Problems, promise, progress, and perils: critical reflections on environmental justice policy implementation in California.

Author:London, Jonathan K.
  1. INTRODUCTION II. ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT IN CALIFORNIA: PROBLEMS AND PUBLIC POLICY A. Defining the Problem B. State Legislation and Regulatory Agencies III. FROM PROMISE TO PROGRESS A. Developing the Cal/EPA Environmental Justice Action Plan B. Implementing the Action Plan: Pilot Projects and Small Grants IV. THE PERILS OF INCORPORATION A. The Politics of Environmental Justice-As-Participation: Where is the Justice in Advice? B. Environmental Justice at the Department of Pesticide Regulation 1. "Public" Participation at DPR: The Environmental Justice Advisory Workgroup 2. DPR's Pilot Project: "I keep coming back to Parlier" 3. Litigation and Legislation: Environmental Justice and Pesticides a. Citizen Suits: El Comite v. Helliker et al b. SB-391: Activism Drifting In and Out of the Legal Focus V. CONCLUSION I.


Over the past two decades, the environmental justice movement has made numerous inroads in defining a number of problems as environmental racism and environmental inequalities. Entire areas of academic research and public policies have emerged to address these sets of social movement concerns. (1) Despite considerable research on environmental justice as a social movement, several important gaps still exist. This article seeks to address those gaps, particularly by elucidating the dynamic relationships between social movement actors and state agencies.

California has undertaken, in many ways, the most aggressive and robust "high stakes experiment" in passing environmental justice legislation and in institutionalizing environmental justice policy. (2) This article provides a critical assessment of environmental justice policy implementation in California since 2004. We chose 2004 as our start date because that is when the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) developed the landmark Environmental Justice Action Plan, enabling the following period to serve as a kind of large-scale laboratory in environmental justice policy implementation.

There is a substantial gap in the literature on California, although the state has experienced important experiments with environmental justice policy implementation and activism. (3) This article seeks to remedy the surprising dearth of research on California environmental justice movements. (4) It also addresses the curious gap in the environmental justice literature that has under-analyzed the policy-making implications of environmental justice activism. Specifically, a large portion of the academic research has either focused on social movements, or the application of environmental justice analytic frameworks to different issues (including transportation, air quality, land use and public health). (5) While studies generally cite, for instance, President Clinton's Executive Order 12898 (6), there is less understanding about the ways in which state agencies have regulated and enforced environmental justice. Likewise, many policy analyses, by focusing exclusively on public actors, neglect the interrelationships within the social movement/law/policy-making apparatus that influences the form and outcomes of environmental justice policy. Such an interactive analysis is needed to truly understand and explain the patterns of policy success and failure.

We intend our analysis of the successes and failures of California's ongoing experiment with environmental justice policy to inform scholars, the public, legislators and those staff working within state agencies who are grappling with whether these experiments have succeeded, the reasons why or why not, and how to improve their own operations. Our findings are that environmental justice policy in California is implemented primarily as a function of improving participation. This is important in that it responds, at least in part, to the demands by the environmental justice movement for procedural justice--self representation and participation to speak for themselves in crucial environmental decision making processes that impact them where they live, work, play, and learn. (7)

However, we find both that state agencies have had uneven success in implementing this narrow view of environmental justice-as-participation and thatenvironmental justice activists remain unsatisfied, demanding more aggressive action in actually reducing health disparities associated with pollution exposure (e.g., increased environmental monitoring and regulatory enforcement.). While self-representation and participation is a valuable goal, it does not address two other key elements of framing and implementing environmental justice in state policy: distribution and recognition. Participation alone does not make structural changes in social, economic and political systems that effect distribution of environmental inequalities by race, class, gender, location and other factors. Even when agencies do address distribution it is most often through a reformist approach that ignores "the social, cultural and symbolic, and institutional conditions underlying poor distributions in the first place." (8) Furthermore, because the agencies' models of public participation do not fully recognize the legitimacy and value of the cultures of the "publics" they hope to engage, participation often results in further alienation, marginalization, and antagonism of the these environmental justice populations. In this way, we concur with Schlossberg that "recognition" of diverse cultural identities is a precondition for entry into the distributional system and ought to be considered a third definition of justice in environmental justice. (9)

The body of the article will explore the notable but uneven success of implementing environmental justice policies in California. Following this introduction, Part II provides a brief overview of the environmental justice movement in California, presenting the key analytic framework being discussed: the relationship between social movements, the law, and public policy implementation. We discuss how social movements define the problem of environmental injustice, and how legislation has developed to address these problems. In Part III, we further illuminate the progress made as well as the tensions experienced by public agencies as they struggle to deal with these legislative mandates and other external pressures. Therefore, we focus on the history of the processes of environmental justice policy incorporation at the Cal/EPA, including the development and implementation of the Cal/EPA "Environmental Justice Action Plan."

Part IV focuses on the politics of environmental justice-as-participation demonstrated by a case study at a particular state agency: the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). We select DPR because its efforts to implement environmental justice policy offer a unique opportunity to review the full spectrum of state agency activities. We review the interactions between four elements of DPR's engagement with environmental justice groups and their concerns. Two of the elements are primarily proactive in nature, including DPR's environmental justice pilot project in the town of Parlier and the work of the DPR Environmental Justice Advisory Working Group. The other two are largely reactive and include responses to a Senate bill legislating liability for pesticide drift incidents and responses to a lawsuit compelling the agency to develop tighter restrictions on ozone-forming pesticides. The contrast between proactive behaviors based on the agency's internal goals and reactive behaviors that respond to external forces provides a useful framework to understand the push and pull of regulatory agency-social movement relationships.

Moreover, the DPR example highlights the continuing perils and challenges that public agencies face in addressing and regulating environmental justice concerns. Taken collectively, our review provides a dynamic exploration of the complex agencysocial movement relationships that shape environmental justice policy formation and implementation process at the state level in California.



  1. Defining the Problem

    The U.S.-based environmental justice movement emerged in the 1980's as a result of a confluence of events and reports (10) about the inequitable burden of toxic facilities and pollution on low-income communities and communities of color that brought the terms "environmental racism" and "environmental justice" into the public sphere and policy discourse. (11) In response to pressure from social movements--and informed by academic research--government agencies also incorporated environmental justice as a basis for public policy in the federal, state, regional, and even local levels. The highest profile policy that initiated further public sector efforts was President Clinton's 1994 Executive Order 12898, which directed federal agencies to avoid causing "disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations." (12)

    California has been a major leader in the national environmental justice movement through its potent environmental justice activism, its far-reaching environmental justice legislation, and its early implementation of environmental justice policies throughout its state agencies. Such state and social movement actions have arisen in response to the widespread and significant environmental justice problems that plague the state. In 2003, five environmental justice groups documented these problems in a report entitled, "Building Healthy Communities from the Ground Up: Environmental Justice in California." Each of the organizations--Asian Pacific Environmental Network (Oakland), Environmental Health Coalition (San Diego), Communities for a Better Environment (multiple sites), Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and People Organizing to Defend Environmental...

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