Community Engagement At Center Of New State Law On Air Protection

When it comes to monitoring air quality, we typically turn to air regulators, like the state and the local San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. But a recent state law is taking on a new strategy: Putting air quality in the hands of the community. And one person who’s excited about the opportunity is Southeast Fresno resident Lilia Becerril.

Becerril lives near the Fresno Fairgrounds and Vang Pao Elementary School. She likes it here, and she’s a kind of neighborhood career volunteer, working with local schools, and groups giving legal aid and tutoring services.

And so when she volunteered as a crossing guard a few years ago, it pained her to stop after just three weeks. “My throat was hurting,” she says, from so many cars passing by on a busy street and waiting outside the school. “When the cars were idling they released so much exhaust,” she says.

But it’s likely more than that, too. As we speak, she asks me if I can see a dark smoky cloud hovering a few blocks away. I ask her where it’s coming from. “I don’t know,” she answers, “but there’s smoke coming from everywhere, all the time, and we don’t know how we’re here breathing.”

Just a few blocks from Becerril’s home is heavy industry. Food distributors, warehouses, and lumber yards—many served by 18-wheelers and freight trains. She says her neighborhood feels trapped in the middle. “When the wind blows from different directions, it all comes toward homes,” she says.

She wishes she could know more about her air quality, so she’s gotten involved in improving it. As part of a new state law focusing on community air quality, South Central Fresno was selected as a priority area. And Becerril is on the steering committee, helping guide what happens here. “We want to be heard,” she says, “and we want this to be beneficial for everyone, not just certain communities.”

We know that air quality can vary from place to place, even within the San Joaquin Valley. But with only 38 air monitors among 10,000 square miles, air regulators are likely to miss trends happening on a local scale. For instance: We have an idea how many heavy-duty trucks traverse the state’s highways every month. But where and when do they bypass highways and release their exhaust in neighborhoods?

Enter AB 617. Like Becerril, the author, Los Angeles County Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, also felt her community was being overlooked by regional policies. “We were forgetting communities like mine and communities like mine had been left behind all my life,” she says.

And so the law empowers residents, by selecting 10 focus communities across the state and establishing local steering committees. With it comes with $15 million for local grants to build air monitors and bolster community outreach. The idea is: With more data on local emissions, a galvanized community can hopefully guide air regulators in cleanup efforts.

Dave Warner is a deputy air pollution control officer with the Valley air district. Outside of AB 617, Warner says the district is primarily focused regionally. It also puts together an inventory of polluting industries and vehicles.

“We know what’s coming out of those pieces of equipment, but are there other things that we’re not aware of that we’re not controlling?” he asks. “This will be a fantastic way to find out.”

AB 617 could be a change of pace for an air district that’s been criticized for a lack of transparency. At a kick-off meeting in December, Fresno steering committee members complained the air district doesn’t educate the public enough on air pollution and its health impacts. In a letter, the air district also sent the wrong meeting date to Spanish-speaking residents, though it later corrected the mistake.

South Central Fresno and the Kern County city of Shafter are among the communities selected as the law’s first priority areas. Veronica Eady is assistant executive director of environmental justice at the California Air Resources Board, and she says the state knew it was critical to select regions with disadvantaged communities.

“The most noxious land uses tend to be in disenfranchised, low income communities and communities of color,” she says. Indeed, a high pollution burden does tend to track with other negative measures like poverty, unemployment, asthma and low birth weight.

“AB 617 as a law is basically an evolution of a civil rights moment,” says Ivanka Saunders, a policy coordinator with the non-profit advocacy group the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

The Leadership Counsel and other Valley advocacy groups were awarded nearly $2 million in grants through AB 617. Saunders is also a member of the Fresno steering committee.

Though Saunders is optimistic, she says she’s concerned that AB 617’s Fresno region doesn’t include an area of Southwest Fresno that consistently ranks as the most environmentally burdened in the entire state. It’s Saunders’ hope that the steering committee will vote to expand and include that neighborhood.

Whether or not it does, Lilia Becerril is excited about representing her southeast neighborhood on the committee. “I’m the voice of my community,” she says, “sharing what my community is telling me.” Maybe soon, Becerril can shake the nickname she’s given her neighborhood: The Black Circle.


Community Engagement At Center Of New State Law On Air Protection, by Kerry Klein, Valley Public Radio, January 8, 2019.

Living Among Warehouses, Community Fights to Breathe

When Tommy Rocha bought his dream house in Bloomington, a small unincorporated area in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, he loved the wide open scenery he could see from his backyard. Diesel trucks had invaded his old neighborhood in Rialto as the distribution warehouses that fuel America’s online shopping addiction encroached on the cheap land there. But in Bloomington, drinking coffee outdoors on the mornings he wasn’t working at an aerospace manufacturing warehouse down in Riverside, Rocha could see clear from Mt. Baldy to Big Bear, with snowcapped mountains strung out in between.

“Now I see a mountain on the left, a mountain on the right and two giant warehouses in the middle,” he says. Though the land behind Rocha’s house was zoned residential when he bought it, four years later, warehouses sprung up there too. Now some of his neighbors complain they can’t even watch TV because of the trucks rattling by all hours of the day.

And the residents of this largely working-class, Latino area worry about the effect of that traffic on their health. “They want to know why their kids all have asthma,” says Rocha.

It’s no secret that Southern California has some of the worst air pollution in the United States. About 1,341 people in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale area are estimated to die each year because of pollution levels. The Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metro area, where Rocha lives, ranks second — with 808 estimated air quality-related deaths per year. About 40 percent of all U.S. goods pass through the region.

Next month, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) will vote on a new plan to meet updated federal EPA air quality standards. While air quality has improved drastically in the region since the 1970s despite population growth and the explosion of the goods movement industry, Southern California still fails to meet EPA standards around ground level ozone and particulate matter, standards that have progressively tightened over the years.

SCAQMD’s new plan relies not only on more stringent regulations but also on giving financial incentives to companies to slash their emissions. Philip Fine, deputy executive officer of planning, rule development and area sources at SCAQMD, says incentives will speed up the adoption of newer, cleaner technologies while lowering the risk that companies will file lawsuits against new regulation. Environmental groups, including the local Sierra Club chapter and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), of which Rocha is a part, say the plan is too weak on indirect sources of pollution — like the diesel trucks that serve the warehouses — and prioritizes industry over community health.

“Give them incentives? That’s a slap in our face,” says Rocha.

“Our view is, the polluters should pay up to clean up their own mess,” says Michele Hasson, policy advocate at CCAEJ. With incentives, “you’re essentially getting the people who are suffering and can’t breathe the air to pay the polluters. So we’re paying not only with our lives but with our taxes.”

Exactly how the SCAQMD will raise between $12 billion and $14 billion for financial incentives over the next 15 years is still a matter of debate. That funding would help companies replace their older vehicles and equipment with zero or near-zero emissions technology, and represents a considerable step up from the approximately $100 million to $150 million per year available in incentives today. A draft plan lays out over a dozen possible funding sources, including increasing vehicle registration fees, or gas or property taxes.

“We’re looking everywhere at regulatory measures to reduce emissions,” says Fine. “The problem is even after you institute all these — and it does take time for regulations to get implemented, for technology to catch up when you’re doing a technology-forcing regulation — it’s still not enough.”

He gives the example of a small trucking company that needs to buy a new truck in 2018, five years before the next EPA deadline SCAQMD must meet. That small business owner might buy the cleanest truck available at the time, but it won’t meet a new clean air standard that will go into effect in 2020. Regulation would deem that truck illegal, and require the owner to buy a new one at a loss. Incentives, say Fine, would give the owner a good financial reason to get the newest technology.

Fine says the incentives are intended for smaller companies, not the behemoths like Amazon, Walmart and FedEx. He estimates about half the trucks are owned by these smaller outfits, even when they are serving industry giants. But Hasson and Allen Hernandez, a Sierra Club organizer, say the incentives let polluters off the hook.

“This whole approach to incentives is so far-fetched,” says Hernandez. “We’re literally being invaded here by the largest companies in the world, and you want to give them incentives to clean up.”

They also want to see the SCAQMD take greater action to curb indirect sources of pollution. Where Rocha lives, it’s not factories or oil refineries contributing most to the poor air quality, it’s trucks that serve warehouses that aren’t themselves big polluters. Fine says the SCAQMD can regulate static sources of pollution like factories, with only limited authority over mobile sources like trucks. Most of that authority rests with the state-level California Air Resources Board (CARB), which Fine says is already committing to reductions.

Both Hernandez and Hasson say the SCAQMD could do more. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has adopted an indirect source rule, and Hasson thinks the SCAQMD could lobby CARB to do the same. She says the incentives proposal is tied to the idea that creating more regulations will deter companies from locating to the community, thus depriving the area of jobs.

Dwight Robinson, one of the new Republican members of SCAQMD’s board appointed last spring, said at a meeting last year, “With every rule-making and regulation we need to be looking at the economic impact as well as the environmental impacts.”

Hasson agrees that the SCAQMD must consider economic impacts — to families, not just industry. The warehouses usually hire through temp agencies, shuffling workers around so they’re always part-time and never get benefits. If their children wind up with asthma from living in the midst of the freight traffic, that can cost families an estimated $20,000 a year. “They’re in the negative just to pay their healthcare costs,” says Hasson.

Many of those warehouses are aiming for automation, too. Hasson points to a Skechers warehouse that promised 6,000 jobs and opened with only 2,000, many of which become obsolete due to automation each year.

In a way, Rocha is lucky. He’s got a union job at a plant in Riverside where he’s worked for 39 years. His father retired from the same spot. “You can keep good manufacturing jobs in Southern California,” he says. He’s living proof. But another high-tech warehouse has been proposed that would sit just 70 feet from the wall in his backyard. That’s just 10 feet farther than the distance from home plate to first base at a Little League game.

“They won’t put this in affluent white neighborhoods, they only put them in communities of color,” he says. For now, a petition filed by a lawyer secured with the help of CCAEJ has kept the planning department from moving forward, but Rocha is vigilant and trying to bring more neighbors into the fight. Regulating land use is not within SCAQMD’s authority, but requiring companies to update their fleets faster is.

Fine says SCAQMD is still open to suggestions and potential changes to the plan, which will go to vote on Feb. 3. He and the environmental activists agree on one thing: Air quality has improved dramatically over the past few decades. Hasson and Hernandez say that positive change has happened thanks to regulation and minimal incentives. Fine says regulations have taken the region this far, but that incentives are necessary to keep moving forward.

“We think we can get more emission reductions and improve public health better and earlier by bringing those facilities to the table to see what measures can be taken and try to make them as enforceable as a regulation would be,” he says, “versus coming right out of the gate with a regulation by which the lawsuits will start on day one.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article indicated South Coast Air Quality Management District’s board was majority Republican, but Democratic appointees recently became the majority.

Living Among Warehouses, Community Fights to Breathe, by Jen Kinney, Next City, January 13, 2017.

Governor Signs Climate Bills Forged from Shared Vision in Fresno and California

From a rooftop in downtown Fresno, Governor Brown signed several groundbreaking climate bills on September 14, 2016. The view was meant to inspire a vision for the Valley’s development. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who opened the signing ceremony, called downtown Fresno “ground zero.”

Together on the rooftop were stakeholders in the Valley’s environmental, social, and economic development. These included community-based organizations, elected officials, and government agencies that work together, sometimes as adversaries, to improve the lives of Fresno and San Joaquin Valley residents. Also included was Joaquin Arambula, a newly-elected assembly member who represents Fresno.

Community-based organizations have worked hard to ensure that development in the Valley includes historically neglected communities, as identified by California’s “Enviro Screen” mapping tool. While mostly agency representatives and electeds shared the Mayor’s vision, the advocates in the audience want investments to be made in West Fresno, Southeast Fresno, and over 20 more Valley communities designated as the most disadvantaged in the state.

As bill authors eagerly stood behind the Governor, waiting for him to sign their piece of history, Governor Brown described why these climate change bills were good for the Valley. He warned if we don’t do something about climate change now, the Valley’s hot temperatures will create unlivable conditions. He also remarked on the opportunities to capture methane from dairies, saying, “The dairies…you know what it is, that could all be clean energy.” That statement struck a chord with the advocates who have been working to be included in the discussions on the use of dairy digesters. While the new technology promises to reduce greenhouse gases, the indirect impacts to nearby communities, whether this is the most efficient and inexpensive way to reduce methane, and the degree to which the technology will perpetuate mega dairies in our Valley, are all issues that have not been thoroughly assessed.

Among the bills signed by the Governor was AB 1550 authored by Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) which seeks to resolve a lesson from Cap & Trade auction proceeds. While the current program ensures 25 percent of funds benefit disadvantaged communities, with 10 percent spent directly in those communities, many advocates soon realized in “in benefit” create a loophole that left out communities in need. The new rules require at least 25 percent of funds go to projects within and benefitting disadvantaged communities and at least 10 percent for low-income households.

AB 2722 by Assemblymember Autumn R. Burke (D-Inglewood) provides big-picture strategic investments allowing communities to draw funds from multiple sources under the cap-and-trade program, to provide local benefits through a holistic, rather than piecemeal approach. Funds will be directed to a grant program run by the Strategic Growth Council for greenhouse gas emission reduction projects that provide local economic, environmental and health benefits to disadvantaged communities. The Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ) supported AB 2722 during their annual Clean Air Action Day in Sacramento, where over 30 individuals met with legislators to discuss clean air priorities for the San Joaquin Valley.

Burke’s bill ensured $70 million to come to Fresno alone, half of the funds geared to fund neighborhood-level transformative projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide local economic, environmental, and health benefits in disadvantaged communities. The Strategic Growth Council (SGC) that administers the funds came to Fresno on November 7th to hear from the public on how to administer the $70 million in Fresno. They heard from local elected representatives and countless advocates all pointing to their priorities for the funds before the agency continues administering the program.

Where the funds will be allocated in Fresno is the biggest question the SGC will have to balance. The Mayor’s office is pushing for investments in Downtown and High Speed Rail corridors while advocates again had the opportunity to raise West Fresno, the community that has been left out. Coincidentally, the City created a separate General Plan planning process for the community, the Southwest Specific Plan. With this plan to be approved by City Council next week, the SGC has a blueprint of how to invest funds in the most disadvantaged communities. The community will be waiting to see how they balance the interests and needs of community residents and elected officials.

The Governor also signed AB 1613 and SB 859 which details the $900 million cap-and-trade investment plan.

With the signing of these bills comes opportunities for organizations, agencies and community residents to advocate for the communities most in need in Fresno and across the Valley, even while potentially challenging popular plans such as, the Governor-Fresno Mayor’s office alignment to invest in the Downtown-High Speed Rail areas. While we all share the same goal of reducing the effects of climate change, we will need to work together to ensure the strategies we support, benefit everyone and especially those who are burdening the impacts.

Lancaster Choice Energy Accelerates City’s Quest to Be Solar Capital of the World

Located in the North Los Angeles, Antelope Valley region, Lancaster has suffered from unhealthy levels of smog, ozone (see Air Pollution), and dirty air for years. To address this, Lancaster has initiated various clean energy programs, led by Mayor R. Rex Parris, with a goal to make the city the “solar capital of the world.” The city was first in the nation to require that new houses include solar panels. It installed high-efficiency LED street lights, and it hosts an electric bus manufacturing facility.

The single most powerful action Lancaster has taken to obtain affordable, clean energy is implementing Lancaster Choice Energy, California’s third operational Community Choice Energy (CCE) program. A growing number of local governments across California have established CCE, thereby providing cleaner electricity at lower rates for their communities. Is Community Choice Energy something that Tulare County and its cities should explore, especially in light of recent survey data showing that ratepayers are interested in more local, clean, renewable energy? 

Lancaster Choice Energy (LCE) launched in 2015 and reduced electricity costs for its 51,000 residential and business customers by 3 percent while providing cleaner electricity. When given a choice of LCE or Southern California Edison, 93 percent chose LCE, according to Energy Manager Patricia Garibay.

What is Community Choice Energy?

How CCE WorksCCE is a local, not-for-profit program that buys and may generate electricity for residents and businesses. The program is enabled by California law passed in 2002, allowing local governments (cities and counties) to take local control of millions of dollars of electricity generation revenue. CCEs give consumers choice, open up competition in the energy sector, and offer the potential for lower rates and a boost to the local economy.

When it formed, LCE was unique because it was the first single-jurisdiction program, meaning that Lancaster alone created the Community Choice program. This contrasts with the first two Community Choice programs in California, in Marin and Sonoma, that formed as Joint Powers Authorities (JPAs). With JPAs, multiple jurisdictions come together to start and operate the Community Choice program. Each model offers advantages and disadvantages.

LCE offers customers four energy options ranging from the choice to stay with existing energy providers to a 100% renewable energy option.

Clear Choice [Basic] -Standard “default” program

-35% renewable energy, 3% lower electricity rates

SMART Choice Customers have the option to “opt-up” to 100% renewable energy for a $10 flat rate premium
Personal Choice Customers with their own solar panels benefit from a superior net metering arrangement with LCE that pays for clean power they feed the grid
Opt-out Ability to remain a “bundled” customer of the large incumbent utilities Southern California Edison or Pacific Gas & Electric

Clear Choice offers competitive rates and cleaner energy. LCE and SCE have collaborated to produce joint rate and generation mix comparisons so that customers can have confidence about the claims being made.

Lancaster residents and businesses praise the Community Choice transition. Monica Grado of George’s Cleaners remarks “Not only are we using cleaner energy sources than were available to us before – we’re using resources that are locally controlled.

And with local control comes local benefits. It’s great to know that the money we spend on our energy can now be used to better our community.” Lori Denison, a Lancaster resident, says, “I’m proud to know that I live in a City that cares so deeply about protecting its residents.”

LCE partnered with energy service provider Direct Energy, a leader in the area of renewable energy development. Mayor Parris lauds the company’s “expertise [and], diverse portfolio of energy options, with a priority on renewables, and commitment to customer service.”

LCE has recently been 100% Green e-Energy certified from Green-e, the top independent agency for validating renewable energy generation. In other words, LCE is walking the talk when it comes to their promise on clean energy.  

By partnering with other enterprises like sPower, LCE has encouraged jobs and development of its own solar infrastructure. On August 11, 2016, Lancaster broke ground on a new 10 Megawatt solar generation facility which, upon completion, will provide enough electricity for 1800 homes.

Groundbreaking_group photo

LCE groundbreaking on 10 MW energy facility

LCE won the City of Lancaster a $1.5 million grant for further development of renewable energy infrastructure. Also, LCE is partnering with the Antelope Valley Transit Authority to fully electrify the bus fleet by 2018, thus eliminating carbon emissions from public transit. With funding, sustainable infrastructure, and a wide, diverse base of public support, Lancaster Choice Energy seems perfectly poised to tackle its bold energy goals.

Local actions like Community Choice Energy are part of a worldwide effort that must accelerate as climate-related casualties mount. Tulare County and other regions that are in desperate need of clean, renewable, and sustainable energy would do well to follow Lancaster’s example. LCE is willing to work with cities considering Community Choice Energy by sharing experience, guidance, and information, says Patricia Garibay. Tulare County should take up this offer.

Being a part of Community Choice Energy offers a not-for-profit, locally controlled, innovative platform for advancing energy democracy, allowing our communities to actively participate and explore sustainable options. This is everybody’s planet. If it takes a village to raise a child, it will take much more to heal our climate. With Community Choice Energy we may be closer to realizing that dream. However this all plays out, it’s our move.