Dillon Delvo never set out to become an environmental justice crusader. But as a native resident of Stockton, Calif., the second-generation Filipino American has long been forced to breathe some of the nation’s worst pollution. Crisscrossed by five freeways and home to a bustling seaport and the associated network of trucks, cars, railways, and ships, Stockton is burdened by California’s highest asthma rate. It is also the nation’s most racially diverse city, with ample Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and white populations included among its 313,000 residents.
Delvo says that George Floyd’s killing led the devastating links between these main elements—pollution, health, and race—to gel in his mind.
“We know that it’s not just crooked cops who aren’t letting our communities breathe,” Delvo said. And so, joining a flock of concerned citizens and environmental justice advocates in similarly burdened communities across the Golden State, the former youth pastor has answered the call issued by a landmark environmental justice law the state passed in 2017. Called AB 617, the law demands a community-driven system for addressing air pollution hot spots in disadvantaged locales.
Now, with President-elect Joe Biden tapping Michael Regan of North Carolina for his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head, academics argue that California’s experience with AB 617 carries valuable lessons for how the incoming administration could make good on Biden’s pledge to prioritize environmental justice.
“One of the geniuses of the American democracy is that laypeople at the community level can have a real and meaningful impact,” says David Wooley, a public policy professor at the University of California–Berkeley, who co-authored a new Brookings Institution study arguing that California’s experience with AB 617 could help guide the EPA in leveraging the 1970 Clean Air Act to fight for racial justice. “If you don’t have that community involvement, then that’s a failure of democracy.”
Regan, who has served as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality since January 2017, has a “mixed record on environmental justice issues,” says Lisa Ramsden, a senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace.
AB 617, which is overseen by the state’s environmental regulator, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), has established community-based committees meant to evaluate and remediate local air pollution hot spots. In a departure from nationwide practices, these committees must include not just the usual roster of representatives from industry, labor unions, local government, and regulatory agencies. They must also bring to the table the local residents suffering from the very pollution this Californian experiment in democracy is charged with mitigating.
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Even so, some environmental justice advocates in California maintain that AB 617 is failing to live up to its hype and is no cause for celebration or emulation.
A Democratic Experiment
AB 617 was enacted three years ago as a crucial compromise—or pacifying balm. It coaxed just enough legislators to support the renewal of the state’s widely touted—and according to critics, woefully ineffectual—cap-and-trade program.
The legislature offered the law as a response to environmental justice advocates’ intense opposition to the cap and trade renewal and their longstanding concerns that relying on market forces to curb the greenhouse gasses that fuel climate change short-changes the goal of reducing the co-emitted air toxins that poison local residents.
And so AB 617 seeks to elevate the voices of those very residents in an effort to tackle air pollution hot spots directly. Such efforts are meant to complement statewide anti-pollution policies such as California’s elevated fuel-emissions standard and the rule CARB passed in June requiring truck makers to ratchet up zero-emissions vehicle sales.
The need for progress is dire. California cities comprise the majority of the American Lung Association’s trio of top 10 lists of those most polluted by ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution, respectively.
The bulk of the state’s air pollution comes from mobile sources, including diesel trucks, freeway traffic, and freight ships and trains. Other culprits include oil and gas production and refining, power generation, manufacturing, and pesticides.
Asthma, cardiovascular disease, and various cancers, especially lung cancer, are among the devastating collateral damage of what’s known as particulate matter—microscopic air pollutants that can wreak havoc by lodging in the lungs and entering the bloodstream. Additional major threats to health include gasses such as nitrogen oxides, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide.
The devastating impacts of such poisons have only been compounded by the escalating wildfire crisis, and now Covid-19, which research suggests poses greater risks to lungs made vulnerable by air pollution.
Dillon Delvo knows the pain of pollution’s devastation all too well. In 2018, Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, a dear friend and fellow native Stocktonian with whom he cofounded the local nonprofit Little Manilla Rising, died suddenly following an asthma attack. She was 46.
AB 617, the Brookings authors argue, could help address “unfinished business of the Clean Air Act.”
“There is no reason why a new federal administration could not use existing law to begin to address persistent inequity in air pollution exposure for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in the US,” Wooley says.
He argues that under the legislation’s 1990 amendments, the EPA could create financial incentives to encourage states to follow California’s lead by cultivating their own grassroots-based systems for targeting local air pollution.
“The EPA,” Wooley says, “could also tighten national ambient air quality and toxics control technology standards and revive its urban air toxics program. It could use its broad grant-making and air quality monitoring authority powers to support enhanced local air quality monitoring, community engagement, and citizen-monitoring science.”
Data from such stepped-up monitoring could in turn trigger regulatory actions to address toxic air, he argues.
The EPA’s current network of 3,900 air monitoring devices is placed far too sparsely to detect with the necessary granularity the extreme variability of “criteria” air pollutants within any particular region. A recent Reuters investigation found that the monitors in this woefully underfunded network are “falling into disrepair” and often yield inaccurate reads.
California budgeted $495 million for AB 617’s first two years and $235 million for the current fiscal year, drawing funds from the cap-and-trade auctions. Some of this money supports improving the accuracy of air-monitoring data, which in turn can guide the mitigation efforts that receive the majority of the budget.
“I think 617 can fit into Biden’s environmental justice plan and serve as a model for when they’re trying to relocalize air quality management,” says Jonathan London, a human ecologist at the University of California–Davis.
London is the author of a rigorous analysis that CARB published in June of AB 617’s budding community-engagement process. While he remains optimistic about the law, he found that local air districts have proved resistant to “recognizing and responding to real power in the community” and that the resource-intensive process of the legislation’s rollout has spawned both “collaboration and conflict” between groups unused to working together.
Environmental Justice Pushback
Both the Brookings paper and London’s report stress that the jury is still out as to whether AB 617 will succeed.
It’s become painfully clear, for example, that a steering committee’s capacity to draft and pass a promising mitigation plan for air pollution hot spots can be highly dependent on the preexistence of savvy local environmental justice groups.
While many environmental justice advocates remain at least cautiously optimistic about AB 617’s eventual impacts, a concerted faction remains deeply unimpressed with and steadfastly opposed to a law they continue to resent for, as they see it, justifying the continuation of cap-and-trade.
Critics of AB 617 have expressed concerns that the emergent air pollution reduction plans largely lack teeth, relying too much on financial incentives to prompt change and not enough on forceful regulatory power. Environmental justice advocates have also called out apparent conflicts of interest among industry representatives on the steering committees.
“We would be hoodwinking the public by characterizing AB 617 as a successful program,” says Gladys Limon, executive director of California Environmental Justice Alliance. “It is not, and lifting it as a model is dangerous to meaningful efforts to improve the health and safety of communities suffering and dying from air pollution. Given the change in the presidential administration, we hope that it can learn from the failures and flaws of this program.”
Mary Nichols, who as the retiring chair of CARB has overseen AB 617’s rollout, was recently passed over as Biden’s EPA pick. Environmental justice activists had campaigned mightily against her because of her place at the helm of California’s cap-and-trade program.
While some environmental justice advocates interviewed complained bitterly about CARB’s handling of AB 617, accusing the agency of being dictatorial and inflexible during the rollout, others were more sanguine.
According to agency spokesperson Stanley Young, CARB has been looking at the litany of critiques of AB 617’s rollout as it revises the blueprints that guide steering committees in following the law.
“Unfortunately, AB 617 did not authorize or fund quick fixes,” CARB’s vice chair, Sandra Berg, wrote in an e-mail. She stressed, however, that “as we knit together additional pollution reduction solutions, we must see a measurable change in the next decade.”
“What is clear,” Berg continued, “is that AB 617 has changed how we listen, learn, and participate. Along with expanding community and local business participation at the table, we are committed to making meaningful reductions.”
Fighting Against the Clock
The Biden administration is dawning at a time of historic political, economic, and public health uncertainty, with climate change looming largest as an existential threat.
Facing human activity’s toxic threat to his family’s simple ability to breathe, Dillon Delvo grapples with the awareness that any success he and his fellow AB 617 committee members achieve in clearing Stockton’s air may come too late to protect his three young daughters from lifelong damage to their lungs due to inhaling pollutants.
This worry is accentuated by the grief of losing his friend Dawn Mabalon to the asthma she developed as a Stockton teen.
“I think about that 5-year-old girl that my friend was and how no one did anything for her,” he reflects as he strives to ensure that AB 617’s lofty promises won’t amount to yet more dreams deferred for his community.
“That’s when she needed the help.”