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Is Key California Pollution Law Working?

A landmark California environmental justice law was supposed to clean the air in 15 key communities, but it’s hard to say if it’s worked.

An aerial view looking west towards the Port of Stockton, Calif
An aerial view looking west towards the Port of Stockton, as the San Joaquin River passes under Interstate 5 in Stockton on Oct. 13, 2021.
Fred Greaves, CalMatters
“It’s one thing to say, it’s another to do.”

That was Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent assessment of a proposal to create a state-funded single-payer health care system, which faces a do-or-die vote today in the state Assembly along with a host of other controversial bills.

But it also points to a larger, more fundamental challenge at all levels of government: Once you pass a law or create a program, how do you successfully implement it and ensure that it executes on its stated goals? As Newsom put it in June 2020, as protests swept the country following George Floyd’s murder: “Program-passing is not problem-solving.”

The difficulty inherent in translating a law’s aspirational language into reality is evident in this stunning project from CalMatters’ Rachel Becker, which examines how one of California’s landmark environmental justice laws is playing out more than four years after it was passed.

Some of her key findings:

  • The law — which was hailed as “unprecedented,” “groundbreaking,” and “a catalyst to change the way we work with communities” — was supposed to clear the air for low-income communities of color that bear the brunt of California’s air pollution.
  • But, after more than four years and more than $1 billion in state funds, it’s impossible to say whether the program has improved the smoggy and toxic air that almost 4 million people breathe in 15 communities. 
  • And, although the law aimed to give community activists and residents a greater role in complex regulatory processes, decisionmaking rests with whom it always has: state and local air regulators.

“This was like a beautiful thing that was going to bring us something into our communities to protect them from cap and trade, and try to get the community involved,” said Magali Sanchez-Hall, a Wilmington resident and environmental activist. “That’s not what I have experienced, at all.”

“I think the intention of the legislation was good,” said Dillon Delvo, co-founder of Little Manila Rising, a historic preservation organization turned environmental justice group in South Stockton.

  • Delvo: “But once it comes into the hands of whatever local agency is controlling it, they control the outcome of it.”

This article was first published by CalMatters. Read the original article.
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