Economy vs. environment

Pub date February 23, 2010


By Adam Lesser

GREEN CITY The Port of Oakland has long been a battleground that pits economic development against environmental justice, a dichotomy that has become all the more fraught with emotional baggage during the current recession.

For years, West Oakland residents, environmentalists, and public health officials have demanded that government officials do something about the long lines of old, idling diesel trucks that spew toxic emissions that have sickened the surrounding community (see “The polluting Port,” 3/24/09).

When the state finally mandated expensive retrofits of the oldest trucks at the start of this year, truckers and their allies reacted angrily to what they called a job-killing regulation. But rather than viewing such fights in isolation, a new Bay Area movement is seeking to broaden the debates within what it labels the “toxic triangle” extending from the Port of Oakland to San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point to the city of Richmond.

Citing concern for how to effectively address the cumulative impact of pollution, community groups including the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and Asian Pacific Environmental Network are sponsoring the Toxic Triangle Hearings. The first hearing was held Feb. 13 in Oakland; the next two hearings will take place later this year in the other two triangle points.

At the first hearing, supporters introduced their cumulative impact pledge, a request that agencies ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the California Air Resources Board work together to define emission limits for an entire area and to collectively adopt reduction strategies. The ultimate goal is an environmental justice ordinance that would require any new project to receive an “EJ permit” before a proposed project was allowed to move forward.

The city of Cincinnati approved a similar system last June, but it was put on hold this month due to concerns about the cost of implementing it during these hard economic times. The delay in Cincinnati points to an emerging theme in the narrative from lawmakers and corporations. With high unemployment and huge government budget deficits, can we afford to further regulate pollution?

California Assembly Member Nancy Skinner, who represents Richmond, was on hand at the Toxic Triangle Hearings. Questions arose about the ongoing legal battle between community groups and Chevron, which wants to expand its Richmond refinery. The refinery is the largest in Northern California, with a capacity of 240,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

The retrofit is on hold after a court rejected the project’s EIR, asking Chevron to clarify whether the expanded refinery would process heavy crude oil, which generates more pollution. A Jan. 19 editorial in the Contra Costa Times made the pro-business argument, claiming that Chevron “is poised to shut down its Richmond refinery operations” and laying blame on environmentalists.

“All we know is that the Chevron people have talked of change — there’s been a shift,” Skinner said. “They’re looking at all their North American operations. That doesn’t mean we just roll over. But it means that we have to be aware of that when we sit at the table.”

But environmentalists question whether closing the Richmond refinery is a realistic threat from Chevron, or merely a negotiating tactic. “There is no credible scenario in which this refinery will close anytime soon for business reasons,” said Greg Karras, a senior scientist for Communities for a Better Environment. “The issue is whether Chevron can move to heavier oil and whether they have to disclose that. It has nothing to do with jobs.”

The Toxic Triangle Hearings highlight this perceived conflict between the economy and the environment. But Karras called the dichotomy a “false choice,” arguing that the greatest potential for job growth lies in innovation and green jobs, not a refinery expansion.

APEN’s State Organizing Director Mari Rose Taruc agreed: “We want people to have jobs and make it out of the recession. But we’re not going to trade our health and the ailing conditions of our community for something worse.”

Taruc sounded frustrated, similar to the tone Karras expressed when faced with the question of the economic impact of environmental regulation. For now, she said the rationale for delay is the recession, but “when the economy is good, there would be another excuse.”