As California struggles through the recession, it is tempting to cast aside our historic concerns for quality of life.
Developers and their allies in government, feeling that their hour has come round, cry falsely that environmental protection is a luxury that must give way to the pursuit of jobs.
A current example is an effort in Sacramento to amend the California Environmental Quality Act. This law, in existence since the early 1970s, has stood the state in good stead by requiring public input to land-use decisions through environmental impact reports and public hearings on projects with significant impacts. The procedures mandated by the act often result in considerable improvement to projects.
Several bills are in the Legislature that would weaken the act. Senate Bill 919, which has passed the Senate and is in the Assembly, is probably the worst. Some of its most objectionable parts have been removed for now, but an effort to restore them may occur, and the fact that the original bill passed one house shows the temptation to legislate in a panic.
The bill first implied that California's recent loss of jobs is due to the environmental act. This argument, central to efforts to weaken the law, is simply not true. If it were, we would have lost these jobs years ago when the law was enacted.
The true culprits are the recession, the decline in aerospace jobs and the cost to small businesses of workers' compensation insurance. Apparently the Assembly Natural Resources Committee agreed, since this is one of the sections it eliminated.
The original bill would have eliminated public review of individual projects such as commercial and industrial developments if they were expanded from existing projects incrementally.
Thus Sunshine Canyon landfill expansion, Puente Hills landfill expansion and the recent Mobil pipeline project might not have required preparation of an EIR if the expansion were kept to 20% or less of the original project.
Of course Californians want jobs, but not if they bring unbreathable air, polluted water and ill-conceived development.
Public review does take a little longer. But isn't that well worth it if water or air pollution can be reduced? Or if an unforeseen hazard can be prevented?
Take a moment to read the comments in any recent environmental impact report. Some of the responses merely register the public's dislike of the project. But many are made by professionals in chemistry, engineering, hydrology and economics--all done at no charge to the state or the projects' proponents.
Another suggestion abroad to "improve" the state law is to eliminate an EIR where a general plan, areawide plan or program EIR has been prepared. That would deprive the public of the right to comment on individual projects such as the Westridge housing project in the Santa Clarita Valley (stopped by a recent court decision for its inadequacies in the area of schools and air pollution), or the Mission/Rustic/Sullivan Landfill in the Santa Monica Mountains.
It is not possible to know the environmental impacts of a specific project until there are a tract map, grading diagrams, unit numbers for water usage and so on. Thus it is not possible to comment on the impact of individual projects in an areawide or program EIR but only on cumulative effects of all projects. That is the purpose of having both the program EIR and the individual project EIR. Neither should be eliminated.
S. B. 919's sponsors want to eliminate the "fair argument" standard created by judicial interpretation of the Environmental Quality Act. This standard allows an ordinary citizen to compel an environmental impact report by raising a reasonable objection to a project. Eliminating it would mean that only the testimony of "experts," individuals with doctorates in their fields, would carry any weight.
Do we really want to rely solely on credentialed experts? Many well-informed "amateurs" have deep knowledge of particular areas and subjects. A longtime resident of a particular area may know its wildlife patterns, wind patterns and stream fluctuations, of which the designated experts might be unaware.
The very purpose of the Environmental Quality Act is to force consideration of environmental degradation, not just short-term profit. Good economics recognizes that short-term gains can be costly in the long run.
Paving a river to allow for extra development, for example, might produce short-term job gains that are small when compared with the cost of non-replenishment of our water supply.
There may be ways to streamline the process, as by consolidating the review of various permits required for a project. And by all means let us pursue jobs.
But this law needs to be stronger, not weaker. It currently allows approval of a project due to "overriding" considerations. This was used to justify the Westridge project by Los Angeles County supervisors, who deemed the need for a golf course an overriding consideration despite the project's horrendous effect on school overcrowding.
Whatever we do, let's not trample the environmental protections that have served us well for so long.