Environmental Injustice in South Vallejo
We find it necessary to question the judgment shown by the recent Council decision to commission a new Environmental Justice Analysis for the proposed VMT/Orcem project. Aside from the optics of using a consulting firm with ties to the cement industry and no apparent experience or expertise in conducting an EJ assessment, it makes little sense to try and answer the State critique with another document. Facts are stubborn things, and as the State Attorney General points out, in this case they are obvious and well-established.
Hopes that a new document will somehow ‘break a tie’ and show the project in a more favorable light are frankly pretty silly. The only way to realize that kind of outcome is to try and re-arrange the facts to artificially restrict the total population under examination to a relatively small homogeneous group while simultaneously attempting to minimize local impacts and ignore existing conditions. That transparent strategy did not fool either local residents or the State Attorney General’s Office the first time around, and it won’t work any better in a new version.
The futility of the exercise becomes apparent if we take a step back and look at what an environmental justice analysis is supposed to examine. The Environmental Protection Agency points to the current and historical disparities: “ Communities of color and low income and tribal communities have historically been home to many toxic and polluting facilities and land uses. These communities bear a disproportionate impact from environmental hazards." According to the EPA, environmental justice policy considers: “Distributional Equity - programs and policies result in fair distribution of benefits and burdens across all segments of a community, prioritizing those with the highest need.”
When we begin to assess whether the distribution of benefits and burdens from the proposed project among community segments would be fair, we first need to define the community as a whole under consideration. That becomes straightforward when we examine the distribution of project benefits as described in the economic impact report commissioned by the applicants. The city of Vallejo would receive only 29% of the taxes and fees while the bulk of those benefits would go to Solano county. The county is therefore the obvious and proper community level population to evaluate in a comparison to determine if the distribution of burdens and benefits among segments of the community would be fair, and where the need to prioritize environmental concerns is highest.
We don’t really need expensive consultants to tell us what we already know about local demographics, existing environmental conditions, and the health status of residents in south Vallejo. It’s no secret that members of the south Vallejo segment of the community are significantly more likely to belong to an ethnic minority and/or have a lower income than the average resident of the county as a whole. Since all City residents would suffer impacts from things like freight trains running across town and paying to repair road damage from heavy vehicle traffic, we might instead choose all of Vallejo as the community segment for comparison with the county - the result of comparing the impacted segment with the whole community remains the same. The Vallejo segment of the county population in general fits the description of communities where polluting heavy industry has historically congregated, and no rewrite of an EJA will change that fact.
With that recognized disparity as a given, all that’s left to those with an interest in promoting the project is an attempt to minimize the local impacts while ignoring the existing unequal environmental burden and resultant compromised health of local residents. The first EJA author offered up a weak effort to use the absence of local regulations in favor of a regional approach by the air district to imply that the pollution burden is somehow shared regionally on an equal basis. That suggestion flies in face of common sense. It’s pretty obvious that residents living in the shadow of a giant emissions stack with hundreds of heavy diesel trucks rolling through their neighborhoods 24/7 would not be sharing the burdens of the project equally with the residents in north Solano county who would receive economic benefits.
When it comes to the EPA’s expressed concern with prioritizing segments of the community with the highest need, we also have an abundance of data documenting the existing health conditions of the local residents. As the State Attorney General reiterates, this is a segment of the community in need of help, not additional environmental burdens. The statistics documenting extraordinarily high rates of pollution-related pulmonary and cardiac disease in south Vallejo are startling, and any thought of adding a single new polluting industry to the mix should not merit serious consideration.
If a majority of the Council remains determined to approve the project it will have to do so with the open acknowledgment that the project represents the continuation of a longstanding pattern of environmental injustice - a pattern that the impetus behind current Federal and State public policy is actively looking to break. The Council will have to rely entirely on the dubious assertion that the purported economic benefits would somehow be enough to justify an unequal distribution of burdens and benefits, and further damage to the health and quality of life for the residents of south Vallejo neighborhoods. The unsupported assertion that this project would lead to more employment opportunities for local residents ignores that approval of such a project would drive down local property values and establish a pattern of similar industrial development as the only kind of businesses willing to locate next to a noisy polluting industrial site.
South Vallejo needs an entirely different type of development, one that creates employment and revenue without the industrial scale pollution impacts. For an example we need look no further than the project proposed by the previous owners of the site that fell victim to the financial crisis. That proposal would fit well with the results of the general plan update process - including a waterfront park, 370 residential units and commercial office and retail. Tying up this valuable property - the waterfront gateway to Vallejo and the Napa River - with an ill-conceived and badly managed proposal to establish a polluting industrial eyesore entails an unacceptable opportunity cost to the City and its people. Local residents expect and deserve better judgment from our elected representatives than has been shown in regard to this application.