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Blowback: Protecting public health and the right to know isn't a '70s fad

David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Warner Chabot, chief executive of the California League of Conservation Voters, respond to a March 30 Times Op-Ed article on the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA: That '70s law"). If you would like to share your thoughts on a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.  

Bill Allen and Maura O'Connor, the top two officials at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., say they offer "careful surgery" ideas for revising the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. But they're not fooling anyone. Their surgical prescription would kill the patient.

The heart of this common-sense state law is the public's right to understand the environmental consequences of major development proposals and to have citizens' comments taken seriously. CEQA is a critical tool to making a project better. Just about all major projects that go through the review process get built and flourish -- Staples Center and Los Angeles CityWalk, just to name two examples.

Here in Southern California, we have seen big public projects substantially improved as a result of CEQA. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach now take great pride in the many environmental safeguards that came about because the Natural Resources Defense Council and local groups used their citizen rights under CEQA to help improve the projects.

CEQA gives Californians the ability to make our state a better place. Some examples: stopping oil near Santa Monica Bay, protecting the Santa Monica Mountains, protecting Mono Lake, creating the Los Angeles State Historic Park near Chinatown, stopping the construction of a toxic waste incinerator in Vernon, and getting Metro's Green Line included in the I-105 freeway project. On the other side, industries have used CEQA to challenge state regulations they don't like, including California's low-carbon fuel standard and our marine-life protected areas laws.

Nearly every law carries with it the possibility of meritless litigation, but that doesn't mean they should be significantly weakened as a result. Should civil rights laws be abolished because what some would describe as frivolous lawsuits are filed? Of course not.

One reason often given for the "reform" (read: killing) of CEQA is that doing so would create jobs. Yes, the state's high unemployment rate is devastating and unacceptable. We are all working hard to stimulate creation of good jobs in California. But far from impeding job growth, CEQA actually has a long track record of creating jobs.

Every time developers are required to take additional measures to protect public health and the environment, jobs are created to do that work. The installation of clean water treatment creates jobs, as does installing the technologies needed to conform to air pollution control measures. Improving public transit creates more jobs than building freeways. For every "horror" story claiming that a project has been stopped altogether because of environmental review, there are many more where projects have been improved and jobs have been created because of CEQA.

Just as importantly, CEQA requires projects to disclose their impacts on public health and the environment. This is the transparency that big industry resents. If CEQA did not exist or if it could not be enforced, we would not be informed of toxic hazards that threaten our children's health or the air we breathe. Former state Sen. Byron Sher called CEQA the Bill of Rights for an environmental democracy.  Above all, CEQA protects the public's right to know what's happening in our own communities.

CEQA gives Californians a direct voice -- a voice that can be heard above the corporate noise that otherwise drowns out the rest of us. The public's right to know what's going on is not, as Allen and O'Connor say, a '70s fad. It's a sensible safeguard that goes to the core of the way Californians treat each other. Let's not allow big developers' impatience and outright greed take it away from us.

-- David Pettit and Warner Chabot

RELATED:

CEQA: That '70s law

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Comments () | Archives (2)

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Scott

I cannot believe that there those who are opposed to CEQA. The region is in danger of becoming over-developed and having the right to know about new project's affect on the environment is of utmost importance.

Alberhill Ranch HomeOwner

Tenacious pair press developer Friday, April 15th, 2011

Issue 15, Volume 15.
Michelle Mears-Gerst
Special to the Valley News

After years of complaining and conducting their own investigations, two Lake Elsinore women are sidestepping the city and pressing for state oversight of a controversial gravel mine near their homes.
The scrutiny may lead to possible fines and the state taking over Lake Elsinore’s role as lead agency for the mining operation that flanks the Alberhill Ranch Community at the north end of Lake Elsinore. A May 12 hearing has been set in Lake Elsinore, and a move to shift oversight of the mining operations could put the city at odds with state officials.
"Our goal is to remain (the) lead agency and retain local control," City Manager Robert Brady said. "The city will be in attendance to answer questions."
Paulie Tehrani and Sharon Gallina initially preferred making cupcakes and cookies for their neighbors and family after they moved into the Alberhill Ranch Community. But before long, they began delving into the history of their tree-lined neighborhood nestled in the quiet hills above the lake.
About two years ago, the newcomers realized that their dreamy-by-day neighborhood took on a jarring tone at night. They said that neither the city, nor the subdivision developer nor their homeowners’ association took their complaints seriously.
"Every night this mining company started grinding rock, and it’s loud, very loud, keeping us up," Tehrani said in an interview.
"This mining company was not listed in our CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions) or any of our housing disclosures," Gallina added.
Some residents question whether dust from the mine might be a health risk, and they say they might not have moved into the area if they had known more at the time.
"We are told there is no danger to our health, but on the fences at the mining company there is a sign warning people to wear masks," Gallina said.
A representative of Castle and Cook, the land development and mining company, said on Tuesday that there would be no comment on the residents’ complaints or the pending state hearing.
Castle and Cook, the developers of Alberhill Hill Ranch, Pacific Clay, and Pacific Aggregate are all owned by 87-year-old David Murdock. Murdock has ties to the Dole Food Co. and owns much of the Hawaiian island, Lanai. Forbes magazine has pegged Murdock’s worth at about $3 billion.
Ken Seumalo, Lake Elsinore’s public works director and engineer, said the city has not uncovered any violations by Castle and Cook or its mining operations.
"We investigate each complaint," he said. "We performed an air quality check. It came back negative, and we are currently conducting a noise study with an outside company."
Residents said the noise measurements that they have taken on their own would contradict any low readings reported by the city’s consultant.
Seumalo said the city understands there may be some confusion at Castle and Cooke over the boundaries of its clay and aggregate mining operations. But he questioned why state officials would opt to become the lead agency over the project.
The Alberhill area can trace much of its history to the mining industry.
Pacific Clay, which began operating in the 1970s, has not drawn criticism from area residents. Residents said they were made aware of the clay mining, which is two miles away from their homes, when they moved to the area. They take issue with the nearby aggregate mining operations.
The Pacific Aggregate company began operating in 2009. It mines gravel and other ready mix materials. That operation is located on the same property as Pacific Clay, but it spills into the Alberhill Ranch community.
In November 2009, frustrations over city inaction prompted Tehrani and Gallina to contact the California Department of Conservation. They questioned whether the city was adequately enforcing the state Surface Mining and Reclamation Act.
A state spokesman examined many of the mine issues in an April 4 email to a reporter. In the communication, Don Drysdale said much of the debate centers on steps taken since Riverside County approved plans in 1978 that call for operators to replant and claim areas where mining has taken place.
"The four new reclamation plans for the operations were approved by local government without amending the original 1978 plan, resulting in a significant area of the original reclamation plan covered by multiple reclamation plans," Drysdale said in his analysis.
Violations have occurred, he said, because mining is taking place outside the boundaries described in existing reclamation plans. Those operations have encroached on neighboring areas not covered by approved reclamation plans, he said.
Drysdale went on to say that three surface mines, which were allowed under separate reclamation plans, are being conducted as one operation. Because state law requires each mining operation to have its own reclamation plan, the separate plans need to be reconciled, he said.
In addition, some mining operations and restoration efforts have not followed a pair of existing reclamation plans, he said.
The notices of violations were sent to the mine operators on Feb. 17, Drysdale said.
Meanwhile, a city hearing set to consider four reclamation plan boundary amendments was postponed earlier this month. That was done, Drysdale said, because the city failed to give the state enough time to review and comment on the proposed changes.
But rather than focus on the identified violations, a May 12 meeting of the state Mining Board will center on whether the city has fulfilled its oversight duty.
"This process is not about the operators, but about the city as a lead agency," he said.
The panel will meet at 9:30 a.m. May 12 at the Lake Elsinore Cultural Arts Center, 183 North Main St. Audience members will be able to speak at the meeting.
For their part, Tehrani and Gallina say they will continue to press for compliance and changes at the mine. They say they have also talked to representatives of Gov. Jerry Brown and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"We won’t quit until the mining operation is shut down," Tehrani said.

If you want to comment on this story, go to Valley News Website:
http://www.myvalleynews.com/story/55640/


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