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

April 5, 2011 |  2:53 pm

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


CEQA: That '70s law

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