Next week, the Santa Ana City Council will decide whether to approve the city’s General Plan Update. If approved, this General Plan would guide environmental justice policies for the City of Santa Ana for the next 18 years – affecting the health and well-being of more than 333,000 residents. I am very concerned about the limited environmental justice commitments outlined in the latest version of the General Plan. The State Attorney General shared similar concerns in a letter to the City Attorney where he warns against SB1000 violations. Specifically, it’s the areas of democratic engagement of residents most impacted by environmental injustices that falls short.

To safeguard the well-being of its residents, the City of Santa Ana must take on the role as a key convener and leader in bringing together multiple institutional stakeholders and affected community members to develop a comprehensive, equitable strategy to address residents’ environmental justice concerns, particularly lead contamination.

Environmental justice groups demand the General Plan Update not be approved until it includes a comprehensive strategy to address the lead crisis facing the City, and its majority youthful, low-income residents, and residents of color. Since an investigative report was published in 2017, the City of Santa Ana and the Orange County Health Care Agency have been aware of the threat of the high levels of lead in the soil in several areas in Santa Ana.

Residents raised concerns about these findings to City and public health officials. According to resident leaders, concerns were met with dismissal from government officials, who cited concerns about the methodological approach to studying soil lead levels in Cabrera’s investigative report. Additionally, I have been told on more than one occasion that public health officials emphasized that residents needed to be more concerned about lead in Mexican pottery than lead in the soil. I, myself, can attest to hearing from a public health representative repeated attributions of elevated blood lead levels among low-income communities of color to crossing the US border and ethnic foods that may contain lead. The harm of racial stereotyping is compounded by the reality that such responses operate to blame residents and divert attention away from the issue at hand: concerning levels of lead in the soil that harm the local ecology and human health. So, while resident concerns about lead exposures have been place-based, local governmental representatives have responded in racializing and painful ways as they dismiss these concerns. Despite these experiences, I believe that public health and city officials are capable of an anti-racist, environmental justice approach to planning for a healthy Santa Ana.

In response to initial dismissal of resident concerns about soil lead, residents commissioned a comprehensive assessment of soil lead levels, inviting a small team of faculty, staff, and students from UC Irvine to collaborate in developing and implementing this study. Our team sampled more than 500 locations throughout Santa Ana and included every Census tract in this 2020 study.

Our findings were very concerning. Nearly half (48%) of soil samples had lead levels that exceeded 80 parts per million (ppm), the recommended safe level by the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in areas where children play. Moreover, 4% of samples exceeded the actionable U.S. EPA standard of 400 ppm in areas where children play, meaning that accountable parties would need to address and remove lead exposures. Our study found that 28,000 children lived in 56 Census tracts that exceeded the 80 ppm California EPA standard and 20 Census tracts, housing 12,000 children, exceeded the 400 ppm U.S. EPA standard, respectively, of soil lead levels in areas where kids play.

Image Source: Masri, S., LeBrón, A.M.W., Logue, M., Valencia, E., Ruiz, A., Reyes, A., Lawrence, J.M., & Wu, J. (2020). Social and spatial distribution of soil lead concentrations in the City of Santa Ana, California: Implications for health inequities. Science of The Total Environment743, 140764.

Building on these findings, over the past year and a half, Orange County Environmental Justice; the small team of faculty, staff, and students from UC Irvine; a representative of the City of Santa Ana; and a representative from the Orange County Health Care Agency have engaged in a roundtable planning process to give a voice to residents’ concerns and highlight the findings from our study.

Based on our past engagement with Santa Ana residents and best practices in the field, we shared that the plan should likely include solutions such as: education and outreach regarding preventing and addressing lead exposures, mitigation actions such as soil testing and blood lead testing, remediating contaminated soil, and identifying policy and regulatory changes needed to prevent lead exposures in the first place and address any current and future lead exposures. These requested additions are largely absent from the current version of the General Plan Update.

We know that addressing the issue of soil lead and the health consequences of lead exposures cannot be the sole responsibility of one institutional actor, such as the City. However, the City can be a bold leader in bringing together affected communities and institutional stakeholders by shepherding an equitable, anti-racist process to understand and address resident concerns about environmental injustices through a resident-driven, comprehensive strategy. 

strongly urge the City to revisit the current resident engagement process and draft of the General Plan Update with an eye toward strengthening democratic participation and environmental justice commitments. If acted upon, this pause would provide important space for the City to lead an anti-racist, equitable, and truly democratic process for developing the plan for promoting the health and well-being of Santa Ana residents. Several incredible community-based initiatives are ready to partner towards strengthening democratic engagement and environmental justice planning for the City of Santa Ana. Let’s listen to the voices and visions of those most affected by environmental injustices when planning for a healthy Santa Ana – a vision that serves Santa Ana now and for future generations.

Alana M.W. LeBrón, PhD, MS is an Assistant Professor of Public Health and Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is an expert in how structural racism shapes health inequities affecting low-income communities of color, Latina/o/x health, evaluating community-driven health equity interventions, and community-based participatory research processes.

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