Toxic Hotspot Neighborhoods Prepare to Clean Up and Green Up: Mayor Garcetti Signs Environmental Justice Bill Nearly 10 Years in the Making

by Crystal Shaw on May 02, 2016

The sun was shining, birds were chirping and flowers were blooming as environmental activists gathered on Earth Day at Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights to celebrate Mayor Garcetti’s signing of a groundbreaking environmental justice policy known as Clean Up Green Up.  Beginning with the pilot neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Pacoima and Wilmington, Clean Up Green Up establishes green zones in toxic hotspot communities overburdened by pollution, implementing solutions to reduce air pollution while helping businesses adopt greener practices.  It was a big day for Liberty Hill and Clean Up Green Up Coalition partners, Communities for a Better Environment, Pacoima Beautiful, Union de Vecinos and Coalition for a Safe Environment, who began planting seeds for the policy almost ten years ago. 

Speakers at the event included Mayor Garcetti, along with City Council members Nury Martinez, Jose Huizar and Joe Buscaino, who represent Pacoima, Boyle Heights and Wilmington, respectively.  “For too long, people in communities at high risk for pollution had too few protections and too little say at the table,” said Garcetti, “The law that I am signing today, the result of nearly a decade of work by some incredible leaders and an amazing coalition will begin to remedy that.”   The mayor also gave a shout out to Liberty Hill, praising the organization’s ability to “stitch together” communities across a wide and diverse city through innovative policies like Clean Up Green Up.   

Why is Clean Up Green Up so groundbreaking?  First, the policy looks at environmental health risks in clusters, unlike other regulations which focus on one toxic source at a time.  For environmental justice communities such as Boyle Heights, Pacoima and Wilmington—low income communities of color in close proximity to a range of industrial polluters—targeting one factory or freeway isn’t enough, and the consequences of inaction are dire.  Assistant secretary for environmental justice at the California Environmental Protection Agency, Arsenio Mataka, was present at the signing and stressed how residents of toxic areas are exposed to cumulative risk over time, resulting in reduced life expectancies.  “I would like to see in 15 years that the life expectancy in Boyle Heights is on par with the life expectancy in Beverly Hills.  It’s going to take initiatives like [Clean Up Green Up] and many more initiatives to make that a reality,” he said.

In addition to targeting pollution directly in environmental justice communities, Clean Up Green Up includes farther reaching city-wide components.  The policy will require new buildings located close to freeways to install air filtration systems, and also demand conditional use permits and health impact assessments from oil refineries looking to expand.  According to Darryl Molina Sarmiento, who is Southern California program director at Communities for a Better Environment, these oil regulations have “never been required before.”

The other side of Clean Up Green Up involves working with businesses to boost local economies while helping employers cut back on environmental impact.  As Councilmember Jose Huizar recounted in his speech, activists and business owners haven’t always seen eye to eye on the issue.  He applauded the Clean Up Green Up coalition for educating the public on the policy’s economic benefits, which include connecting businesses with incentives for environmentally friendly practices.  Leonardo Vilchis of Union de Vecinos broke down how Clean Up Green Up’s economic focus is a win-win, explaining, “We’ve been very concerned with gentrification and how some policies push local businesses and local workers out of the community, but through Clean Up Green Up we’re actually supporting local businesses so they can modernize themselves, and at the same time we protect the community from polluting industries.”

According to local leaders and residents celebrating Clean Up Green Up, the victory would not have been possible without the power of community organizing.  “It started with our community members taking air quality samples and just realizing the issues and why we needed this policy. It’s a true grassroots effort,” said Veronica Padilla, executive director of Pacoima Beautiful.  Vilchis also touched on early organizing efforts, recalling members of Union de Vecinos going to door to door gathering data on environmental issues in Boyle Heights. 

While community organizing put the initiative in motion for Pacoima, Boyle Heights and Wilmington, environmental advocates are eager for the idea to catch on. “Clean Up Green Up is so 

great as a model for the rest of the city to grow from,” said L.A. City Planning Commission vice present, Renee Dake Wilson, adding, “I look forward to when these test communities can spread throughout the rest of the city.”  But it was a comment from Vilchis that best summed up the event.  “Today is a fantastic day for all of us, our residents are very happy.  Now we’re going to start looking at the implementation and the enforcement,” he said, acknowledging the hard work ahead.

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