaster cleanup team with expertise beyond what the state has to offer. Most recently, we had to participate in educating decision makers on how CEQA works, which was deeply troubling given positions have been taken in favor of CEQA exemption.

Because of all of this, it is incomprehensibly offensive when there are claims that we “don’t understand CEQA,” are “confused about options” and our “mindless” efforts will “get more children sick.” I would charge that we, the many of us that have been involved in this struggle for years, decades, generations, know exactly what we are talking about.

The Political Baggage:
It appears as if political baggage is playing a primary role in this process. Ego, beefs, and attempts to gain and/or exert political power are typical games politicians play in office. This should never be acceptable, but is especially problematic in this case. From what it looks like, the Governor, though publicly stating the Governor’s Office is working with us, is invested in a CEQA exemption and holds the most power in this process, the power of veto. His track record has shown he hasn’t been friendly when it comes to CEQA and in our conversations with his office, his reasons for the CEQA exemption don’t hold water in the face of the experiences, perspectives, needs and positions of our members. Let us not forget that until very recently, the Governor has been completely silent and complacent on this Exide issue. So the governor is passing the buck to Assemblymember Santiago, the author of the CEQA exemption bill, and Assemblymember Garcia, a co-sponsor of the bill. Assemblymember Santiago’s Office communicated that he felt he was being left out when Pro Tem de Leon moved forward with crafting the $176.6 million appropriation bill, and that removing the CEQA exemption would make Assemblymember Santiago’s bill empty and effectively useless. These are terrible grounds for supporting CEQA exemption. Given the influence Speaker Rendon has in the region and the state, and with Assemblymember Santiago being the new Assembly Majority Whip, one might begin to believe he is also supporting CEQA exemption, though we haven’t heard much from him or his office.

On the other side, on the Senate/Assembly divide, and also potentially the CEQA exemption issue, is Pro Tem de León, whose $176.6 million appropriation bill is being threatened by the success or failure of Assemblymember Santiago’s CEQA exemption bill. We have seen Governor Brown veto the long hard work of the Pro Tem in the past, specifically on issues related to Exide and DTSC accountability. I’m interested in learning more about the Governor’s history with the Pro Tem, and as those involved in the fight against the prison in Boyle Heights in the 80s have reminded us, we definitely can’t forget that Governor Brown was pro prison.

Having this understanding, you can begin to get a sense for the pettiness that may be involved in this process. We will really get an understanding on where everyone involved is at as the appropriation does or does not move forward.

We will be watching and we will be transparent about what we are seeing.

-mark! (EYCEJ Member and Executive Director)

Click link below to read EYCEJ letter to Governor Brown sent March 15, 2015

EYCEJ Exide CEQA Exemption Opposition Letter