Environmental Justice Analysis Misses the Mark
In response to public comments on the draft Environmental Impact Report for the Orcem/VMT project, the consultants have produced an Environmental Justice analysis that predictably fails to address the concerns expressed by the public. An evaluation of the environmental impacts of a project under the California Environmental Quality Act can consider whether the negative effects will fall disproportionately on low income or minority communities. Environmental Justice is defined in terms of fair treatment of all people and looks to counter the uneven distribution of impacts that result from the pattern of heavy polluting industry locating near these neighborhoods.
To determine whether low income or minority communities would bear an unfair share of the environmental impacts of the Orcem/VMT project, an impartial analysis would examine how the costs and benefits affect different population groups to see if the distribution is uneven and corresponds to significant differences in minority representation or income level. Unfortunately what we have here is not an impartial analysis, and that is not what the consultants looked at. Instead they rigorously restrict the scope of their analysis, both in terms of population and the impacts they choose to examine. If you make the total population being considered small enough, those significant differences disappear because you are then essentially talking about the same people. That’s the route they chose to take.
The consultants start by assuming that the environmental impacts are confined to a small number of neighborhoods near the Sperry Mills site and along the rail line that would be put back in service. They arbitrarily decide to focus on nitrogen dioxide emissions instead of the huge volume of total nitrogen oxide emissions that become lung and plant damaging ground level ozone when released. Ozone pollution won’t cooperate by staying inside the consultant’s tiny impact study area, and the traffic tie-ups and emergency vehicle delays across town will affect more than just the people living in the narrow rail corridor considered in their report as the impact zone. The impacted zone would effectively include all of Vallejo.
The EJ analysis instead limits discussion to comparing neighborhoods included in their narrowly defined impact zones with the rest of Vallejo. As you would expect, it finds no significant difference, since most of Vallejo falls into the low income and mostly minority categories. Their analysis ignores the actual cost/benefit distribution that would flow from a project in which the lion’s share of the benefit is felt outside Vallejo city limits. A true Environmental Justice analysis would ask whether there is a significant difference in makeup or income levels between the population of Vallejo, which bears virtually all of the unavoidable environmental impacts, and the population of the rest of Solano County, which gets most of the benefit in the form of more than two thirds of the revenue.
The Fiscal and Economic Impact study prepared by paid consultants for Orcem and VMT states flatly on page 5: “The City of Vallejo is expected to receive approximately 29% of the taxes and fees paid in the 2015 to 2021 period.” Less than a third. It goes on to project that property taxes during that period would total $3.26 million which will benefit cities, schools, and libraries - in Solano County. Under the current tax regulation, Vallejo will only get 5.3% of that money. So what is the demographic makeup of these Solano cities and schools that get most of the benefit from the project without having to live with the pollution and traffic?
Is Vallejo with its relatively low income, predominantly minority population being used unfairly by a more affluent and less diverse County population to absorb the brunt of industrial environmental impacts? A purported Environmental Justice analysis that stops at the City limits can’t answer that question. The consultants could have saved themselves the trouble, because comparing Vallejo with itself is an empty exercise. We already knew that Vallejo is a majority minority city with many low income residents. Thanks for pointing that out.
The census data they cite in Table 1 of the EJ report shows that the difference in minority composition and income levels between Vallejo residents and the rest of the County is significant. Probably why they chose to ignore it. A proper comparison would require subtracting Vallejo’s numbers from the rest of the County and comparing those two groups. That would reveal even more significant differences, since Vallejo is affecting the County census totals. If the analysis demonstrated that lower income and higher minority Vallejo communities would bear the environmental cost to the benefit of more affluent and less diverse County communities, they would need to consider ways to mitigate the unfair distribution of environmental impacts. Of course, they don't want to do that.
Once you understand the revenue distributions, it’s easy to see why all those County level players showed such enthusiasm for VMT/Orcem and Jess Malgapo’s secret ad hoc committee with their plans to dredge the Strait to encourage more heavy industry to move in. That’s the retrograde vision shared by a narrow majority of our current elected officials and some of our local self-styled king and queen makers. It’s a vision that looks backward, and unfairly places the burden of environmental and health impacts resulting from economic activity onto already struggling low income, predominately minority communities. We can do so much better.