UPDATE, March 31, 2016
Governor Brown has now rescinded his exemption of the Exide lead cleanup from the state's signature environmental law, CEQA. He reversed himself only under intense pubilc scrutiny of the administration's handling of the Exide cleanup. An embarrassing administrative quagmire, that toxics regulators claimed prevented them from accessing the state's own tests of lead levels in children's blood, has also miraculously cleared. Regulators will now be able to use the results of the tests to help prioritize which properties get cleaned up first.
When it comes to the environment, Governor Jerry Brown gives and he takes away.
Buried in Brown’s announcement that he would spend $176 million to clean up thousands of lead-contaminated East LA properties around Exide, is a line taking away the legal right of the affected public to participate in that cleanup. “For the purposes of expediting the cleanup of the contaminated sites, this proposal also includes an exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act,” his announcement reads.
The California Environmental Protection Act (CEQA) is really a bill of environmental rights. It allows the public a voice in legally-required environmental reviews of projects such as pollution cleanups and how they will be handled. It’s a law that Jerry Brown just doesn’t like because it interferes with getting business done more quickly, and more cheaply. He’s called reform of this law the “Lord’s work.” He has said publicly, “I have never seen a CEQA exemption that I don’t like.”
In this case, what the exemption means, in effect, is that the community will likely never get a full cleanup. Not only will the community not have a voice in how the cleanup is handled, it will have a hard time pushing to expand the cleanup. And they'll want to expand it, because $176 million is insufficient to do the job that will require more like $400 million, according to DTSC’s own estimates. There just isn’t going to be enough money for the cleanup—something that toxics regulators were supposed to ensure as a condition of operation when Exide took over the smelter in 2000.
That is a bone of contention for lower income, largely minority communities that bear the brunt of government policies that locate polluting industries near them. “Exemptions from laws designed to protect the public’s health harm all Californians by setting a precedent for unequal protection under the law,” said a letter written to Brown this month by 35 advocates asking him to rescind the exemption. “We would oppose the establishment of less protective cleanup standards for lead in environmental justice communities than for more affluent communities…Compliance with the law which analyzes, informs, and allows us to engage in the process of protecting our communities from harm is no different.”
Differing standards are already being applied and the DTSC is already cutting corners. Residents can’t make toxics regulators test for lead on roofs and in gutters, which means that any rain threatens cleaned up properties with recontamination. They won't necessarily get every scrap of information collected about the site's contamination. As the Los Angeles Times reported this week, they couldn't even get the state Department of Public Health to share children's lead blood test results to pinpoint what homes need an urgent cleanup first, something even Flint, Michigan had the sense to do.
The price of irresponsible government regulation should not be mentally-impaired children or cancer-riddled adults. Depriving the people of a voice in their own protection is the act of a Jerry Brown very different from the one Californians knew decades ago. “Capitalism has been with us for just a couple hundred years and has evolved, it hasn’t remained the same,” Brown said in 1996. “As you look out and see the proliferation of inequality and the continuing assault on the environment, you see that the successes at the material level of the capitalist economy are running into some major contradictions.”
Brown himself is now the great contradiction. He should rescind the CEQA exemption immediately, and watch DTSC like a hawk to make sure they do the job right with the limited money they get.