Fighting Toxic Pollution: The Indirect Sources Rule

By Nourhan Ibrahim, CEJA Volunteer

The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) is a progressive base-building organization located in the Inland Valley region of Southern California. In 1993, CCAEJ became an official nonprofit organization founded on the belief that residents not only have a right to participate in decisions that directly affect them, but also a responsibility to provide solutions to clean up their environment and health. Today, their work in the Inland Valley provides a model for EJ grassroots work in California and across the country.

Fighting Toxic Pollution: The Indirect Sources Rule
The Indirect Sources Rule (ISR) is something CCAEJ has been working on for about five years. It’s a regulation that was trying to regulate pollution coming from indirect sources, mainly trucks around warehouses. The difficulty with regulating a warehouse’s carbon footprint is that their emissions don’t come from the warehouse itself but rather from indirect sources like trucks moving across freeways and between different frontline communities. The ISR was designed to regulate diesel truck emissions on their way to and from warehouses in the South Coast, including Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. This region is home to more than 17 million people.

CCAEJ worked on the ISR with different coalition partners for a long time, and in 2021 were able to work with the community to push the SCAQMD to adopt the rule, which was one of the main goals. They wanted to ensure that there weren’t an excess number of exemptions, and that the rule protected the most vulnerable communities. CCAEJ was able to mobilize community members all over Southern California to explain why this rule was so important. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to online gatherings, leaders within the organization were able to connect with a higher volume of community members, and equip more people with the tools necessary to share their voices. Community members worked on letter writing campaigns with CCAEJ and their partners, and left voicemails.

Getting a stringent rule for the ISR approved is a big win for communities living near warehouses. Rule 2305, the final Warehouse Indirect Source Rule, is designed to collect revenue from distribution and fulfillment warehouses that are at least 100,000 square feet in size unless those facilities are able to substantially reduce their emissions by:

  1. Attracting sufficient number of zero emission and near zero emission trucks to their facilities
  2. Substantially investing in new zero emission and near zero emission on site equipment
  3. Installing solar panels

Any large warehouses that do not meet this criteria are required to pay “mitigation fees” under the ISR. The money that comes in is going to go to electrification infrastructure and incentivize warehouses to push for more electrification. The objective is to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and diesel particulate matter in the South Coast Air Basin by up to 15 percent over the next three years. Zero emission vehicles are also part of the long term plan. Of course, some challenges may evolve as groups like the CCAEJ continue to challenge warehouses to decrease their carbon footprint. The ISR may be subject to certain legal challenges, which could affect the course of its implementation. However, frontline communities continue to push for further restrictions as they work towards an increased focus on environmental justice in statewide decision making.

Joaquin Castillejos, a community organizer from Bloomington, has been working with CCAEJ on campaigns around pollution from warehouses and railyards. He is proud of the way his community has come together to share their input on critical decision making. He and his fellow community organizers have worked hard to gather community members to attend city council and planning commission meetings, submit public comments, and speak out against project plans that have implications for environmental harm. In some cases, it’s been disheartening to see that the city government doesn’t listen to them. In one case, a warehouse was going to be built right next to a high school and on the corner of a busy intersection, and dozens of community members showed up to talk about how much pollution this would cause. In spite of the community’s best efforts, the city council still voted in favor of the warehouse development project.

Even though change is slow and challenging, the community consistently shows up. In Fontana and Bloomington, community members have organized their own coalitions, and continue to raise awareness around EJ issues affecting them. Castillejos shared a vision for hope and continued advocacy: “City and county governments seem like they have their ideas set in stone a lot of the time, so it can be hard to feel heard. But when we show up in big numbers, change happens.”

This work is especially important in “diesel death zones,” areas with a high volume of warehouses near community centers, homes, schools, etc. without buffers. In the Inland Empire, relatively cheap land in a geographically desirable location has led to the development of mega-warehouses exceeding hundreds of thousands of square feet. During the pandemic, increases in online shopping pushed the amount of cargo traveling through the region to record highs, making this ISR victory even more essential. The negative impacts of warehouse pollution in Southern California are devastating to the health of communities who are predominantly BIPOC and low income. Inhaling particulates from diesel trucks in the warehouse industry is one of the top contributors to lung cancer, and is also linked to exacerbation of a wide range of respiratory diseases. Nitrous oxides are emitted by cars, trucks, and construction vehicles, and are converted in the air to other harmful pollutants. Diesel cars and trucks emit 10 times more nitrous oxides than equivalent gasoline cars, and this pollution causes higher rates of cancer, acute irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, and other short and long term health effects.

Oftentimes, these toxic warehouses and the vehicles traveling back and forth, releasing fumes into the air, are near residential buildings, schools, and frequented commercial areas. If big industries are going to continue to operate within communities, they must be tasked with large fines to promote cooperation with key pollution regulations. Vulnerable communities should not be left with the burden of toxic particulate matter circulating in the air. The long term vision is to ultimately see an end to warehousing in the communities of Southern California, but in the meantime the critical work being done by CCAEJ and their partners offers powerful hope for the future of environmental justice in this region.

Pushing for a Sustainable Energy Grid (CPUC Proceedings)
CCAEJ was involved in a string of victories around the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). They worked with the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) and the Sierra Club to engage in critical CPUC proceedings, including the midterm reliability and procurement proceedings, with a shared goal to push for a just transition towards a renewable energy grid.

Midterm Reliability Proceeding
The midterm reliability proceeding was intended to respond to the rolling blackouts in 2020. A lot of people were without electricity for extended periods of time, which created a host of issues. This primarily impacted residents in disadvantaged communities. The CPUC and the fossil fuel industry immediately shifted the blame towards renewable energy and blamed these sources for not being reliable. This isn’t true and was just a way for oil and gas companies to prolong our reliance on fossil fuels. The CPUC hearing was to ensure that the grid is reliable. The grid needs to have available power at any moment. The initial ruling included many toxic options and kept the door open for fossil fuels to keep their hands involved for a long time (i.e. backup generators that produced a lot of emissions).

CCAEJ worked collaboratively to mobilize community members using voicemails and other means, and generated a huge amount of public comment. The outcomes of this midterm reliability proceeding were overall a big victory, because it set the stage for continued improvements in renewable energy.

Midterm Procurement Proceeding
Every couple years, the CPUC has a hearing on what the energy portfolio is going to be for the next few years, and whether California is on track for meeting emissions reductions goals. For example, are we reducing the amount of emissions from fossil fuels? Are we meeting community needs for energy? The proposed rule was initially very conservative on renewable energy and kept the door open for fossil fuel procurement over a five year period. They had a high GHG target of 40 parts per million (ppm). Utilizing a similar approach to the reliability hearing, CCAEJ worked to mobilize communities to write to and call the CPUC and explain why the proposed ruling was concerning. Fossil fuel power plants are really dangerous in such a concentrated area, especially in communities at the frontlines of warehouse emissions. Freight lines to the power plants also contribute to pollution, all of which disproportionately impact low income communities of color. The outcome was that the CPUC increased generation goals for renewable energy sources to 1100 megawatts, which has been a 5-6 year battle, so this was a big victory. They also lowered the GHG targets to 38 ppm, and CCAEJ and alliance partners continue to push for a lower target of 30. The public pressure from environmental justice communities is a critical win in this campaign.

A just transition to renewable energy includes advocating for local representation and retraining workers to prepare them for jobs in this emerging industry. On the ground knowledge of the community’s needs is critical to paving the way for equitable energy in the renewable sector. Low income communities and communities of color, those most heavily exposed to pollutants, should see a fair share of the investment in order to ensure an equitable transition to renewable energy.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank the community members who worked, and continue to work, so tirelessly on these campaigns. I would like to thank Joaquin Castillejos, Faraz Rizvi and Marven Norman from CCAEJ for taking the time to connect with me to share their work on these successful environmental justice policies, and for guiding me to relevant resources.