AB 1628: Redefining Environmental Justice for California

Everyone has a right to live in a healthy and clean environment, which includes respecting every person’s right to self-determination and a fair public process. The people that are most equipped to transform toxic hotspots into healthy neighborhoods are the ones who live in these areas that face these problems on a daily basis. Despite this, many frontline environmental justice (EJ) communities are not often included or are even denied from having a say in key environmental and land use decisions that impact their health. 

In 2019, CEJA was successful in redefining environmental justice for California by getting AB 1628 signed into law. AB 1628 by Assemblymember Robert Rivas enhances the state’s definition of environmental justice to ensure “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of all races, cultures, incomes, and national origins, with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Adding “meaningful involvement” allows state and local agencies to realize that impacted community members shouldn’t just be informed or talked at when it comes to environmental or land use decision-making. Instead, the law recognizes the importance of listening to and including impacted EJ communities in these important decisions.

In addition to adding “meaningful involvement” and “national origins”, AB 1628 elaborated upon the state’s definition of EJ to show that “environmental justice” also includes (but is not limited to) the following forms of distributive and procedural justice:

  • A healthy environment for all people.
  • The need to prevent, reduce, and eliminate disproportionate pollution burdens in EJ communities.
  • Government agencies engaging residents and providing technical assistance to promote the meaningful participation of EJ communities in decision-making processes.
  • The meaningful consideration of EJ communities’ recommendations when making environmental or land use decisions.

By providing additional definition, AB 1628 recognizes the long overdue need to address disproportionate pollution burdens and to include community voices and solutions in decisions.

In South Los Angeles, community members have had to proactively insert themselves into local planning processes due to their community’s lack of inclusion by planning agencies. Many industrial and polluting facilities are located in South LA, such as in the Watts neighborhood where auto body shops and metal recycling facilities surround people’s homes. For over five years, Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles (PSR-LA) has conducted health education, environmental analysis, and advocacy with the Jordan Downs community, where the City of Los Angeles is conducting a massive redevelopment of one of the oldest public housing projects in California. The project includes a 21-acre industrial site that was found to have elevated levels of metals such as lead and arsenic.

In fact, high levels of toxic contaminants have been found throughout the area surrounding Jordan Downs, putting thousands of residents at risk of exposure. Yet despite these problems, local agencies have failed to take adequate measures to protect the health and wellbeing of the community. After almost a decade of organizing and working in collaboration with the community to envision a new and improved Jordan Downs, toxic soil and groundwater pollution around the housing project has halted the progress of this mixed-use redevelopment. This case is just one example of the types of consequences that communities endure when their voices are excluded from important land use decisions in their neighborhoods.

The passage of AB 1628 sends a clear message that EJ communities’ voices, ideas, and experiences matter. It means that we cannot leave anyone behind, from our farmworkers to our truck drivers, from urban city residents to residents living in rural colonias. AB 1628 recognizes the dignity and agency of all people by promoting a healthy California for all.

As Chelsea Tu, Senior Attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE) explains, “The passage of AB 1628 shows the State’s commitment to not only bring polluted communities to the environmental decision-making table, but also that these communities’ recommendations will, at minimum, be meaningfully considered. I am hopeful that this new definition will guide government decision-makers in taking action to achieve environmental justice.”

Check out this link to learn more information about AB 1628 (R. Rivas, 2019).