While Los Angeles is plagued with some of the worst air quality in the nation, some communities face an even larger pollution burden. These neighborhoods, also known as “toxic hot spots,” contain a concentration of pollution sources adjacent to residential and sensitive land uses such as schools, playgrounds, and elder care centers. The risk of pollution-related illness — asthma attacks, heart disease, respiratory distress, cancer, and premature death — is higher in these areas compared to many other areas of LA.
Unfortunately, LA’s current land uses allow families to live just over the fence from diesel truck depots, warehouses, rail yards, and refineries. These land use patterns put pollution sources right in the backyards of residents.
In 2006, grassroots groups from three heavily polluted LA neighborhoods — Boyle Heights, Pacoima, and Wilmington — joined together to form the Los Angeles Collaborative for Environmental Health and Justice. Other organizations such as Communities for a Better Environment, the Coalition for a Safe Environment, Pacoima Beautiful, and Unión de Vecinos also joined in later years.
Together, members of the collaborative have developed the Clean Up Green Up (CUGU) initiative to transform their neighborhoods into safer and more vibrant communities. Their goals are to minimize the overconcentration of environmental hazards in overburdened neighborhoods, reduce pollution, and help businesses clean up and green up their operations while still retaining and creating more jobs in the neighborhood.
A Clean Up Green Up Ordinance
After a decade of community organizing, Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the Clean Up Green Up ordinance into law in April 2016. With unanimous support from the City Council, this groundbreaking environmental justice policy established pilot “Green Zones” that pioneered a municipal land use policy that will bring long-lasting benefits to these three EJ communities.
The Los Angeles Collaborative for Environmental Health and Justice worked to ensure strong engagement from both residents and local businesses. It shaped the policy through both a community-based research and a ground-truthing process in which residents documented a range of hazards and sensitive land uses in their neighborhoods. They looked not only at individual sources of pollution, but also the concentration of many toxic emitters both large and small that together add up to create a cumulative health burden.
Residents and local businesses were also involved in many community meetings and public participation workshops to help develop solutions and mitigations. They provided compelling testimony at public hearings, including more than 200 who expressed their support during official hearings in June 2015. More than 180 public health, environmental, faith-based, local business, and community groups endorsed the measure, and it is also included in both the city’s Health and Wellness element of the General Plan and Mayor Garcetti’s Sustainability City pLAn.
Creating New EJ Standards
Now, as part of the municipal planning and zoning code, CUGU benefits both residents and the business community through coordinated inspections, more protective health standards for new and expanded industrial operations, and stronger public participation from local residents. It also includes a citywide provision that allows the city of Los Angeles to further restrict the expansion of oil refinery operations by requiring a health impact assessment and a conditional use permit. CUGU also contains a building codes measure that requires mandatory air filters in all new residential units within 1,000 feet of a freeway.
In addition, the adopted CUGU ordinance sets forth new development standards to govern any new and/or expanded industries, such as proper building and mechanical enclosures to prevent fugitive emissions, “no idling” signage for diesel trucks at warehouses and other industrial facilities, and the creation of “buffer zones” or distance setbacks of 500 feet between new or expanded auto-related uses and residences. It also calls for improved site planning features such as proper trash enclosures, materials storage, fencing, height and yard setbacks, outdoor lighting, landscaping, and surface parking lot design, as well as new provisions for demonstrating compliance with noise standards and proper mitigations.
Support for Small Businesses
Clean Up Green Up also established an ombudsperson position within the Bureau of Sanitation to support local businesses. The ombudsperson helps businesses access financial and technical support to improve their operations and bottom line. The ombudsperson also assists small businesses in navigating complex permitting processes, and in complying with regulatory standards. The office also responds to community complaints about nuisance businesses and coordinates with city departments and regulators to enforce any violations.
In the first year and a half, the ombudsperson has conducted visits with more than 100 businesses in the three communities, and worked closely with council offices, community organizations, and neighborhood councils to make local establishments aware of programs that can clean up and green up their operations.
To expand Green Zone activities, in 2017 several members of the Los Angeles Collaborative for Environmental Health and Justice participated in the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power’s (LADWP’s) Community Partnership Grant Program. They expanded outreach efforts to local mom-and-pop businesses to promote LADWP programs that can both reduce the carbon footprint of their operations and create greater economic resilience by lowering their energy costs.
The organizers went door-to-door to 329 local businesses, promoting the Guide to Green business resource directory and LADWP incentives. As a result, 79 businesses signed up to receive a complimentary energy audit through the LADWP Commercial Direct Install program. More than 30 businesses also qualified for full energy audits. Based on the amount of energy savings that’s been projected for completed projects, more than 150,000 kilowatt hours of energy are estimated to be saved every year. In addition, 96 businesses signed pledges to reduce their energy use, while 85 of them completed surveys about their energy consumption patterns and the kinds of energy efficiency technologies that would be most useful to their business operations.
This partnership between the local businesses and the city provided LADWP with valuable information to shape its current programs. Together, they continue to ensure strong community engagement throughout the implementation of Clean Up Green Up.
CUGU demonstrates that local planning and land use policies can improve community health and sustainability. It also shows that the movement for environmental justice can succeed in fighting local pollution, finding greener ways to improve businesses, and building a more clean, safe, and healthy environment.
Clean Up Green Up is a cutting-edge policy that addresses both public health and economic well-being in Los Angeles communities that have long struggled to go green. www.cleanupgreenup.wordpress.com