At a time when the mainstream environmental movement has devoted itself to combatting high-profile issues like global climate change, California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, is focusing on issues closer to home. A few weeks ago, he announced that he’s setting up a Bureau of Environmental Justice to protect the disadvantaged people who bear what he calls “disproportionate impacts of pollution, contamination, and other egregious environmental violations.”
This is not to say that Becerra has turned his back on broad environmental issues playing out on a national and even global stage. As the Trump Administration has moved to open up the California coastline to oil and gas drilling while suspending environmental regulations, for example, Becerra has filed 30 actions at the federal level, almost half of them aimed at ensuring clean air and water. His office has already won favorable rulings in seven suits.
But in opening an environmental justice bureau, he is championing concerns that appear to have been relegated to the margins of environmental politics and policy. He’s concentrating on mitigating the effects on families and children of such hazards as contaminated drinking supplies, lead and other toxins in consumer products and the environment, and illegal discharges into the air and water from what a media statement calls “facilities located in communities already burdened disproportionately with pollution.”
Becerra has assigned four attorneys to the new bureau, whose focus, he said, will be helping “low-income communities and communities of color [which] continue to bear the brunt of pollution from industrial development, poor land-use decisions, transportation and trade corridors.”
This refreshing approach highlights a division that some see within the environmental movement and the Democratic Party. In an article in Black Enterprise during the 2016 presidential campaign, Hazel Trice Edney, an award-winning journalist, wrote, “The party’s increasingly assertive network of environmental activists and wealthy donors have spent millions of dollars waging campaigns against industry that critics say capture national headlines but fail to address the day-to-day environmental hazards faced by poor communities of color, particularly those in the nation’s inner cities.”
Indeed, a study by the group Green 2.0 highlights the division among environmentalists. The study found that only 16 percent of the staff of environmental organizations is composed of people of color, compared with 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce and 36 percent of the US population.
Fred Tutman, an African-American environmentalist, wrote in the Baltimore Sun that
“a relatively non-inclusive green movement has emerged. The largest environmental movements, with the most resources, have evolved into cliques of upwardly mobile Caucasians.” Tutman added that “people who live in crowded, urban neighborhoods near industry and highways value clean water, air and open space just as much” as those in white neighborhoods. But wealthier environmentalists already have clean air, so they aspire to other goals.
Indeed, wealthy activists and donors have lately been fixated on combatting natural-gas exploration, oil and gas pipeline projects, and, especially, global greenhouse gases that are said to be linked to the use of fossil fuels.
In the meantime, Attorney General Becerra is seeking to ensure that Californians who are on the societal margins and surrounded by environmental hazards are not forgotten.
For example, he has joined the City of Oakland’s efforts to prohibit the storage and handling of coal and petroleum coke at one of its port terminals.
Becerra, who seemingly understands that no one office can tackle every problem, has won plaudits from community activists for the environmental priorities he has set.
“Far too many families in California suffer from both poverty and pollution; in fact, they go hand in hand,” said Vien Truong, director of Green for All, praising the establishment of the new bureau. “Families across the state will breathe a sigh of relief with the promise of justice and accountability for polluters.”
Becerra is no stranger to the challenges working-class people and the poor face. He grew up in a “family of six crammed into a 685-square-foot house,” as the Sacramento Bee, his hometown newspaper, put it. His mother was an immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico, while his father, a laborer who worked construction, was born in Sacramento but raised in Tijuana.
Perhaps this helps explains his passion for seeking to ensure justice for the most vulnerable in our society.
Barrington Salmon is a Washington, DC-based journalist and writer who has written for almost two dozen newspapers and publications in the US and the US Virgin Islands. He covers a range of subjects including immigration, Civil Rights, crime, social welfare and urban issues.