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Coastal Commission Approves Sweeping New Environmental Justice Policy to Increase Coastal Protections for All Californians

LOS ANGELES SENTINEL — The California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a landmark environmental justice policy to help ensure equitable access to clean, healthy, and accessible coastal environments for communities disproportionately overburdened by pollution.

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By Sentinel News Service

The California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a landmark environmental justice policy to help ensure equitable access to clean, healthy, and accessible coastal environments for communities disproportionately overburdened by pollution.

“Equity demands more. Over the last five years, the commission has questioned whether we are doing enough to provide access for all to our beaches, a right guaranteed under the California constitution,” said Environmental Justice Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders. “Achieving true equity requires us to first understand and own our history of disenfranchisement; then, work diligently and deliberately to create full and inclusive participation in process, policy and benefits. Now the real work begins.”

The commission adopted the policy on Friday, March 8 at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Since 1999, California has passed a series bills advancing the concept of environmental justice, which emerged out of the civil rights movement. In recent years, the push to correct long-standing inequities that have disproportionately burdened lower-income communities of color has been increasing with a number of state agencies working to adopt similar policies.

The state’s environmental justice community played an integral role, with more than 30 organizations and stakeholders offering letters of support after their comments strengthened the final draft. Organizations including The City Project, Green Latinos, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, Azul, Central Coastal Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, and others advocated for the agency to correct long-standing inequities that have disproportionately burdened lower-income communities of color. Assemblymembers Autumn Burke (D-Inglewood), Monique Limon (D-Santa Barbara), and Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), also supported passage.

“This is the best environmental justice policy I’ve seen from any agency – state or federal – in my 35 years as a civil rights attorney,” said Robert Garcia, the director of The City Project in Los Angeles. “This is the Magna Carta of coastal justice in California.”

Historian Alison Rose Jefferson set the tone for the policy at Friday’s meeting with a presentation on the African American experience in Southern California. The final policy is the culmination of a two-year effort following the 2016 passage of AB2616 by Assemblywoman Burke, which grants the commission the authority to consider environmental justice in its permitting decisions.

The law also required then Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint an environmental justice commissioner, who is currently Turnbull-Sanders. The environmental justice commissioner helps guide the agency in its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, as well as its pursuit of a more expansive approach to coastal access.

The commission developed the policy with the input of more than 100 environmental justice groups, California Native American tribes, conservation organizations and individual stakeholders. The policy went through multiple revisions in response to public feedback. Friday’s meeting was the fourth public hearing.

The document includes a policy statement, implementation plan and a statement of principles to help guide staff and commissioners. Topics include climate change, coastal access, housing, tribal concerns, local government, accountability and transparency, participation in the process and more.

The implementation plan calls for the agency to develop environmental justice advocates in every major unit and budget requests to bolster staff hiring, retention and training, Other changes include holding a quarterly conference call between environmental justice stakeholders and the agency’s executive director, scheduling items with significant environmental justice implications close to affected marginalized communities when legal deadlines allow, and encouraging local governments to amend their local coastal programs and other long-range development plans to address environmental justice.

“Environmental justice is at the heart of what the commission has strived to do for 45 years, but until we can extend that mission to marginalized communities throughout California, we will never achieve the Coastal Act’s vision,” said commission Chair Dayna Bochco. “This new policy will help us keep that promise.”

Established in 1972 by a voter initiative, the commission has a mandate to protect and preserve the California coast for current and future generations by regulating development with local government. Under the new policy, in addition to traditional Coastal Act considerations, the agency can now consider the impacts of a proposed project on an underserved community. For example, if an electrical plant was proposed in the city of Oxnard, the agency could look how this might affect this community already overburdened by industrial development.

The State Lands Commission recently passed an environmental justice policy and the Coastal Conservancy and the Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission are also working on similar policies. In addition, the Attorney General’s office recently added an environmental justice unit and 18 state agencies have sent teams to Sacramento for intense ongoing racial equity training with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity.

“The development of this policy has been such a humbling and inspiring journey for us all at the agency,” said Executive Director Jack Ainsworth. “It’s the future of this agency and, frankly, the right thing to do.”

Activism

MAYOR LONDON BREED NOMINATES CITY ATTORNEY DENNIS HERRERA TO LEAD THE SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION

As the new General Manager of the SFPUC, Herrera would bring decades of experience serving San Francisco residents and advancing the fight for significant environmental policies.

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San Francisco, CA — Today Mayor London N. Breed nominated City Attorney Dennis Herrera to serve as the next General Manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). Herrera was elected as City Attorney of San Francisco in 2001, and will bring decades of experience serving City residents and advancing environmental policies through his nationally-recognized office.
The SFPUC provides retail drinking water and wastewater services to the City of San Francisco, wholesale water to three Bay Area counties, green hydroelectric and solar power to Hetch Hetchy electricity customers, and power to the residents and businesses of San Francisco through the CleanPowerSF program.
“I am proud to nominate Dennis Herrera to serve as General Manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission,” said Mayor Breed. “Dennis has been a great champion in San Francisco across a wide range of issues from civil rights to protecting our environment, and most importantly he has been someone who always puts the people of this City first. By bringing his experience in office and his commitment to public service to this new position, I am confident the SFPUC will be able to deliver the high-quality services our residents deserve while continuing to advance nationally-recognized programs like CleanPowerSF and pursue ambitious efforts like public power. Dennis is the right leader for the hard-working employees of the SFPUC and this City.”
“I will always cherish the groundbreaking work we have done in the City Attorney’s Office over these nearly 20 years,” Herrera said. “We advanced equality for all, pushed affordable housing at every turn, gave our children better opportunities to grow and thrive, and took innovative steps to protect the environment. We never shied from the hard fights. Above all, our approach to government has had an unwavering focus on equity, ethics and integrity.”
“It is that focus that drives me to this new challenge,” Herrera said. “Public service is an honor. When you see a need, you step up to serve. The test of our age is how we respond to climate change. San Francisco’s public utility needs clean, innovative and decisive leadership to meet that challenge. I am ready to take the lead in ensuring that all San Franciscans have sustainable and affordable public power, clean and reliable water, and, overall, a public utility that once again makes them proud. I want to thank Mayor Breed for this unique opportunity to stand up for ratepayers and usher in a new era of clean leadership at the top of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.”
The next step for the nomination is for the five-member commission that oversees the SFPUC to interview City Attorney Herrera and forward him as a formal recommendation to the Mayor. After this, and once a contract is finalized, City Attorney Herrera would be officially appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the Commission. This process will take a number of weeks.
For nearly two decades, Herrera has been at the forefront of pivotal water, power and sewer issues. He worked to save state ratepayers $1 billion during PG&E’s first bankruptcy in the early 2000s and has been a leading advocate for San Francisco to adopt full public power for years. In 2009, he reached a key legal agreement with Mirant to permanently close the Potrero Power Plant, San Francisco’s last fossil fuel power plant. The deal also included Mirant paying $1 million to help address pediatric asthma in nearby communities. In 2017, Herrera sued the top five investor-owned fossil fuel companies in the world, including ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, seeking billions of dollars for infrastructure to protect San Francisco against sea-level rise caused by their products, including large portions of the SFPUC’s combined sewer and stormwater system.
In 2018, Herrera defeated an attempt to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the crown jewel of the SFPUC system, which provides emissions-free hydroelectric power and clean drinking water to 2.7 million Bay Area residents. He is also leading efforts before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the courts to fight PG&E’s predatory tactics to grow its corporate monopoly by illegally overcharging public projects like schools, homeless shelters and affordable housing to connect to the energy grid.
Herrera was first elected City Attorney in December 2001, and went on to build what The American Lawyer magazine hailed as “one of the most aggressive and talented city law departments in the nation.”
Herrera’s office was involved in every phase of the legal war to achieve marriage equality, from early 2004 to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark rulings in June 2013. Herrera was also the first to challenge former President Trump’s attempts to deny federal funding to sanctuary cities. He repeatedly defeated the Trump administration in different cases as it sought to punish sanctuary cities, deny basic benefits like food stamps to legal immigrants, and discriminate in health care against women, the LGBTQ community and other vulnerable groups. He brought groundbreaking consumer protection cases against payday lenders, credit card arbitrators and others. He also brought pioneering legal cases to protect youth, including blocking an attempt to strip City College of San Francisco of its accreditation and getting e-cigarettes off San Francisco store shelves until they received required FDA approval.

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Activism

The Lookout: Three Bills Test Sacramento’s Political Climate for Green Change

Newsom suggested that climate change has increased the severity of drought conditions in California, a sentiment shared by the Public Policy Institute of California.

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Following Earth Week, celebrities and lawmakers alike have come together to discuss the climate crisis ravaging our planet. However, with the political climate as charged as it is, not everyone agrees on the best approach. 

On April 21, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency.

Newsom suggested that climate change has increased the severity of drought conditions in California, a sentiment shared by the Public Policy Institute of California.

“What is different now is the extremes. What’s different now is the climate-induced impacts of these droughts,” Newsom said. “We’ve barely been out of those drought conditions and here we are, entering back into these drought conditions.”

Senate Bill (SB) 45, also known as the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access For All Act of 2018, would authorize $4.1 billion in bonds to finance a drought, water, parks, climate, coastal protection, and outdoor access for all program.

SB 45 was originally voted in as Proposition 68 in 2018 and would also enact the Wildfire Prevention, Safe Drinking Water, Drought Preparation, and Flood Protection Bond Act of 2022, which, if approved by the voters, would authorize $5.5 billion in bonds to fund projects for a wildfire prevention, safe drinking water, drought preparation, and flood protection program.

A hearing on the bill is set for May 3 in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Senate Bill (SB) 582 focuses on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

SB 582 would require the State Air Resources Board to make sure that statewide emissions are reduced to at least 80% below their 1990 levels. 

Also, it would focus on communities that are more vulnerable to climate change, according to Sen. Henry Stern (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) who held a webinar to discuss the bill.

“The third piece [of SB 582] is what we call a just resilience framework to really put vulnerability to climate change at the centerpiece of the state spending strategy,” Stern said, breaking down the bill into three parts. “So, for the folks living in Sen. Cortese’s backyard who might be going through an extreme heat event who are elderly and maybe don’t have access to the proper air conditioning, or live right next to a floodplain, or, in my area, right next to the edge of a wildfire risk… those most vulnerable people, we believe, should be met first by a massive investment in climate infrastructure.”

Stern acknowledged some of the pushback he expects to get from the California labor organizations. 

“In organized labor and basically the employment sector, especially in the fossil fuel industry, there’s been a lot of discomfort that if California shuts down all these industries that we’ll put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage and we’ll put people out of work,” Stern said. 

There has been some hesitation, according to Stern. However, he asserts that it isn’t full-blown opposition.

 “There is no opposition at this point from organized labor,” Stern said. “And the environmental justice community is also not yet fully invested because there is some nervousness. Things like carbon capture, storage and oil fumes. Those kinds of questions are still looming, but we’re committed to this broader diplomatic effort and I think if we can solve that, anything is possible.”

The Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee has scheduled a hearing for April 27 on the SB 582.

Planning to Get Rid of Gasoline-Powered Cars

According to the California Air Resources Board, statewide greenhouse gas emissions increased by about 800,000 metric tons from 2017 to 2018.

Introduced as a way to combat this, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty’s (D-Sacramento) Assembly Bill (AB) 1218 aims to ensure that “100% of new passenger and light-duty vehicle sales are zero-emission vehicles by 2035.”

Jeremy Smith, deputy legislative director of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, wrote a letter to strongly oppose AB 1218.

“AB 1218 will prove devastating for the gasoline tax revenue stream dedicated to improving and maintaining California’s infrastructure and replenishing the general fund,” Smith wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted social and economic activity in the state; reduced business activity and stay-at-home orders have decreased the amount Californians drive their automobiles.”

AB 1218 also proposes that the state provides incentives for Californians to adopt to zero emission vehicles. 

“This bill also sets up interim GHG emissions targets for manufacturers to achieve towards the 2035 100% zero-emission sales goal,” the bill text reads. “By reaching these targets, manufacturers would avoid having to pay a penalty. Manufacturers have stated support for the Governor’s executive order and understand the need for rebates to incentivize consumer adoption of zero-emission vehicles. The Assembly Appropriations Committee is currently reviewing AB 1218. 

In Washington, GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA-23) hosted a three-day event introducing House Republican sponsored environmental initiatives in response to the Green New Deal.

While legislators may not agree on the how, they do agree on the why: The planet is in danger and we have the power to save it. What we’re willing to give up in that pursuit, however, makes all the difference.

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Environment

From Forest to Faucet: The Health of Headwaters Determines Tap Water Quality 

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Depending on where in California you live, some of the water from your faucet probably traveled hundreds of miles from its origins: either a melting snow bank in the high Sierra Nevada or a winter rainstorm that doused its foothills.

That origin point, California’s headwaters, on average receives 60% of the state’s annual precipitation falling as rain or snow. Californians consume roughly the same amount of water after it flows through streams and rivers into reservoirs, accounting for half of the state’s surface water storage.

However, the harsh reality of destructive wildfires that mar every California warm season — especially this year — can also hit these headwater forests. When these catastrophic blazes, which are driven by climate change, burn through forests, they can affect water treatment because ash is washed into watershed streams and rivers.

Intense heat from these fires bakes the ground into hardpan. Seasonal rains wash ash off the surface into streams leading to reservoirs that feed water treatment plants. Water providers can still treat and deliver safe drinking water, but the ash makes the job more difficult because it adds sediment to the reservoirs.

The good news is there are solutions within our reach. Work to achieve those solutions is underway in many parts of the Sierra Nevada and requires reversing a hundred years of well-intentioned, but ultimately destructive forest management.

During most of the last century, wildland firefighting focused exclusively on preventing forest fires from starting. And when one did start, minimizing its size at all costs was the main priority. However, this strategy ignored the natural role of fire over millennia.

Ignited by lightning or set by Native Americans who understood its value, natural fire kept forests thinned and healthy by removing excess undergrowth. These fires tended to creep along the forest floor and burn less hot and in more controlled patterns than today’s raging and record-setting conflagrations.

However, large swaths of forests kept largely free from fire have overgrown. Instead of larger trees spaced apart, much of the Sierra Nevada headwater forests have become a thick carpet of smaller trees packed together and growing over dense underbrush.

Years of severe and intermittent drought have cooked this vegetation into bone-dry kindling, explosive fire fuel that feeds all-consuming fires such as the ones that swept through California and the Pacific Northwest this year.

Removing this undergrowth, thinning headwater forests back to their natural state and restoring the role of fire within the ecosystem represents a massive undertaking, but is not impossible.

In California, public water agencies, environmental nonprofit organizations, as well as local and state agencies and the federal government are collaborating on many levels to enhance headwaters health, and in doing so protect the quality and reliability of our water supplies.

Natural fire has partially returned through what are known as prescribed burns. Set outside of the height of fire season and closely monitored, this tactic has successfully cleared out overgrowth in limited sections of forest. There are risks, and these fires do affect air quality, but the alternative is far worse.

Another tactic, although labor intensive, is employing work crews to manually thin sections of forests. These projects often use heavy machinery, such as masticators, which are tractor-mounted wood chippers.

One example can be found in the Northern Sierra Nevada. The Placer County Water Agency (PCWA) is leading a public-private partnership that treated more than 1,000 acres of forest in the Lake Tahoe area during 2019.

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