Now, About That Oil Refinery... 

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

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The definition of environmental justice doesn't exactly leap off the tongue of North Richmond homeowner Lee Jones. "I haven't really thought about it," admits the retired medical equipment technician.

What Jones, who chairs North Richmond's neighborhood beautification committee, does know is that his neighborhood is getting trashed. That much is clear from a guided twenty-minute tour of North Richmond, the poorest part of West County. Vacant lots, abundant between the liquor stores and boarded-up homes, serve as dumping grounds for what Jones calls "the entrepreneurs," some of who use shopping carts as their mobile offices. They roll around the neighborhood knocking on doors, he says, offering to haul unwanted garbage for $5. Jones says he's seen an entrepreneur and his partner balancing a refrigerator on their cart. Of course, the fridge just ends up somewhere else in the neighborhood, never making it to the nearby West County landfill, which charges up to $26 for large appliances.

Driving around in his family van late on a Thursday afternoon, Jones spots some random Hefty bags on the sidewalk. It's not just the entrepreneurs dumping around here. As Jones explains, single-family homes overloaded with several families generate too much garbage to fit the standard 32-gallon cans, so people toss their extra bags onto the vacant lots.

We soon come across a pickup, its bed filled with junk. "See this entrepreneur right here?" Jones asks, pointing at the truck. "He's probably waiting till tonight." Under the cover of night, the dumpers emerge en masse to purge their waste. The ones with trucks, Jones and others say, also offer door-to-door cleanup services, and charge less than what tenants or homeowners would have to pay at the landfill. And you can bet the guy with the truck isn't going to the dump. "They might charge him $80," Jones says. "So rather than pay the $80 he says, 'I'll just dump it off in North Richmond.' And he might be from San Pablo, El Cerrito, anywhere."

Clearly, some of the rogue trashing happens because of the neighborhood's proximity to the landfill. On any given day, residents say, you'll see old couches, washing machines, or refrigerators abandoned by people who didn't want to pay the dumping fee. All bad news, to be sure. But when a community craps on itself, is that environmental injustice?

Jim MacDonald, a Pittsburg resident and former school board member who has participated in some of the county's recent environmental justice workshops, doesn't think so. He jokingly calls his city "Trashburg" since it, too, is home to a dump. As with North Richmond, MacDonald surmises, much of Pittsburg's illegal dumping is done by its own residents. "It's really the least environmental justice issue you could come up with," he says. "The county just wants to be able to say, 'We've had our meetings, we've done everything that needs to be done.'"

Environmental justice, MacDonald argues, is a civil rights issue, one of discrimination. When a community dumps on itself, it's hardly a civil rights issue, he reasons. He acknowledges that a crackdown is necessary -- just don't call it what it ain't.

Gioia, who sits on the county's environmental justice ad hoc committee with fellow supervisor Federal Glover, says there were practical reasons for targeting illegal dumping as the pilot project for the county's EJ program.

For one, his constituents consider it a huge problem. "I thought, after hearing from residents, it is truly an environmental justice issue because the most severe trash-dumping problems are in the lowest income communities and communities of color in Contra Costa," he says.

Besides education and outreach, Harvey's recommendations include mapping problem dumping areas, identifying unlicensed trash haulers, and perhaps offering dumping "vouchers." Also, the district attorney who Gioia says refused to prosecute such cases in the past, recently agreed to prosecute the littermongers -- even if many of them live out of the same shopping carts they use to haul their loads.

According to Harvey, the current project is all about putting a framework in place to solve future problems: "The illegal dumping is really just the test to see if the model can work," she says.

Gioia also promises more from the county's embrace of environmental justice. He hopes to apply the principles when it comes time to revise the general plan, which governs land-use decisions in the ever-sprawling county.

The state, in fact, is encouraging such moves by local government. The governor's Office of Planning and Research recently devised guidelines to help cities and counties incorporate environmental justice into their general plans. Among the issues addressed are "uneven enforcement of environmental rules" and "requiring lower levels of mitigation for projects affecting low-income or minority populations."

Even a refrigerator, however, is likely to biodegrade before you'll find any rich folks living next to an oil refinery.

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