Imagine that your preschool-aged child goes to school every day only 30 feet away from a waste trash dump that continuously cycles through rotting garbage carrying a stomach-turning stench. Now, imagine that your child in elementary school runs daily on a playground that sits directly next to idling diesel trucks that emit harmful tailpipe pollution and carry massive amounts of this putrid trash that has been collected from all parts of the city.
For many Oak View neighborhood residents with children, this scenario is reality. And, that reality is called environmental injustice— where low-income people and residents in community of color bear a disproportionate burden of a region’s environmental pollution. From the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, to BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil spill across the Gulf Coast, low-income, communities of color all over the country suffer from higher levels of exposure to pollution. They are also the most likely to bear the environmental brunt of our waste production. Orange County is no exception to the rule.
Members of Huntington Beach’s Latino and largely low-income Oak View community live, breathe, work, and play right next to Rainbow Environmental Services’ 17.6-acre waste station, which has expanded steadily over the years. The facility is also directly across the street from the Oak View Preschool and Elementary School on Nichols Lane, a deliberate choice by the City of Huntington Beach through its zoning decisions and its exclusive franchise agreement with Rainbow. Although the franchise agreement claims to have a term of 15 years, a key provision of the agreement empowers the City’s Director of Public Works to extend that 15-year term annually, into perpetuity.
The non-competitive nature of the City’s franchise agreement reveals the City’s unwavering commitment to Rainbow, despite Rainbow’s abysmal environmental record. For years, Oak View’s residents, as well as the Ocean View School District, have been raising well-founded concerns about odors and air quality impacts associated with Rainbow’s noncompliance with environmental laws. After years of community complaints, the South Coast Air Quality Management District finally issued an abatement order in 2015 that required Rainbow to pay $130,000 in environmental penalties and make improvements to address 13 notices of air quality violations dating back as far as 2013.
Mere months after the Air District’s abatement order, in March 2016, Oak View residents and Ocean View School District officials faced another threat when the Huntington Beach City Council passed an ordinance designating Rainbow as the sole waste hauler for all of the City’s decaying and bacteria-laden organic waste. ComUNIDAD— a grassroots environmental justice group based in Oak View—along with high-ranking School District officials, objected to the ordinance, citing the public health risks of transporting more rotting waste to Rainbow’s Oak View facility and the fact that the presence of odorous organic waste at Rainbow would violate express terms of the Air District’s 2015 abatement order. Ignoring these verbal and written objections, the City pressed forward and passed the dangerous ordinance.
Reacting to the threat to Oak View’s schoolchildren and residents, ComUNIDAD took matters into its own hands. The group retained UC Irvine’s Environmental Law Clinic to sue the City in August of 2016 for passing the organic waste ordinance without conducting any environmental review. In response to ComUNIDAD’s lawsuit, the City almost immediately retracted the disputed organic waste ordinance—an unqualified win for ComUNIDAD. ComUNIDAD’s victory happened to coincide with a separate settlement between the School District and Rainbow that involved upgrades to Rainbow’s operations and the installation of an air quality monitoring pilot project.
Unfortunately, despite these various efforts to force Rainbow to clean up its operations, Rainbow’s operations continue to threaten the health of the Oak View community, and especially the nearby schoolchildren. Emissions data from air quality monitors—provided as part of the pilot project through the Air District—show high levels of particulate matter levels concentrated in the area of the facility directly next to the school. Particulate matter, or PM, are tiny particles that are found in dust and in tailpipe emissions, especially from large trucks. PM can easily enter airways and lungs and cause heart attacks, decrease lung function, and aggravate asthma. Children are among the most vulnerable to these health effects, and California’s air quality standards for PM are designed to protect infants and children. Yet the pilot data show that Rainbow’s PM emissions often exceed the maximum allowable emissions under California’s daily standard. In fact, some of the highest PM readings are from the monitor located directly across from Oak View Elementary School.
Although the Air District won’t officially certify the accuracy of the PM emissions data, by the District’s own admission, the monitors show a “good correlation” with the more expensive, federally approved air quality monitors. Given the unacceptable risk to Oak View’s schoolchildren and their developing lungs, the Air District must verify the accuracy of the pilot program data with federally-approved monitors and take any necessary enforcement action without further delay. And, unless Rainbow truly cleans up its act, the City of Huntington Beach should end its exclusive franchise agreement with Rainbow. Actively suppressing market competition is poor economic policy. And, turning a blind eye to environmental injustice is poor public policy. Our local government agencies can and should do better.
Olivia Weber is a 2017 graduate of UC Irvine School of Law. Suma Peesapati is a Visiting Assistant Professor with UC Irvine's Environmental Law Clinic. Weber and Peesapati represented ComUNIDAD in the above-referenced CEQA litigation.
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