The Bureau of Environmental Justice and Change from the Top

By Rutherford, Mark | UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

The Bureau of Environmental Justice and Change from the Top


Rutherford, Mark, UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy


Table of Contents  Introduction  I.      What Are the Strengths and Limitations of a         State Government-Run Environmental Justice         Enforcement and Litigation Office in Achieving         the Goals of Environmental Justice?          A. Strengths of the Bureau of Environmental Justice         B. Limitations of the Bureau of Environmental Justice  II.     Are There Top-Down Alternatives to the Environmental         Justice Attorney General Model That Might Generate         More Public Participation?          A. Community Action Agency Model         B. General Environmental Justice Office         C. "Offices of Goodness"  III.    Lessons Learned From Contrasting Environmental Justice         With Other Policy Concerns  Conclusion 

Introduction

On February 22, 2018, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the establishment of a Bureau of Environmental Justice (Bureau) within the Environment Section of the California Department of Justice. (1) The Bureau's stated mission is to protect "people and communities that endure a disproportionate share of environmental pollution and public health hazards," which are often referred to as environmental justice communities. (2) The Bureau will work to ensure compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), remediate contaminated drinking water, address issues of environmental lead exposure, introduce enforcement actions to penalize illegal air and water polluters, and challenge actions taken by the federal government that worsen public health and environmental quality. (3) California Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia introduced a concurrent bill, AB 2636, to "provide additional support for [Attorney General] investigations and litigation intended to protect communities that endure a disproportionate share of environmental pollution." (4)

Previous failures by the federal and state governments to allocate environmental enforcement resources to minority communities may indeed be a leading cause for the inequity in environmental quality between minority and nonminority neighborhoods. (5) Without question, it is an important and laudable step to dedicate state resources to rectifying the disproportionate impacts of pollution and improving environmental quality in disadvantaged communities. In his comments at the announcement of the creation of the Bureau, Assemblymember Garcia aptly stated as such: "[j]ustice should not be reserved for the communities who can afford to investigate and litigate parties that break the law." (6) However, prominent environmental justice lawyer and commentator Luke Cole has criticized both litigation and top-down approaches as being ineffective and perhaps counterproductive as remedies to the problem of environmental justice. Cole argues that environmental justice is ultimately a problem of political and economic inequities exacerbated by a lack of participation in environmental decisionmaking by affected communities. (7) This presents a clear paradox: while the environmental justice enforcement that the California Attorney General's office is poised to provide is likely needed, top-down and litigation-focused approaches might disempower those communities, ultimately working against the goal of further self-determination in community environmental decisionmaking. In Part I, this paper will explore the genuine benefits an environmental justice-focused bureau of the Attorney General's office could provide, as well as its serious shortcomings.

If, as commentators such as Cole argue, litigation and top-down approaches are ineffective or counterproductive to addressing the root causes of environmental injustice, what options remain for policymakers who genuinely want to address the problem of environmental justice? Recent examples of major environmental injustices, such as the Flint Water Crisis, might signal the gravity of environmental justice issues to policymakers and encourage them to harness their moral obligation to prevent environmental injustice before it happens. …

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