Now, About That Oil Refinery... 

"Environmental justice" means all kinds of things these days. In North Richmond, it means cracking down on trash dumpers.

Dana Harvey found herself so touched by the turnout at a community workshop she facilitated in Concord that her eyes bulged moist red. "I was actually in tears," she recalls. "I was so happy about the mix of people who were in that room that day."

It's not every day a well-paid consultant cries in public. But then Harvey isn't your typical consultant. She favors comfy walking shoes with thick wool socks over pumps and a power suit; her long, straight salt-and-pepper hair is unembellished by over-the-counter products. At another recent community meeting, her young daughter climbed all over her working mommy as though playing on a fleshy jungle gym. A trained soils scientist, Harvey has devoted much of her life to environmental activism and has parlayed her grassroots work into a new career title: environmental justice consultant.

Twenty years ago, the phrase "environmental justice," a marriage of civil rights and tree-hugger ethos, didn't exist. Its origin can be traced back to a neighborhood uprising in the early '80s in North Carolina against a proposed hazardous waste dump. The neighborhood was black and poor, and its residents complained that they were essentially being discriminated against because they got all the bad industrial crap dropped on them.

Last year, Contra Costa County -- home to four of the Bay Area's five oil refineries -- gave Harvey a $31,200 contract to advise county leaders on "environmental justice issues." Empowered, as she might say, by a directive from the board of supervisors, she met with five county department heads to talk about using "EJ principles" in their work.

Initially she found them defensive. "The first thing everybody wants to say is, 'We already incorporate environmental justice in what we do. ... We already treat everybody equally.'" So Harvey tried another tactic. She encouraged the bureaucrats to use this as an opportunity to do something creative, something different.

Maurice Shiu, the county's director of public works (a department usually preoccupied with potholes and street lights), mentioned his desire to offer an internship program encouraging nonwhites to become engineers. "That can be framed as an environmental justice issue, because the urban schools in these communities tend to be low-achieving schools," Harvey reasons. "Youth from EJ communities tend to be undernourished; they tend to have a lot of illness because of the toxics. So when you're dealing with EJ communities, if you can provide educational opportunities for them, that's like an environmental justice activity you can engage in."

At the beginning, environmental justice referred simply to the disproportionate number of industrial polluters in poor neighborhoods. "As the movement grew," Harvey explains, "people realized it's not just that there's a polluter in your neighborhood. It really grew to say, 'Why is the polluter allowed to be in this neighborhood?'" Asking why, of course, expanded the definition of environmental justice to include all sorts of social ills faced by the poor: Lack of health care, bad schools, screwed-up public transit.

Over the past decade, all levels of government have gradually tried to weave environmental justice principles into their bureaucratic fabric. The trend began with an executive order signed by President Clinton in 1994 that directed regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency to establish environmental justice working groups. In some cases, the EPA hired activists to do the job. Here in the western region, the agency enlisted Running Grass, an environmental advocate considered by some to be a leading figure in the movement.

He leads intensive workshops for local government officials, including a "train the trainer" five-day orientation that CoCo County health officials completed not long ago. Afterwards, the trainees are considered qualified to educate other employees in environmental justice.

The movement's guiding principle is community involvement, a bottom-up model for making important decisions. Unfortunately, that model can backfire. Consider the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's short-lived environmental justice advisory committee, which disbanded two years ago after several community members resigned, questioning the district's lack of commitment to "real" environmental justice.

Air district spokeswoman Teresa Lee blames the more vocal activist members of the committee for hijacking the process. "There would be a lot of 'When are you going to stop being in bed with corporate polluters?' kind of discussion," she says. "The meeting could never be called to order until all these other issues were hashed out. ... And generally those issues were never hashed out. I think we learned something in spite of it, not because of it." The district has since resorted to a more comfortable top-down process and tapped a consulting firm, Community Focus, to deal with heavily burdened industrial bedroom communities like North Richmond.

Sometimes public agencies avoid suffering fools by simply doing nothing; local governments pass feel-good environmental justice resolutions and then file them away to gather dust. In 1997, the city of Richmond -- home to the Richmond Chevron oil refinery -- approved a resolution "supporting" environmental justice principles. It included flowery language such as: "Whereas, environmental justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity, and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction ... ." City leaders then sat back and did nothing more for five years.

Not so the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. A couple of years ago, the board passed its own EJ resolution. In this case, John Gioia, the supervisor who represents West County, was determined to actually implement environmental justice principles, not just some feel-good resolution.

If ever there were a place to battle environmental injustice, it would be Contra Costa County. West County in particular has a huge industrial base, numerous refineries, and poor communities in Richmond and San Pablo with the county's highest asthma hospitalization rates. And a new report from regional air regulators has revealed that the refineries have been spewing 30 percent more pollutants than previously estimated.

So did the county take on Chevron? Go after the big polluters? Change laws to keep new polluters out of hard-hit areas? Nope. In the name of battling environmental injustice, the leaders resolved to crack down on illegal dumping of garbage -- much of it perpetrated by residents of the poor neighborhoods being sullied. Litter, in other words, has become the county's big "environmental justice" issue.

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